Josh Ritter on Spectral Lines, writing, and navigating the 'wastelands of uncertainty'

Josh Ritter, singer, songwriter, and novelist has spoken to Headliner about the making of his new album Spectral Lines, the art of writing novels, and how embracing uncertainty has made him a better artist.

Ever since the release of his self-titled debut album in 1999, Josh Ritter has established himself as something of a polymath. And a prolific one at that. His consistent musical output has seen him push and pull his sound in a variety of different directions, from minimalist homespun folk to his unique brand of melancholy Americana. His latest outing, Spectral Lines, in many ways finds Ritter expanding his horizons further still, adding rich, atmospheric textures to his sonic palette, while lyrically his exploration of themes such as anxiety, uncertainty and loss render it one of the most person additions to his catalogue.

As is ever the case with Ritter, he has also been funnelling his creativity into numerous other projects, namely writing and releasing The Great Glorious Goddamn of It All – the follow up to his 2011 debut novel Bright’s Passage – working on screenplays, painting, and creating music for all manner of future, as yet unspecified, projects.

Headliner caught up with the man himself for an in-depth look at the circumstanced that shaped Spectral Lines, his approach to writing novels, and why he refuses to to stand still for a second creatively…

Tell us about the origins of Spectral Lines. How did the record first start to take shape?

I’ve always written songs with the idea that they’re going to go on a record and that I’ll share them somewhere, but with this record I was done with the last record and then the pandemic happened. Not only was it immediately unclear as to when we’d be able to play live again, but we didn’t even know if we’d be able to get to a studio to record. It was like, here’s something that has killed my way of life. So, the songs I was writing were written without the assurance they would ever be shared. That was a very cushioned and careful and interesting place to start writing a record from. It was a bit like how I wrote my very first songs, without knowing what would become of them. It was a place of unsureness and a lot of nerves, like everyone e was feeling.

Did you channel that sense of uncertainty and anxiety into the album?

I don’t think I consciously channelled it because so much of what I do is about erasing the marks – you put a lot of work into a song and try to get it just right, and then you erase the symbols of effort around it, you polish it up. That whole time, besides the pandemic raging and there being no vaccine yet, and my mum was dying at that time, in the midst of all that I was looking for connection with people. It was so hard and so different. Although I didn’t deliberately put it into the music it’s all over it. I see it everywhere.

The record was produced by your long-standing collaborator Sam Kassirer. How did you in a manage to work together, given the period in which the album was written?

Once the vaccine happened Sam and I got into a studio. He’s amazing. With his help I laid down some very basic backbone tracks of the songs and then we used the fact that we were all stuck indoors as a plus, with Sam sending those tracks onto a load of different people who I was really excited to work with. Some really great players added to the tracks and that’s how we built them up until we were all able to be in a room together.

Tell us about working relationship with Sam. What does he bring to your work?

I met Sam when he was still in college. He was studying in New York and my friend said you have to meet this guy, he’s great. I met him and loved his playing and invited him to come to France with me to play on my record Hello Starling. He left school during that time, was still doing his homework every morning and then came and played some unbelievable music on Hello Starling. Over the course of that time, I got to know him and he was starting to write and record his own sounds. Over the course of our relationship, he bought a place in Maine and turned it into a studio, and we recorded a whole bunch of records up there. And each time we’ve recorded he’s got new tools in his tool belt.

There is an element of learning in the open air. People can see you messing up. Josh Ritter

Your output has been very prolific throughout your career. Do you have a tried and tested way of working that enables that, or do you find yourself starting from a blank canvas each time?

Back in the day when I would finish a record, I would just be insufferable. That period of time where you’re suddenly standing still and not doing anything and waiting for the next project to come along in your mind is an awful feeling, I hate it! I found that I worked best when I had numerous projects on at different stages. At the moment I’m working on some screenplay stuff, I’m working on new songs, painting, and I just have a number of things that don’t come to fruition all at once so I have things that I can look forward to and concentrate on. It’s so important for me to not have that space where I’m wondering what’s going to happen next. It’s too much time with my thoughts. I don’t watch a lot of TV; I just have to be doing something!

It’s the ultimate freedom, working this way. I find that when you’re spending your time really creating and doing a lot of creative work you don’t build up a reservoir of junk, you don’t have a bunch of unused jet skis in your garage, you’re working on something that fills the space you’re in then it goes away and you can fill it with the next thing. It’s wonderful.

Do you like that prolific nature in other artists as well?

I do. A lot of times I think making music this way is a lot like working in a restaurant. I like my dishes to come out regularly {laughs]. You can have your best dishes, but you can’t rely on them forever, you have to change things up. People don’t always know if they’re going to like what you do or what your changes are, but if you don’t do that, you’re just going to be somebody who plays the greatest hits over and over again. And that’s great, but you’re not striding into new areas and uncertainties. Ploughing new ground is really important to me.

Does that regularity and frequency of release make you a better artist? Do you learn and evolve more quickly?

Definitely. With anything you put out, whether you’re a musician or a novelist, that kind of art is about personal learning. I learned so much from the books and songs I’ve written, and I’m aware there is an element of learning in the open air. People can see you messing up, they can see you falling short, or they can see when you knock it out of the park, but you have to do it in public. You can get better as a writer writing by yourself and stacking your novels up in your room, but you’re not going to know for sure whether that learning has made you a better writer until someone else has read it. I am very comfortable with that, I put everything I have into those songs and if they don’t quite meet the mark for whatever reason, it’s not because they didn’t meet the mark with me.

How did you approach writing your first novel whilst still writing music and juggling other projects?

It started like with a lot of people. One year I was like, I’m going to run a marathon and I’m going to write a novel. I ran the marathons and I really learned a lot from those. Unlike songs, you can’t learn to run a marathon in a day – you can write a song in a day, but you can’t learn to run a marathon or write a novel in a day. With a novel you have to spend every day doing a little chunk of what will hopefully be a big thing in the end. I just started writing about a guy and his horse and I did it the same way as the marathon – little bit by little bit.

Did it feel different writing the second one?

Yes, I read the first one and recorded it for an audio book, and while I was reading it I thought there are some fun sections to read in this book, but they are not fun to read aloud. So, I decided that with the next book every page would have something fun to read aloud. I wanted every page to have a laugh or some feeling in it. I learned so much from that first book.

How do you manage self-criticism when writing a novel? A lot of songwriters start writing at a young age and essentially work through many songs, honing their craft and learning a lot about themselves creatively before their first release. How do you apply that with writing a novel - presumably you can’t just churn out a dozen before you get to the good stuff?

Well, I wrote about 13 drafts of my first one! It was like building a house, then taking off the door and putting on a new one; then changing the windows; and the house was still there but everything was being replaced. Even with songs, I revise them very quickly while I’m writing. With writing a novel you have to just learn to spend time in the wastelands of not knowing if it’s any good. And it may not be any good, and you take this beautiful first draft and give it to someone you love to read, and they come back at you with less than the Nobel Prize and you feel like you’ve failed [laughs]! But you’re doing the thing, you are a writer, and that’s what has to sustain you the whole time.

What’s next? Presumably you’re already well into your next project?

We are touring at the moment and its very gratifying just working on music and playing, but I’m working on a bunch of different projects right now, whether it’s a bunch of new songs, some other writing. Just being artistically engaged is as fun as it can be for me.

Photos by Sam Kassirer