07/03/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Josh Ritter Talks About His New CD

I'm one of those rabid fans who thinks Josh Ritter belongs in the same sentence as Springsteen, Simon, Dylan and Cohen -- but the first few times I played his new CD, So Runs the World Away, I was seriously unhappy. It was just too different from 2007's The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. And Historical Conquests also gave me trouble, for it was too different from Animal Years, which came out in 2006.

I should be used to this discomfort now. Josh Ritter doesn't repeat. There is no sequel to "Wolves." There will never be another "Kathleen." Fans hoping that "Good Man" will be followed by "Great Man" hope in vain.

Josh Ritter takes leaps. It's what he does, it's his signature. That constant but asymmetrical flow of creativity makes him happy -- more to the point, it keeps him alive. Josh Ritter condemned to repeat himself would be a tragedy. This guy needs freedom to create the next new thing like he needs oxygen.

You can listen to Josh Ritter's music and think it's bouncy and fun, though sometimes a little dark and jagged for pop music. Or you can dig in. That is, you can spend time with a Josh Ritter CD as you might with a book that happens to be set to music -- you underline, make notes, reread.

I've been listening to So Runs the World Away for a few months now. "Coming to terms with it" would be more accurate. Some songs are keepers from the get-go: for a rocking affirmation of love, "Lantern" may have extremely unusual lyrics ("The living is desperate/ Precarious and mean/ And getting by is so hard/ That even the rocks are picked clean/ And the bones of small contention/ Are the only food the hungry find"), but the song is such a kick it takes repeated play to note that. Other songs are instantly amusing for the musical quotations: a Leonard Cohen piano riff, a lilting line reminiscent of Paul Simon, glockenspiel worthy of Springsteen or Phil Spector. And then there are the songs that challenge you right off --- you'll know them when you hear them.

So Runs the World Away is so ambitious and ambitious in so many ways that it may be hard to connect the songs. I've done that thinking, and this is what I got. Change is coming, and we're on our own: "If there's a Book of Jubillations/ We'll have to write it for ourselves." Not everyone will make it: "And around me as I swam/ The drifters who'd gone under." But this is Josh Ritter, kids, the poet laureate of possibility: "New lands for the living/ I could make it if I tried/ I closed my eyes/ I kept on swimming."

Very bracing, very helpful -- but that's just my interim sense of the CD. Other listeners, other takeaways. The pleasure's in the discovery, the thinking, the interacting -- experiences that only the very best art can deliver. And So Runs the World Away delivers. Well, maybe not on every track. But give me a year. The songs I don't get now will surely be my favorites by then -- and when the next Josh Ritter CD comes out, I'll be sad there aren't more like them.

The big surprise: This CD was different from all other Ritter CDs in a way you'd never guess -- one of music's best writers had trouble writing. My interview with Josh Ritter started there.....

You've written about a "reckoning" after your last record. You had a great career, a band that never falters, a smart, enthusiastic audience. But "a shadow" fell and "nothing felt original." Josh Ritter in despair? That has to come as a shock to anyone who saw you perform during that period -- as your fans know, no one is happier at a Josh Ritter concert than Josh Ritter. Now that you're on the other side of that valley, can you see what the problem was?

The writing side is the fuel for the engine. Writing stands or falls on its confidence. Some people can't go out unless they're in a nice suit. Well, I can't go onstage unless I feel my songs are alive. To sing songs that are older when new ones aren't coming -- that's scary. And I was there. Nothing was coming. I was spending all my energy to get through each night.

How long did that last?

It actually lasted a very long time, at least six or seven months. I go onstage to win, but that feeling has to come from inside of me -- I wasn't feeling that at the end of the night.

I'd bet my hands that no one who saw you perform had a clue. Who knew?

The band always knows everything. But it doesn't matter who knows it. Writing is solitary, lonely. When people ask, "What was your day like?" you can't share that you looked out the window and nothing came. There was a time I spent watching a dog out the window. It was just me watching this strange dog in a stranger's backyard. At a certain point the dog noticed me noticing it. It started looking up at me as if it was saying, "What, already?! What?!" I didn't know what to tell that dog. It was hell.

I know you to be a voracious reader, listener, viewer -- you've got a huge appetite for information and ideas. Did diving into other writers and artists help?

