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To hell and back

Singer-songwriter Josh Ritter is loving life again with his baby and her mother, but you wouldn't know that from listening to his dark new album

Posted: 03/21/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0


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BOISE, Idaho -- If you've witnessed Josh Ritter's theatre-filling grin or been the lucky recipient of one of his post-concert hugs, it's hard to fathom how anyone could want to divorce this friendly, gifted person.

But in late 2010, Ritter's marriage to fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes ended. After just 18 months.

"It was a cold, blustery morning in Calgary, Alberta, and I was on tour," Ritter writes. "I hung up the phone and looked around me."

For the north Idaho native -- whose parents have been married for more than four decades -- it triggered months of mourning and soul searching.

It also began a major transformational stage for the critically acclaimed Ritter, one of Paste's "100 Best Living Songwriters." Last November, Ritter and his new love, novelist Haley Tanner, became the parents of a baby girl, Beatrix: "She's just amazing," Ritter says with the awe of a new dad.

And March 5, Ritter released his seventh full-length album, The Beast in Its Tracks (see review on page 4). Note the title's similarity to Bob Dylan's 1975 post-divorce album Blood on the Tracks. These songs are sparser and simpler than Ritter's imaginative, literary prior albums. They're unlike anything he's confronted before. Not only are they deeply personal -- a reaction to his divorce -- they materialized almost effortlessly in the months after his breakup.

"When you're writing fiction, you can have a line and a melody and anywhere you want to go from there is up to you," Ritter says. "But these songs, these were not things that I felt like I could massage in any way. Or change. They were so clear.... I felt like they were just right there in front of me."

Ritter likens the experience to picking the songs off a tree.

"The closest that I could ever come to feeling this way in any other song was Idaho off Animal Years, where I felt like that song has been in my head for a really long time, and it was just really clear, and the writing of it felt really natural.

"But autobiography is good for that," he adds. "In small doses."

Normally, Ritter isn't a fan of songs about his life: "I just don't think that that's the fun in writing, to write about yourself. It's not something that I feel like people want to hear all the time."

He wasn't about to change his mind after the "horrible experience" of a divorce, he says, which made him feel "totally without power." But as the months went by, Ritter gained perspective. He began to think that maybe he should record these little Polaroids of bitterness and healing. Set to his Americana style of music, maybe they could be meaningful to other people.

Ritter loves Leonard Cohen's 1971 song Famous Blue Raincoat, he says, because "there are so many details in it that are so exact, but for some reason, you don't think about Leonard Cohen." The best moments of Ritter's Beast are the same sort of thing -- intimate portraits of all of us who have lived through heartbreak.

Ritter fans -- a devoted, loyal bunch -- will savour every lyric and suffer along with him, albeit joyfully. It's a chance to get closer to the source of their adoration.

And just in case any diehards are worried, on the phone, Ritter sounds energetic. Excited to tour.

He says he's started work on a "big, messy book" filled with "really fun, exciting, rowdy, terrible language." It will be the followup to his 2011 debut novel, Bright's Passage, which was a New York Times bestseller.

Ritter also plans to take Beatrix and her mother on tour with him this spring and live happily ever after. Just because you're a musician doesn't mean you can't have a family.

"I definitely think that being able to have some stability in my life is only beneficial," Ritter says.

As the saying goes, time heals all wounds. When Ritter performs songs from The Beast in Its Tracks on tour, they will grow to feel less painful, less personal. However, he definitely is a changed man -- and songwriter.

"For now, this is really cool, but it has taught me a lot of lessons about how I can keep things simpler, and I can lay off some larger huge themes and really just write about the smaller things that come," Ritter says. "The wind really got knocked out of my sails, and as a result, I wrote simpler songs, and those feel really, really, really natural to me right now."

Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band play the Winnipeg Folk Festival main stage on July 11.

-- The Idaho Statesman

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 C8

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