Dressed in a suit, with sneakers, and a distracted but amiable air, Josh Ritter is delighted to be in Italy. In fact Ritter seems delighted full stop. And so he should be, with critical acclaim being heaped upon his second release proper Hello Starling, and a series of European shows playing support to Joan Baez, Counting Crows, and latterly here in Bologna Damien Rice.
Josh is unfailingly polite, and engaging, to the point where you’d almost worry for him in the dog eat dog world of the music industry. Later on, after the interview though, when he takes to the stage, all fears are erased. It’s not that he loses his polite air, far from it he takes every opportunity to thank the audience and to tell them how delighted he is to be here; but with this he has a completely possesed and self-confidentglow. And against my expectations, I’m swept away with his live performance, as is most of the capacity crowd.
But enough of the plaudits, back to the interview.
First of all, tell us about the connection with Joan Baez – she’s covered one of your songs Wings how did that come about?
Well, she just listens to a lot of music and she heard Golden Age of Radio (Editor’s Note: Ritter’s first Album), and she asked for some demos of the stuff I was working on for Hello Starling, just me on a mini-desk you know, and then she really liked Wings, and while I was back home in Idaho she called up and asked if I wanted to come on tour with her.
And would she have been someone that you were influenced by musically?
When I started really learning about music her name popped up a lot and especially as somebody who kind of started off on her own and and you know (pauses) she is not an influence as a songwriter but more as somebody who chose to live her life a certain way.
Focusing in on that song Wings, there seems to be very dark overtones to it – what inspired you to write it?
There’s a place called Cataldo Mission a little Jesuit mission about 80 miles north of where I live in Idaho and it’s off in the middle of nowhere, you know, in the woods. It was built in the 1860s by a guy who come from Italy, I think he came from Genoa, and he ended up in the woods in Idaho, and built this mission and it was something I was very interested in; How did he end up there? So I went up there and started looking around. You know the history of north Idaho is very interesting- because it really wasn’t owned by anybody. Up to the 1860s there were Russians up there, there were French, there were people from the east coast moving west to avoid being drafted in the civil war, there was three or four different Indian tribes down there, so it was just a real melting pot in the middle of really nowhere. So I was walking around this mission and I saw a picture of Mary and her heart was exposed and being pierced you know the… 7 sorrows of Mary. And it was like the heart, the heart seemed just like an apple and I wrote it down in my book just ’cause I just thought it was so just like a piece of fruit ..and the rest of the song came from there, you know.
But you know I wrote that song a lot differently to how I write a lot of them. That image was so strong that I didn’t want it to be the only strong image in the song. So I started writing lyrics as they came to me, hoping that they would be really strong images for that song and I wrote them down over about 6 weeks or so. I wasn’t working on it all the time, something would just strike my notice and I would write it down but it’s all about really two people travelling west from Cataldo through the silver mining area and Coeur d’Alene and Harrison. The railroad is coming into being as they were travelling …it was originally about them travelling to the ocean but as they were travelling certain times the images became more about … you know as they were travelling east there was more and more industrialisation and time started moving faster and nuclear plants and things like that kind of crop into the song.
Traintracks and dynamite?
Yeah exactly. Well, you know there’s so much about the history of the West of the United States about manifest destiny, a phrase that came into being as the west was being exploited. As people were moving in, and, for good or for bad, people believed that it was divine right that the US should take over this area and really use it, use the resources .And I think that it was such an interesting religion, it was just like a new sect of Christianity. Manifest destiny being we’re here and we have the capacity and therefore we must have the blessing.
Is that something that’s still there in the culture?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Definitely.
It’s quite a political song really – how do you feel about political songwriting?
Well I think it is something you want to be very careful about … I think there have been some great great protest songs written, and some protest songs have been written to outlast things after protesting and can be used again like Blowing in the wind or Hard Rain or If I had a Hammer some songs like that from the 50’s and 60’s. I also think there’s a lot of danger in there too and I think while Wings is really an environmental song but it is not one that I (pauses) … I get kind turned off by how blunt some songs are, how they’re not finely worked at all… I would have trouble writing songs when I feel I am not getting things across with some kind of nuance. I am not a big one to take sides, you know. When you chose a political leader you are choosing the lesser of two evils in a lot of senses and so … I’m also turned off, especially since september, since nine eleven, with all the people that cashed in on people’s fears and people’s need to feel patriotic by writing some patriotic songs that were just jingles about “America is so great and we’re going to go and kick some ass you”, know