You throw everything down the well -- books, people, your friends and your enemies, hoping that something will come out. I ran, I ran like crazy -- I tried everything that had worked before. I believe there's a sponge in everyone's brain that they can squeeze. I knew the sponge was in there somewhere, I was casting about in my brain for it, but nothing was coming.

And out of all that came an idea for a story -- about a mummy and an archeologist. Why that

There was an archetype to it. It had been explored, but in that great way that feels as if there is a ton left to look at. And the story had humor. So I went to the library and read about mummies. I loved the way the Egyptians believed in the technology. I thought that was pretty. And I thought: We can understand that belief in a person coming back to life out of love. Anyone I want to know can understand that on a fundamental level.

Asking a writer to explain his writing is exactly as rude as asking a Wyoming rancher how many acres he owns. That said, let me be a boor and ask you: Once you started writing these new songs, how did it go?

Tons of fragments. Writing for me is all about fragments. Nothing comes fully sprung from my head. I take the tadpoles of songs and nurse them. A few survive from the bunch and grow up into kittens. A few of these survive and grow up into feral dogs and out of these dogs springs a fully grown polar bear. All the songs that don't make it I throw on the floor and wait for other lines to eat them up. I never feel I'm wasting my words. As effortless as writing can feel, good writing always takes time. On this record I really learned that in a deep-tissue way.

The title of the CD is from "Hamlet" (Act III, Scene 2): "Why, let the stricken deer go weep/ The hart ungalled play/ For some must watch, while some must sleep/ So runs the world away." Connect the dots, please.

The title is always the last thing for me. You're looking for something that encompasses the record as you envisioned it. When nothing sticks, I go to Shakespeare and put on a play recorded by Orson Welles' company. I don't listen to the words as much as to the rhythm. That line felt beautiful to me -- in all these songs, I feel the magic and fatalism of a world about to change for everyone.

A 19th century steamboat on the cover, songs about exploration, physical and spiritual, on the record -- there's fun along the way, but there's also something very serious here, what you've called "looking out across the drifts of nothing." What's up?

Exploration is a solitary thing. It's never about finding, it's about looking. Atlantis, Eldorado, the source of the Nile -- the people who made those explorations did them because that's who they were. Exploration is a metaphor for our lives, which are solitary. And that's terrifying.

Mr. Ritter, you just got married!

A man needs a home. And that has to be enough. You're not asking someone to be completely satisfied. Our homes are what we reach out for when we're in danger of spinning off into space. We've all got to walk that lonesome valley -- to be close with someone is to know they too have one to walk. And that's enough.

In style, these songs are all over the map. What they have it common, it seems, is that each presses against the limits of its form. Is it fair to say this is your most ambitious record yet?

I felt freed by the fact that I'm not working for anyone anymore. [Josh has left his record company.] It's me and the people I work with and the limits of our hopes for what we're doing. When you're not trying to get stuff on the radio, it's very liberating. What happens to music after it's made has nothing to do with what happened in the studio -- there's no use trying to figure out why. Coming to that realization was a nice thing. Ambition is completely up to you -- and, given that, I will push things.

The band is, as ever, terrific, but this time out, the arrangements are much more layered, much more significant. I hear tympani, glockenspiel, synthesizer, a few background singers who sound like the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir -- everything but a sackbut.

Only because we couldn't afford one! Musically, this was the most exciting record I've made. On "Historical Conquest," we said, "Let's collapse some atoms together and make a big explosion." Now we know we can do that. This time, we knew we were making an exploration that could take us to a new place.

You're starting a tour of Dylanesque length. I think back to your early days, a time of incessant touring -- what you've called the "animal years." What strategies have you devised to prevent burnout?

Two weeks on, two weeks off, from now to eternity.

You have a large catalog now. The early classics seem farther away. In concert, how will you respond when people shout out for "Kathleen" or "Harrisburg"?

I'll probably play some of the early ones. I'm grateful that I don't have to play "Kathleen" all the time and can give it a rest for a while. And I know Zack [Josh's bass player, who's been with him from the start] thinks so too.

Mark Knopfler says he can't listen to his music after he signs off on the production. Can you?

Yes. I listen to it all the time. At first, it was because I'm so proud of it. Now I learn from it --- to figure out what I want to do next.

Cross-posted from