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A Conversation With Folk-Rock Poet Josh Ritter About Faith, Happiness, A New Album

Josh Ritter. (Laura Wilson)
Josh Ritter. (Laura Wilson)
This article is more than 3 years old.

After the success of his 2013 album “The Beast In Its Tracks,” Josh Ritter had his work cut out for him. Not because he was unused to success, but because “The Beast In Its Tracks” mined the emotional fallout and rebuilding in the wake of his divorce, a scenario unlikely, barring a stroke of excruciatingly bad luck, to rear its head twice in two years. On “The Beast In Its Tracks,” Ritter dwelled in regret and resentment even as he reached towards forgiveness and healing. It was through both poetic ingenuity and ruthless insight that he managed to preserve the integrity of those conflicting emotions. Plus, he had some pretty meaty material to work with. But what’s a singer-songwriter to do when his life turns around and he finds himself happy?

For the Idaho-born Ritter, it was abandon the confessional mode of “The Beast In Its Tracks” in order to tell the dreary, yet potent, fables of small-town life. His eighth studio album, “Sermon on the Rocks,” out Oct. 16, features Bible-thumpers and murderers, ex-lovers and preachers, drinkers and more drinkers. (Ritter plays a sold-out Sinclair in Cambridge on Oct. 19 and the House of Blues in Boston on Feb. 19.)

In “Getting Ready To Get Down,” Ritter sings about a young woman whose budding sexuality so threatens the sensibilities of her conservative parents that they send her off to a middle-of-nowhere Christian college. Not surprisingly, she returns somewhat the wiser: “And now you come back saying you know a little bit about/ Every little thing they ever hoped you’d never figure out/ Eve ate the apple ‘cause the apple was sweet/ What kind of god would ever keep a girl/ From gettin’ what she needs?”

On the foreboding “Henrietta, Indiana,” a family from a decaying factory town falls on hard times and turns first to drink, then to religion, and finally to crime. Though the narrator escapes the fate of her father and brother, there is no hope in this parable, only the intimation of a desperate act of evil in her future: “I got a devil in my eye.”

Ritter, who got his start playing open mics during the four years that he lived in Boston in the early 2000s, is now happily ensconced in a new long-term relationship and has a young daughter. He spoke recently about losing religion, finding happiness, and why he can’t seem to shake the characters in the Bible. The following interview has been excerpted and edited for clarity.

The last album was super personal and this one just feels so much different from that. Not a huge departure, considering other work you’ve done, but I wondered what your feelings were when you sat down to write it, in contrast to the last album.

There was no intent to make things really different, but I was just so much, much more happy, and excited to be sitting down and writing every day. Writing, for the last record, was painful. And I don’t think I was realizing how painful it actually was, but it was, and I can only say that now because this has been such a joy. To sit down every day and wander around the house and kind of strum and hammer on the piano or whatever is really a pretty joyful act. And it has been for a while. 

I know you’re saying there’s not a whole lot of intentional, “Oh, I’m going to write on this theme,” but it seems you’re writing a lot of stories about people trying to escape small towns, or reacting to being in a religious environment.

It’s one thing to write a grand saga about New York. ... But it’s another thing to write stories about small towns, where I feel like the relationships, you can put them under your magnifying glass and look at them a little more closely. Because there are so many archetypes. There’s the local sheriff, or whatever—the doctor, the lawyer. Towns with one of everything in them. And I’ve always tried to write those, and I’ve always had them my head. But I really feel like I got somewhere with them on this record because they always felt like they came to represent, in my mind, so much of what we’re talking about right now. This national dialogue we seem to be having, where everybody talks about what [place] our religion has in how we actually treat other people.

It’s very skeptical about religion, this album.

Oh, I think we have to be skeptical of religion. So much about religion demands that we be un-skeptical. And I think that’s why I don’t consider myself a believer in many things. As an artist, as a thinking human being, I react against the idea that I’m supposed to have faith in something I could not begin to understand. ... There’s something about the idea of the Golden Rule that does not belong to religion. It belongs to us as human beings, that we should treat other people the way we wish to be treated. And it shouldn’t get more complicated than that.

Did you grow up in a religious household?

Yes, I did. But it was an interesting one. It was a religious household, but both my parents are neuroscientists and are inquisitive thinkers. So I got kind of two sides of that.

Did you experience a loss of faith that was dramatic, or did it just kind of fade off?

It came down to being taught stuff about the rapture, by somebody, and then being so interested in it that I started to read about it. ... I couldn’t take any of it. More and more it became clear to me, even as a 12-year-old or 13-year-old, I didn’t understand the reasons why I had to be afraid of everything. I didn’t understand why my friends would go to hell. I didn’t see why I should go to heaven, either.

One of the songs that’s getting more attention is “Getting Ready to Get Down.” I have my own theories about this, but I wondered why you chose a female character to tell that story.

I sort of figured there’s this risky girl who’s just too much for the town. And they’ve got to send her away, she has to be taught. Her moral compass is not strong enough—that’s what I feel like is being said. And that she can go away and realize that she is tremendously powerful the way she is. There’s nothing she needs to know. There’s nothing she needs to be told. ... I felt that way, all the time. I think I really relate to that idea. But I certainly think that there’s a ton of pressure right now on girls and young women to be—that there’s a lot of people blaming the victims there.

My reaction to it was, yeah, you could’ve written this from a male character’s perspective, but we try to control women’s sexuality so much more intensely in our culture.

It is true. If you go the other direction, it’s like “Footloose.” If it’s written with a man in mind, it’s not the same at all.

Now that I’m thinking about the stuff on this album, it seems like you have a clear perspective on religion, but when it comes to small towns, I hear two sides of the story. I see small towns as this oppressive environment, and then there’s definitely a couple ones where there’s a lot of nostalgia for growing up in that environment, too.

Yeah. For sure. Especially with “Where the Night Goes,” “Homecoming” and “Cumberland.” When I started thinking about when the best time to put out this record was, I really wanted it to come out at this point. I really wanted to put it out in the autumn. That’s the time for going home. There’s Thanksgiving and there’s the seasons changing and there’s all the high school sports teams starting up, people coming back to school. All that time that for me was so transcendent, in that it was such a confusing time, but your senses are so aware of the world around you. And in a way, I think [that] always continues. And I wanted to uncork those bottles and smell them all. And that’s what I got out of writing those songs, was trying to get down on paper the smell of that time.

Why are you drawn to Biblical imagery?

I have this idea sometimes in my head, not when I’m writing, but when things are gestating. I think a lot of times about images in songs or images in culture, how we use them like images on a tarot deck. I don’t believe in telling the future. I do believe there’s something in the tarot deck, or the ones we make up in our mind, they are very stark images. There’s no explanation to them, there’s just an image. Those images in culture, when you grab them and you flip them over and you see them on the card: Adam and Eve, or a person lost in the desert, crawling up over the hill. They’re there and there’s no explanation for them, but we all know what they are. We all know what that image is as human beings. And the same with almost all those Biblical stories. Abraham and Isaac. You don’t have to be a believer to know that this man is about to offer up his only son in sacrifice, to something. He’s not sure what it is, and it could just be a voice in his head, or it could be some eternal deity. What a great thing, to be able to say, “Abraham and Isaac,” and many people will know that.

Then there’s the fact that I can’t seem to stop writing about stuff in religious terms. It’s convenient for me, also—those are images that are highly concise. When you’re writing in such a small medium, it’s really nice to be able to do that, to have those at your fingertips. Also, I just don’t think I could stop.

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