Everyone comes from somewhere. That tenet of existence is especially significant for songwriters because while most of us regular folk could, with relative ease, pull up from whatever burg we were hatched and set up shop in another corner of the globe without drawing too much attention to our roots, songwriters -- the honest ones, anyway -- can't stow their formative pasts away so casually. They can't hide like the rest of us can, because those memories, those influences and inspirations, are the stuff out of which songs are built. To deny one's past as a songwriter is to deny one's own foundations. It would be like living a lie, a very public lie, through the vessel of one's work.
Josh Ritter is a 27-year-old singer-songwriter from Moscow, Idaho, with a keen eye for detail and a way of unveiling the heart of desire, longing and regret through lyrical imagery vibrating with honesty and intelligence. He's been on the road almost constantly over the past couple of years, since folks on both sides of the Atlantic started taking notice. Recently, he's been performing the songs off of his second album, Hello Starling (Signature Sounds). Which brings us to this Sunday night, when Josh Ritter and his band will be bringing it all back home with a show at Moscow's lovely Kenworthy Performing Arts Center.
"I'm pretty stoked to be playing there," he enthuses over the intermittent pulse of a cell phone signal from somewhere in the Midwest. "I really haven't played my own show in Moscow since I first started."
Ritter is a dead ringer for the late Nick Drake, and he has a vocal style that recalls Leonard Cohen in his prime. Characters at once fatally flawed and hopelessly smitten populate his darkly romantic songs. He's been praised in the international press, drawing favorable ink in the pages of The Village Voice, Mojo, The New York Times and Details.
Yet how did he get to there from ... here? Well, it certainly wasn't a straight shot.
Ritter was born to neuroscientist parents in 1977. Inspired as a teen by Bob Dylan's "Girl From the North Country," he made tracks to the local K-Mart and bought his first six-string.
"We lived pretty far out of town," he recalls. "So when I started playing guitar, that was kind of the only thing I could do to entertain myself. I came into a lot of music later than someone who lived in the city because we had, like, one Top 40 station and that was it. But once I heard people like Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, my world got a lot bigger. They were huge discoveries."
He was inspired to write songs -- his own songs.
"When I first started, I didn't do other people's songs," he laughs. "I couldn't figure out what they were doing with their fingers."
So he got a chord book and started learning. The songs, he says, came naturally: "Every chord you play, there's a whole new idea for a song."
After high school in Moscow, Ritter enrolled in Ohio's Oberlin College, intending to carry on the family's scientific legacy. But the siren songs of some of the great latter-day singer-songwriters (Gillian Welch, Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen among them) were exerting an inexorable force upon the young undergrad. He eventually split from academia and headed east, plunging into various music scenes and soaking up as much atmosphere, history and song as he could manage.
"I went out to Boston and started playing these open mikes," he says. "Everything kind of came out of that. I didn't know how to get the whole show rolling. But you know, you kind of meet people here and there."
One of those he met was Flora Reed, a fellow musician who just happened also to work for a Boston recording label called Signature Sounds. Reed brought an album Ritter had self-produced in 2001 (Golden Age of Radio) to her bosses for a listen. They liked what they heard, and a working relationship was born.
"That stuff just kind of happened," he admits. "But I think it's important to nurture personal relationships and have the record companies or whatever come to you instead of you going to them. It's amazing how you can meet a few people and this web just kind of radiates out to all these other people who can help you."
It certainly helps when they're the right people. About the same time, he formed a friendship with Glen Hansard, lead singer of an Irish band called the Frames, who invited Ritter to help open a string of shows in Ireland. The Irish went nuts for Ritter, and he became a bona fide celebrity in that country -- complete with headlining tours, Irish music awards and appearances on late-night TV. He also landed himself on tours in the States and the U.K. with such notable folk and rock artists as Beth Orton, Liz Phair, Damien Rice and Joan Baez.
Ritter seems unaffected by all the attention. He comes across as intuitive, sophisticated and excitable, with the enthusiasm of a kid delirious over having just found a quarter in the street. Yet he's dead serious about his writing and his song craft.
"There are so many angles to songwriting," he says. "The only thing that matters to me is doing it as well as possible. And if that means leaving stuff off records or trying out stuff at shows that you might not want to record. I mean, all that stuff is really important. I don't think that songwriting should be any different than writing a novel or anything else, you know?"
When asked which songwriting quality he considers more important -- cleverness or honesty -- Ritter takes a moment to consider his response.
"That's a hard one to answer," he says finally. "Cleverness is pretty fun. But in the end, it's like cheap gasoline -- it won't get you that far. I've always really appreciated songwriters who don't talk down to their audiences. It's kind of a game -- you know, when you're trying to get across a lot of ideas, get them to crystallize, in such a short space."
The latest space for Ritter's musical ideas is the 11-track Hello Starling. On it, Ritter's warm and immediate vocals take center stage, sometimes backed by a full band (as on "Man Burning" and "Snow Is Gone"), sometimes dressed down with nothing but his plaintive acoustic guitar for accompaniment ("You Don't Make it Easy Babe," "Bone of Song"). On the trembling "Rainslicker," rich Hammond organ sounds rise and fall against the two-step rhythm as Ritter weaves Old Testament imagery and soggy weather conditions into a snapshot of lovers reuniting. The deeply evocative "Bone of Song" features some of the most wildly poetic lyricism on the album ("Lucky are you that finds me in the wilderness / I am the only unquiet ghost that does not seek rest"), while "Wings" contains not only the most obvious references to Ritter's Inland Northwest roots ("We floated on to Hanford on a lumber boat upriver") but more than a few comments on the genesis -- and current success -- of his own career in music ("Last night I dreamt I grew wings / I found a place where they could hear me when I sing").
For all his talent and good luck, he still has his feet firmly planted, though not necessarily in the rich dirt of the Palouse. "I don't really have a place to live," he says. "Right now, all my stuff's in storage in Moscow." But Ritter is certainly situated where stark reality is a constant companion and fame's ephemeral gifts are rarely within easy reach.
"If you want to go for something big, you can get it," he says. "But it can be gone the next week, you know? You see bands come and go. And then there are some people who somehow manage to stick it out and keep playing. That's really inspiring. I really want something for myself that will last. I mean, Leonard Cohen put out a record when he was 70 years old. I think that's just incredible."