On his 2015 album “Sermon On the Rocks,” singer-songwriter Josh Ritter painted a directionless picture, much of it through the voice of a female narrator.
He admitted months after the record’s release that he had wanted to “let the songs be the songs,” create something that was fun to perform live.
Two years later, Ritter has mined a different part of his emotional brain on his ninth studio album “Gathering,” released in September. Of course it was not intentional; Ritter, celebrating 20 years as a singer-songwriter, never sets out with a plan.
But when he got home with a trove of 30 songs he’d recorded for the project and started whittling the number to the baker’s dozen that made the cut, a definitive theme emerged: storms.
“I brought them home and was listening to them and the themes jumped out at me like a magic eye,” he said last week from home in Brooklyn before hitting the road for a series of shows. He will perform at the Rialto Theatre on Monday, Jan. 15. “There are storms all over the record. They are physical and mental storms, frenetic activity. And there are moments of calm as well, but what I found was that predominantly this record has a lot of turbulence that I felt was characteristic at the time. Not something that I’m known to do but something that occurred.”
The album has created a critical buzz coming off his collaboration with Bob Weir on the Grateful Dead founder’s 2016 album “Blue Mountain.” Pop Matters opined: “The storm-like energy is palpable on ‘Gathering,’ and the creative spring from where he draws has helped create his finest album since 2010’s ‘So Runs the World Away’.” NPR chimed in: “Josh Ritter remains at the top of his game two decades into a highlight-strewn career.”
Ritter said the direction “Gathering” took was born a bit out of boredom, or perhaps just a need to think outside the box, find a new challenge.
“It is my nature to get bored with what I’m working on,” the 41-year-old small-town Idaho native said. “I need to find a different path, and to do it it changes how you think and how you act. Sometimes you just have to change the mental clothes you’re wearing. And I don’t know if this is the first time, but it certainly is the most fulfilling because it takes a certain amount of bravery that I’m really proud of.”
We caught up with Ritter on the phone at his Brooklyn, New York, home days after he dug out from the big nor’easter that buried the East Coast in near-record snowfall. Here’s what he had to say about the album and coming to Tucson for his first show in two years.
After 20 years of writing songs, did you discover a new voice with “Gathering”? “Yeah, or just being dissatisfied with the character that was before, you know. You do all sorts of things, change over the course of our lives. Our tastes change, our relationships change. All sorts of things change; I think it’s only logical that our artistic inclinations should change, as well. Keeping pace with that change is an important part of staying kind of relevant as an artist to yourself.
“I think of it as every so often learning a new vocabulary. There’s a tone that each album takes. You only come to realization of that over the course of writing. Suddenly you realize you’re sort of speaking in a slightly different artistic language than you have in the past and I think that that’s a function of being a different person. But also you get bored doing the same thing, being the same narrator. You want to change it up. The most exciting for me is surprising myself. When I’m surprising myself whether it’s with a plot or turn of phrase that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. It’s just a joyous experience.”
How hard was it to keep the stormy outside world out of your songwriting on this record? “I think it’s impossible to keep it out and I also think that attempts to keep it out are disingenuous. If writing is describing what’s around in the world, then leaving out or attempting to negate the circumstances all around us is to kind of negate art. We don’t create in a vacuum; no one does. That’s the beauty of music in a time like this is that it reflects something back on ourselves that maybe we wouldn’t see otherwise.”
After being off for the holidays, are you excited to hit the road? “To head out on the road is the best. It’s what I’ve been doing for so long. In many, many ways it feels like the latter half of my childhood was spent sleeping on couches and driving the highways at night. Now that I have my family that comes along with me on tour, it’s a great traveling household.”
You must be having fun traveling with your 5-year-old daughter. “It’s amazing. Her eyes are opened to so many new things. She’s surrounded by people who really love her and she has her own bunk on the bus. She gets to go to museums and see different cities all over the world. It’s pretty great for her. ... There are so many cool places to see in the world, but to see if through your kid’s eyes, it brings it home. You change perspective.”
Any big 2018 plans? “I have a badass band and we’re very excited to be on the road and excited to be playing new music. At such a strange time in the world, it’s a real pleasure to spend warm moments with people all partaking of the same thing. (And) I have a real great audience and I’m excited that they give me the opportunity to continue to play and continue to write. I just want to live up to my own expectations this year.”