We talk with Josh Ritter about his 10th studio album, Fever Breaks, out April 26.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Josh Ritter has enjoyed a devoted following since the release of his self-titled debut album in 2000. Now, nine albums and several unmistakable hits later, Ritter is venturing into his next endeavor with his 10th studio album, Fever Breaks, available April 26.
Following a lineup of albums with clear and concise overall themes — including Sermon on the Rocks, Gathering, and So Runs the World Away — Ritter brings more of his signature modern storytelling style to the new record.
Witty wordplay, folky melodies, and uncaged honesty characterize Fever Breaks, which sees Ritter pondering the condition of today’s chaotic society. It’s music that’s highly listenable and deliberately raw.
Recently, we caught up with Ritter to talk about the new record and his fresh outlook on songwriting.
Cowboys & Indians: Congratulations on your 10th studio album, Fever Breaks. Thoughts about that milestone?
Josh Ritter: I guess Fever Breaks is a special record because it’s my 10th, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It’s pretty amazing. I think with each record, I have a small celebration that I’m still around to make them and that people are still wanting to listen. It’s totally amazing.
C&I: What has been the journey of this album and what do you hope listeners will take away from it?
Ritter: I started this record with the desire to really be surprised and move into some new directions. I realized that after 20 years of making records, I hadn’t put myself in a room with all new people before, you know? And that was something that I really wanted to do. I wanted to push myself, [my] personal limits, and see where I was at, as a writer, as a musician, and at the same time I was kind of fumbling in that feeling.
I was on tour with Jason Isbell and his amazing band and got to spend time with him, spend time with his music, with his band. ... The idea of working with him kind of joined naturally out of that time spent together. I wrote him and asked him and he was really surprised and gratified and he said yes to working together. Just the whole process has been a really fulfilling one.
C&I: What was your creative influence for the album and where did your inspiration come from?
Ritter: I think that this record, in large part, the inspiration came from the turbulence of the world around us, right at this moment. I don’t always find that I open myself up to write about whatever’s happening in the world. There are times that I feel as though it can’t be ignored. I felt this way, first, when I put out The Animal Years. ... I felt that same sort of feeling when I was working on Fever Breaks. I think there’s musical touchstones for it as well, but I feel that, really, what I was trying to do with Fever Breaks was write about America in this moment.
C&I: You’ve dealt with different themes on albums like Sermon on the Rocks and So Runs the World Away. How does this record stand out thematically or otherwise from your other music?
Ritter: This one, I’d say, stands out [because] I made it with an entirely new group of people, and rather than dealing with those kind of epic stories, I’m going the other way. ... This one really was influenced by the world that I was seeing around me. ... I felt like it was important to say exactly what I was seeing in the world around me. Yeah, I had the decision whether I was going to talk directly or whether I was going to try and write more in a poetic way, and I chose to be as clear as possible.
C&I: Your early stuff on your self-titled debut was acoustic-driven and more folky, and then you transitioned into more of a blended rock sound with So Runs the World Away, Sermon on the Rocks, and Gathering. Was this a normal evolution or were these progressions in style inspired by the topics you were writing about?
Ritter: I think that what we’re trying to do with each record is develop a language ... and that language describes the world that you’re working in. The musical language is both the lyrics and how the song’s put together, musically. With something like Sermon on the Rocks, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. I wrote it out and sketched out even the musical arrangements quite a bit before we went in to record. With Fever Breaks, I had an idea of just how much the songs were going to evolve when I brought them to the 400 Unit and with Jason [as the] producer. So I consciously left them, in my head, a little bit less finished. I went in with the song guidelines for where they could go, and then was really satisfied to see them take flight when they were brought to the band and Jason came with his ideas of what to do, too.
C&I: Sound-wise, what did Jason bring to the table? Is there a specific song that he really had a heavy influence on?
Ritter: Well, he had really sure ideas all the way through as a producer. His influence was really sound all the way through. I would go in [and] I would play the song for him and the band and he would immediately be aware of where a song could go and who could play what where and that was really cool to watch. For instance, a song like “Old Black Magic” was written to be kind of a quiet, more intense number, like the way a lead steals in and takes over your mind. ... Jason had other ideas for it. He heard it as a much louder, more intense rock kind of song. So when it came time to play it, he gave me an electric guitar and turned it way up and said “Play this,” and the song turned into something totally different.
C&I: Where do you see your genre experimentation taking you in the future?
Ritter: Well, it’s only about what feels good in where I try and take things next, you know? ... I’ve never felt tied to a genre. I’ve always been happy when people use genre to find their next thing that they’re interested in, but I’ve never felt like the music I’ve listened to or make is particularly tied to one style or another. It’s just where it happens to make me feel good.
C&I: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you start with the lyrics or the melody first, and what instrument do you normally compose on?
Ritter: I usually write on guitar. I usually write in the kitchen — in the morning time I come up with my ideas. Then in the nighttime, the weirdness happens and they get weirder. I don’t normally say which is first, the lyrics or the music, because they’re pieces that kind of interlock together. It’s like you have the puzzle pieces out on the table and you’re looking for the ones that fit together. There’s never a set way that they interlock. Sometimes you’re lucky and a piece of music works with a piece of writing, and then you have that one little machine that you’re working on. It’s much easier to add to it if you have a few little parts that work together.
C&I: Is there a particular song on Fever Breaks that you feel more connected to?
Ritter: Not really. When it’s time to record the songs, those songs are the ones that I feel really strongly about. They each have a facet that I like. There’s ones that I worked on for a really long time. I worked on “On the Water” for a good while. And there’s ones like “Ground Don’t Want Me” that I’ve had for a while that didn’t have the right setup to record. ... So there were songs that I held onto and songs that I worked really hard on, and they all have their own circumstances. But I feel really strongly about each one that I just had to record it.
C&I: Do you have any fun stories from the recording process? Any memorable moments?
Ritter: I think the moment of just stepping into [Nashville’s Historic RCA] Studio A was a big moment for me. [RCA Studio A] is where “Jolene” was recorded and Elvis [recorded]. … This kind of holy space that we walked into was really a special moment. To be in a studio where all this incredible music had been recorded was definitely a career highlight for me.
C&I: Is there a specific song of yours that you think your fans have really taken to, one that they beg you play during a concert or maybe a mainstream one like “Lights”?
Ritter: It’s funny how you put out records and have a song that [you] assume is going to be one that people are going to gravitate towards and then that turns out to be a completely different song on the record. [On] my last record, Gathering, there’s a song called “Thunderbolts Goodnight” that I wrote after doing the dishes one night. You just get an idea while you’re working on something and then sit down and record it and it’s one of those ones that people seem to want to hear more, as opposed to other songs on the record that I thought for sure were the ones that people would want to hear. It’s been interesting. It shows that you can’t ever really write for anybody but yourself. ... People will find the songs they’ll need from the pile of songs that you bring to them.
C&I: What musicians and songs have been influential to you and what’s on your playlist these days?
Ritter: Right now, I’m listening to a lot of Joanna Newsom. She’s an amazing lyricist and musician. And I think, going back, there are so many musical touchstones, you know? When somebody writes a song and I hear it and I love it, it makes me want to write my own songs. So if I hear somebody that really grabs me, whether it’s Marianne playing “Love Never Sleeps” or Lucinda Williams and her record World Without Tears. Those times when someone demands that you listen to their music and in so doing, kind of inspires you to make your own.
For more information on Josh Ritter and his upcoming album visit his website. Preorder Fever Breaks, below. Photography: Courtesy David McClister.