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Two Different Lenses « American Songwriter

Photographs by David McClister

The narrators that Josh Ritter has created for his new album, Fever Breaks, typically discover themselves stranded in an unwelcoming wilderness. On the primary monitor, “Ground Don’t Want Me,” a loner outlaw rides his horse via the Ozarks and comes upon a abandoned cemetery crammed with the lads he has killed. He finds he envies them, sleeping beneath the violets, so peaceable and liked.

In “Losing Battles,” the same character drifts “down to Tennessee,” falls in love with “a girl of silver,” tries to quiet down nevertheless it doesn’t take. In “Old Black Magic,” the storyteller wakes up in the midst of the night time, sobbing, satisfied that the black “wings of a crow” shadow his every hope. In “A New Man,” the protagonist is “a man without a country or a friend” wrapped “in the rain and whipping wind.” Within the “Torch Committee,” the chairman of a Kafkaesque panel of judges pressures a bewildered man in chains to tell on his family and buddies.

“It’s not something I chose to write about,” Ritter says, “but as I listen to the songs, I hear a feeling of disconnection and a longing to be connected. This record is the most influenced by external events since The Animal Years, which I wrote back in 2006, when we were deep in the Bush presidency. Once again, I’m dealing with the trauma of the choices we have made as a country. It’s a kind of exorcism, a way to deal with my anger, not as a way to find answers but to find comfort in asking the questions.”

Just one music, “All Some Kind Of Dream,” makes an specific reference to present events: in this case, an immigration coverage that places “children in holding pens.” The other tracks are nightmarish fables that would have taken place in another place in one other century however which nonetheless mirror the violence and unease of our personal time. And that pervasive nervousness is strengthened by the album’s producer, Jason Isbell, who leads his band, the 400 Unit, behind Ritter, typically as unsettling rock and roll, typically as spooky folk-rock.

It’s as if Ritter’s latest compositions have been new versions of the Baby Ballads, these historic British people songs of demise and betrayal, corresponding to “Barbara Allen” and “Matty Groves.” Probably the most specific example is “Silverblade,” a track that first appeared on Joan Baez’s 2018 album, Whistle Down The Wind. When his profession was first moving into gear in 2003, Ritter toured the world as Baez’s opening act.

“She was fantastic to me, made me feel like I had something worth saying,” says Ritter, now 42. “A few years ago, I got a note from her that said, ‘I’m working on a record that’s going to be my last record. If you have songs on tap, turn on the tap.’ Any chance to write for a voice so epic is not a chance to be missed. I went back to her earliest records, and the song that leapt out at me was the old English ballad ‘Silver Dagger.’ I wanted to write a bookend to that, so I wrote about a girl who was raped and then murders the man with the same silver blade he had used against her.”

Ritter takes on the position of the female narrator in his version, sounding extra like an instrument of fate than Baez’s feisty avenger. As the story moves implacably from seduction to rape to homicide, Ritter’s flattened tenor and fingerpicking guitar are joined solely by Isbell’s spare electric-guitar fills and Amanda Shires’ folk-noir fiddle. This creates an unnerving environment that suffuses the complete report.

“I went away to school to study in Scotland,” he remembers, “and heard tons and tons of the Child Ballads, that weird, violent stuff, that pre-rock-and-roll music that turned into rock and roll. I grabbed hold of that rope, and I still think about that stuff a lot. It’s really Biblical writing; it feels like the Bronze Age, a different set of rules than we have now. My new songs are written about such large topics that they have an affinity with those old songs. Even though they’re new songs, they feel like songs from the past.”

Horrible things occur to the characters in these songs. They’re deserted by lovers, deserted by pals, jailed by authorities, raped by aristocrats, ignored in the rain, stalked by ghosts and chased by tornadoes. But songwriters grow hooked up to their characters and need to deal with them, as in the event that they have been youngsters. That’s an impulse that Ritter tried to withstand.

“You have to let those terrible things happen,” he insists, “even if that means ignoring your own best wishes for the characters. You don’t want to harm your own creations, but you have to let them go through it. In the end, words are free; you can be as ruthless and wild as you want.”

Ritter works together with his producer Jason Isbell in RCA Studio A.

Ritter’s character may be “Losing Battles,” as one music places it, but perhaps they’re profitable the struggle. The album’s songs are sequenced so the listener wanders with the characters via the primary eight songs, a desolate landscape scorched by pillaging. Households are sundered on the border; outlaws are refused at graveyard gates, and the “Old Black Magic” of melancholy and pessimism seems to darken the skies. But lastly, having crossed this terrible frontier, the listener enters a sunnier land where “A New Man” finds “green hills … waving in abandon,” where “you won’t walk among the dead a moment longer,” the place you can see the “Blazing Highway Home.”

“We see a lot of bad characters right now,” he provides. “Sometimes it seems as if the bad guys are winning, and your belief in cosmic justice starts to fail. I’m not writing to get some revenge, but just to describe that loss of optimism. I know I’m not the only one feeling it. I haven’t lost it yet; I believe we’re going through a difficult growing process, and I’m sure other people feel that. Describing that is the job I’ve taken on.”

