Americana artist Josh Ritter has built his career on writing songs that help build connections, an approach that serves him well on new album, “Fever Breaks,” and its look at our current cultural landscape. The songs may take new angles, but Ritter’s empathy and sense of community remain.
“When I hear a song and it makes me feel a certain way — it makes me feel more human — it reminds me that people are going through similar things to what I’m going through,” Ritter explained. “In my writing, I try to make things feel a little more human. That songs can address questions and deal with preoccupations that we all have. In trying to get closer to people and feel a certain connection, it’s addressing those big questions. There are other people going through things just like you, and here’s a song that’s proof.”
For his latest work, Ritter felt the need to respond to issues of the state of the U.S., the challenges of our relationships and the struggles in our country.
“I think that there are moments when our collective reality nearly comes to the fore,” he explained. “Talking about more nuanced matters of the heart, the typical province of the songwriter, is less important than talking about the world that’s right in front of us. I wanted to look at those things and address them because they were all that I could see. These massive things that we’re going through. To not talk about them, to look at a different direction, would have felt dishonest. If I’m feeling this way, I know other people must be feeling this way.”
“The Torch Committee,” for example, looks at the infiltration of an authoritarian mindset, developing a frightening character that comes from somewhere between Franz Kafka and Hannah Arendt.
“I wanted to write the song as a warning,” Ritter said. “Authoritarianism doesn’t just come with tanks and guns. It comes with paperwork. It comes with the disassociation of the individual from their own identity. It’s stripped away through bureaucracy.”
That sort of thinking didn’t lead Ritter to an impersonal album, though. “Fever Breaks” works less as a political statement and more as a conversation in a trying time. It fits with Ritter’s point that “so much about writing is about trying to figure out things for yourself ... to answer these questions we all have.”
His public writing has been influenced by his personal life over the past few years, most notably when he and his wife adopted a daughter. They started the process about three years ago.
“We got a call on tour that there was a baby who’d just been born who was waiting for us,” he said. “From that moment on, it’s been a whirlwind. The whole process has been so incredibly fulfilling and wonderful. I’ve been expanding as a person. It’s an amazing experience, and I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to take part in it.”
Ritter, who has another daughter, believes that having kids has an impact on songwriting.
“There are ways that having kids opens your heart and makes you more vulnerable and more willing to take chances in your work,” he said. “It’s kept me from focusing too much on myself or whatever grand schemes I’ve had. You focus on your kid.”
Parenting also changes the logistics of writing. Ritter explained, “When I go and I sit down and work on something, I work on it furiously in the moments that I have, between my job as a dad and my job as a musician. That kind of constriction of time has been so good for me.”
This new openness and risk comes with a shift in sound, as Ritter worked with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on the new record. Isbell produced, and he and his band performed, as well.
“They just brought dynamite,” Ritter said. “I feel very lucky and so blessed to have the band that I’ve played with for so many years, and I value their abilities and the way we communicate on stage. I realized I needed to branch out and work with new people for my own self. To make progress. What they brought as a group was just incredible telepathy. They brought a sense of adventure, but a sense of familiarity in another musical family that was loving and sharing and looked after each other.”
Among everything else, Ritter published a novel in 2011 and now has “a couple rough drafts.” He’ll complete them eventually, once he has “the headspace and time to do it.” But whether through prose, lyrics or conversation, Ritter won’t stop making connections any time soon.
“I want to know that I said the things that I needed to say,” Ritter said. “Sometimes that’s on a record, and sometimes that’s on stage. I think you need to talk about things to feel like you’re doing a good job as a person.”
Justin Cober-Lake is a correspondent for The Daily Progress.