With critics comparing Josh Ritter to Dylan and Springsteen, it wasn’t easy to compose a follow-up to his previous acclaimed albums. The thirty-three-year-old, who plays McGlohon Theatre May 12, struggled until a love story between an archaeologist and a mummy sparked his creative fires. Ritter, an incredible live performer, spoke to us from his home in Brooklyn about So the World Runs Away (out May 4).
This album wasn’t an easy one for you?
It should never be work. I don’t think art should ever be tortured. The good stuff is worth really working for and holding on and keeping going. I would say I worked really hard on it. It wasn’t so much a tortured experience, but wondering if I was ever going to be able to write something good.
You played here last March in the midst of writing the album.
The first glimmers of hope were coming around at that time.
Did you learn anything making this record?
This record was about coming to terms with if you’re going to write stories, not VH1 Storytellers stories but real narrative stories in your songs. Like any other fiction, you have to be willing to let bad things happen to your characters — to find your glee in killing them off. The record is pretty violent. A lot of people are going to their death, but I feel happy in how it was done.
Were there any writers you drew from as examples of how to do that?
Flannery O’Connor. You can look at what she puts the characters through. She must be having so much fun. Your ideas can take you to some pretty amazing places, and not all of them need to be filled with light. They can be dark and funny, the best kind of humor.
The first song you wrote for it was "The Curse," a love story between an archaeologist and a mummy. It made me think about how some songwriters never venture into fantasy.
It opens up the world of things you can write about. There were songs that made me realize that I could do a lot more than I’d been doing. I could put people in a lot more extremes. A long time ago I made a really conscious decision that I wasn’t going to write anything autobiographical. To me the most boring songs in the world and the most songs are autobiographical. That doesn’t do anything for me. It’s like bringing over people to look through holiday photos. It’s not only that there’s nothing that is that exciting about our own individual life at any one point, but it’s much more fun and in every way seems more important to write about everything else. I also think once you’re not trying to get played on the radio you can write about a lot more things. Don’t get me wrong: I would love to get played on the radio. But the world we live in isn’t geared for long songs about people going polar exploring. I feel like those songs mean a lot more to me. I love Leonard Cohen or Nick Cave. Their songs can last so long. When you find them you care about them so much. I love all kinds of music. Some songs I just feel like they teach me something about myself, like "Famous Blue Raincoat" by Leonard Cohen.
Tell me about the novel you’re working on. Is it connected to the album at all?
It’s not connected to the record. Usually the energy I have is directed toward songs. There was never anything compelling enough that felt like it deserved more attention than the songs [until now]. With music I’m familiar with that process. Even though it’s not something I can rely on all the time, as this record shows. Your muse comes and goes. With this novel it was just this feeling of needing to do something new and having the story in my head. [It’s like] every day I’m naked and walking into a crowd—not the feeling of confidence I have in my songs.
Why did you set it in West Virginia?
I wanted a place that was somewhat secluded but not so secluded from the world that things couldn’t happen. I’ve always loved West Virginia. It’s a beautiful place. It was also a matter of convenience. I wanted to get far from shore and write a story that had no relationship to my other [career]. Being from Idaho, I didn’t want the characters to be clichés. I have a couple characters that are funny and do funny things. They’re not Hee Haw.
Thanks. I’m from West Virginia. I appreciate not being portrayed that way.
I feel like people think of Idaho that way as well. It’s a bone in my craw.
You have such a following in Ireland. Are you pretty much a rock star there?
Yeah. Uh. Up until recently things happened in Ireland a year before they would happen other places. It was a real education. I sell more records here, but there’s always been a thing. It’s like going home and playing for your Sunday-school teachers. You can’t put on any airs. Ireland is full of people who will ground you. They’ll tell you what they think of you. They consider that a human right—to give you their straight, unbiased opinion.
How did you connect with that country?
I was temp working in Providence and playing open mics in Boston and New York. Glen Hansard from Swell Season and [the Irish band] the Frames was playing down the street and was up seeing a friend perform at the same open mic. He invited me to Ireland after seeing me play. I opened for them and kept coming back.
Talk about your band a little bit. It doesn’t seem like a solo artist with a bunch of hired hands.
It’s like a family. I’ve been playing with some of the guys for twelve or thirteen years. I find that is monumentally more valuable to me than the chance to play with someone new every week. I like monogamy. We have a lot of great things in common, and one of those things is a telepathy on stage because we’ve played together so long. We know how to read each other.
When you listen to music what do you put on?
It takes a lot for me to put on somebody new. Not because I’m a snob about it, but because there’s an insane amount of music to keep up with. You can search out new people or you can find people along the way. Langhorne Slim is amazing. He’s an amazing performer. I heard his live EP and thought it was fake. I love Joanna Newsom. I’m a big fan of a lot of my peers. I don’t search it out. I feel it’s better to let something catch your ear than go out and try to catch things.