Describing shouldn’t be the identical as explaining, he emphasizes. The artist’s position is not to clear up our issues for us but to make clear these challenges so we will find our personal means by means of them. If we feel estranged from our authorities or our ex-lovers, the artist’s job is to not relieve that alienation however to forged new mild on it — even when meaning transplanting the state of affairs to 17th century England, the 19th century Ozarks or early-20th century Prague.

“When I hear an artist describe an important problem we’re going through, that’s enough,” Ritter says. “I don’t need them to provide the answer. Answers aren’t that interesting. Anyone can see that the answers don’t stop the questions from gnawing at us. That’s why religion hasn’t been satisfying to me. If someone really had the answers, we’d all give a sigh of relief. If a diet book really worked, there’d only be one diet book.”

By early 2018, Ritter had 16 or 17 songs he appreciated, including some leftovers from 2017’s Gathering, and he might inform that extra have been on the best way. It was time to document them, but how? He might return into the studio with the Royal Metropolis Band, his beloved street ensemble that has backed him on most of his albums. However someway that didn’t seem proper.

“I’ve made records for the past 20 years with the same personnel,” Ritter explains, “people I love and respect. Gathering, which I produced and recorded with the Royal City Band and Trina Shoemaker, turned out fantastic, but I knew I couldn’t go back and do the same thing again. With this record, I wanted something different, because you don’t want to sacrifice artistic wildness for security. I needed an infusion of new ideas for the songs. I love the wild places my band takes me, but I needed to be even less sure of myself, even more nervous. I wanted to go into a recording session not knowing what was going to happen.”

Ritter and Isbell (who declined repeated requests to speak concerning the collaboration) have long admired one another as songwriters. “We’re not under water yet,” Isbell says within the album’s liner notes, “but we are stuck on the rocks. Josh’s music is a perfect document of these times.” “Jason’s stories jump out at you as if they’d been written by an invisible hand,” Ritter says during our conversation, “as if they’d existed without being written.” And an enormous tour together in 2016 made them equally snug as associates.

“As you get older,” Ritter factors out, “it’s rarer and rarer to make friends with someone who does the same thing you do. It helps that you can talk about that little club in Cleveland you both played or about what you do when an amp conks out on stage. I didn’t know it would be so great to work with an artist who’s doing something similar from a different background, but it was.”

Earlier than they went into the studio, Isbell and his spouse Amanda Shires invited Ritter right down to their house in Nashville. The times have been spent getting to know one another — strolling right down to the river to hunt for crawdads, eating pie on the local diner. In the evenings, though, the three would sit out on the back porch as Ritter performed his new songs.

“They had lots of ideas right away,” Ritter recollects. “They kept saying, ‘This is good, but maybe you take it further.’ They pushed me to continue working on the songs. So I took the songs home and wrote and wrote and pushed them further. I haven’t always been open to other people’s ideas in my songs, but I’d been co-writing with Bob Weir on his album, and I found I could be more of a collaborative artist than I had been. So I was open to Jason and Amanda’s suggestions, and the songs got wilder and weirder.”

The Weir connection was made by Josh Kaufman, who played on Ritter’s three 2013-2017 albums and who was producing the Grateful Lifeless guitarist’s 2016 solo album, Blue Mountain. Weir had beloved the cowboy songs he discovered whereas working on Wyoming’s Bar Cross Ranch as a youngster, and he needed to create some new songs in the same vein for his first solo report since 1978. Kaufman and Ritter (who grew up in Idaho) served as co-writers on all dozen tracks for an album that was warmly acquired.

Ritter just isn’t one to confuse songwriting with arranging. It’s a must to do an excellent job on part one for part two to matter. “I’ve always believed that a song should be able to stand on its own two feet,” he argues. “You should be able to pick up a guitar or sit down at a piano and not be a very good player, which I’m not, and the song should work.” So he made positive the songs have been in fine condition earlier than he went into the studio with Isbell.

As soon as he did, nevertheless, he was open to something that is perhaps achieved to the songs, because he had faith of their inside power. The location was Nashville’s historic RCA Studios, the place the ghosts of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley are nonetheless knocking round. Now that the songs have been in order, Isbell was decisive in figuring out tips on how to assault them.

Ritter had written “Old Black Magic,” for instance, as a quiet music for Gathering, nevertheless it hadn’t quite labored. However when Isbell recast it as a rocker, it snapped into focus, although Ritter had by no means heard it that approach. “You never set out to write a rock song,” Isbell informed him. “You write something, and it turns into a rock song.” Isbell knew the precise riff that “Losing Battles” needed. Shires knew how her violin might match “Silverblade.” (When Ritter hits the street this summer time, he will probably be again with the Royal City Band, but Shires would be the opener on about half the dates.)

“When we got in the studio,” Ritter says, “suddenly the songs went from being solo to having six musicians playing them. And the songs changed. It’s like a strange flower; you plant the seed, but you never know what they’re going to look like. That’s the joy of collaborating with someone, and I felt a kinship with Jason. I wanted to work with a peer, with someone who was singing their own songs every night. Those two different lenses, when they come together, shine a whole new light.”