What about when a song is well crafted and yet political, for example John Walker’s Blues by Steve Earle?
Oh yeah, That’s incredible he’s great and he is someone I respect doing it. But you know I dont want to tell those stories unless you can feel like you can really walk those miles in somebody’s shoes …and there is so much death in the world and some many sad things and writing about that and somebody making money out of it, it’s something I find really a difficult thing to do… and I do think maybe the job for a writer is often less about writing about it than it is reflecting about it. A song like Wings I’m happy with because it doesn’t speak outwardly about its theme, but the feeling comes through.
The songs I am writing right now, though, I feel there’s lots of stuff cropping up, a lot of stuff about the war about how kind of changed our religious focus, and our beliefs are in terms of whatever’s going on in the world at the moment and it is something you really notice when you write a song ,and, looking back, comes out
You said before that Wings you wrote differently from other songs. Is there a kind of normal process for you to write a song?
I used to get really afraid that I was not going to be able to write any more songs. I dont really think that anymore …. I think the real challenge is to not believe in writer’s block you know … it shouldn’t really come into focus cause if you are not working outwardly you are working inwardly and you are doing things in your life, reading books, and listening to music and going on tour, and trying to have a interesting life. When that happens things ferment in the back of your mind and you get phrases in your head and when those phrases come along I write them down and then it all sort of comes together at a certain point, you know, you sit down and you’re playing through some songs you’ve written before or music someone else in the band has written … once you have a melody there and you know a melody that works with the phrases, it all gets much easier. The real hard part is the sitting around waiting for that to happen.
You mentioned listening to music as part of the whole process. What type of music do you generally listen to?
I’m a huge fan right now of Gillian WelchShe goes beyond you know any folk thing and and she goes… like some of the moods in her songs and the depth of her lyrics is just incredible. She’s got a song called Dream a Highwayand it’s just the most gorgeous long song about …seemingly what she’s thinking about as she’s driving down the road, it goes for 14 minutes, and you’re trying to concentrate on every word without letting your mind wander– I think she is incredible. A new songwriter I’m listening to is M.Ward from Portland , Oregon. He’s a great songwriter. I also listen a lot John Fahey, a great fingerstyle guitarist, and of course I listen to a lot of Neil Young. I love Rust never sleeps.
You moved from Idaho to Boston, and then there’s this connection with Ireland (Editor’s note: Ritter has developed a huge fan base in Ireland, where there is even a tribute band doing the rounds) but at the same time your songs still seem completely rooted in your Idaho background – is that a deliberate thing?
No, I think that in a way, I mean, when I first moved to Boston and made Golden Age of Radio, it was all about being afraid leaving home and travelling being bad. I suddenly felt what everybody feels when they get done with school and they’re expected to have a life. I decided not to go to graduate school so I didn’t have any kind of set path. I would get up in the morning and I wouldn’t know where to go, if I wasn’t doing a temp job that certain day. That was really a weird thing and then, then I guess a lot of it was still yearning to be home where things are familiar, I never lived in a big city before.
And in Ireland it was the same When I went to Ireland I felt I was almost more at home ’cause there was more of a community feeling So I travelled to Ireland a lot almost for that reason. It is actually a quicker flight to go to Ireland than it is to Idaho!
I listen to a lot of music especially a lot of Americana music, and what always gets me is you can always tell when it is put on. There is always lots of hubcaps, cigars, and old dogs (laughs) somebody drinking whiskey and it’s all good it’s all great but if it’s not real. All the characters in those songs always seem a bit put on, a little bit forced …. I always consciously avoided it as much as I could ,that kind of stuff, you know, I mean I wrote songs like Harrisburg that I think touch on that, but its something I think I understand a little more The place I come from is a bit more like that. The area has such a rich bunch of symbols you can draw in your own mind. If you write a song and it has those things in it, that’s really good as long as people can see themselves in that situation and not see you, you know.
Do you worry about being autobiographical in your songs?
I really try to avoid that, mainly because a lot of autobiographical songs a lot of the time just seem really whiney to me. People have enough things in their life without going to a show and see somebody talking about themselves more and more. If you really want to talk about yourself, write a book about yourself and see how it sells. I do think that there is enough things that happen in everybody’s life that are the same that you can understand when they are put in a certain way.You know, like when you read a novel. How many novels are incredibly original but ,you know, they don’t have to be incredibly original to be interesting and you relate to them more and more. Like Philip Roth. I don’t know why I like him so much. He writes about growing up Jewish in New Jersey. But enough of what he writes about, I totally understand. Even in Idaho I feel those same things happened.