Josh Ritter. Photo by Sam Kassirer.

Josh Ritter and The Royal City Band | Tuesday, May 16, 8 p.m., $37+  |  The Carolina Theatre, Durham

Josh Ritter makes folk music that is searching but grounded, with an eye toward the future as it turns over the myths of the past.

I’ve been listening to his music since high school and associate it with raw, formative periods—driving home from basketball practice, windows open, a burned CD (sorry!) of Golden Age of Radio floating over browning cornfields—in which I moved from inherited certainty to a belief, one threaded throughout Ritter’s music, that it is possible to make a life asking, and even living inside, big questions.

Ritter’s 11th album, Spectral Lines, released April 28, is dedicated to Ritter’s mother, a dedicated neuroscientist who died in March 2021. Over 10 songs, the album picks up and continues stitching that signature searching thread, with weird, rich storytelling transposed over playful sonic experiment, including a snippet from the Perseverance rover on Mars, as Ritter looks for signs of life on planet Earth. 

Those signs can be hard to find—“If the world is getting kinder/ I haven’t noticed yet / And if we’re gonna make it /Things are gonna have to change,” he intones on “Someday”—but listening to Ritter, it’s still hard not to feel buoyed. 

The musician will perform at the Carolina Theatre on Tuesday, May 16; ahead of the show, INDY Week caught up with Ritter as he took a walk in Williamsburg.

INDY Week: I saw on Twitter that last night you had a kind of wild dream about time being something that we consume as sustenance.

Josh Ritter: One of the most important things for me to do is just express some of the random questions and thoughts I have—not because they’re individually special but because I believe that a lot of people have all kinds of interesting little insights or intuitions.

How do you get those insights to stick—do you have a dream journal, do you take notes throughout the day?

I have that kind of belief in my own creative process that intuition, that aha moment, is not rare—it’s not a rare thing, but it is private, and it has no power unless you bring it out into the world. Over time I believe we’ve changed our idea of the muses into a thing that we express our admiration of—but the muses for me are like an angry little devil on my back, and my only way of getting it off my nerves is expressing the things that come to me. Frankly, it’s not like it’s a pleasurable thing; the constant weird thoughts and intrusives. Sometimes the only way to deal with them is to be like, “I’m going to make this monster real.”

Have you had periods where you feel like you’ve repressed those creative urges and, as a result, things became difficult?

Absolutely, that’s a really good question. Sometimes I’ve allowed myself to put on a little bit of a mask. There are times on stage where I operate as a truly beautiful human and feel like I really belong. But there are other times when I’m playing the nice guy, the “aw shucks” guy, when there’s something truly cataclysmic going on. Over time now I’ve realized I don’t have time for that—it just takes too much energy. If I have weird preoccupations now, I’m going to follow them. If I hear things that don’t make sense, I’m going to write them down, get them out there. It’s almost like cleaning out an attic that never gets clean. You bring stuff down to the street and hope that someone finds something useful in there, but the stuff in the attic just keeps filling up.

Tell me about Spectral Lines. At what point in writing did some of its themes start to coalesce?

I realized over time that the songs that compelled me and fit in that collection—I write lots of songs, and they don’t always fit—but the ones that all started to feel like they belong in the same room together were about very simple emotions and ones that I felt were not me going off on some tangent but me trying to express my own feelings of weakness and fragility.

The power that these songs gave me was the power to share them‚—and not in a way of like, ‘Here’s my diary, I’m a songwriter’ but more like, ‘These were my emotions and feelings that I found powerful enough that I wanted to share them because I knew that they couldn’t be mine alone—they had to relate to other people, too.’

The album is dedicated to your mom. Is she in some of the songs?

My mom was a fascinating woman—someone who is truly compelled by their work and a very interesting thinker. One of the most important things that she gave me was the idea that I could look at something that everyone else was looking at and see something that no one else sees. She always told me that, and it gave me an identity. She gave me the soft confidence, or whatever it was, to find my way in a conventional world while thinking truly bizarre things, and made me proud of it.

Now moving forward, as I’m putting this out into the world and she’s not right here with me, it changes my relationship to my art. I owe her a lot. 

How did your parents impact your own parenting style?

I guess we all raise our kids, in some fashion, like, “Well, I’m not gonna do what my parents did.” There weren’t big things like that—my childhood was wonderful, I basically lived in the woods and went home and heard my parents talk about a job they loved.

One thing I did think about a lot was, how am I going to raise my children in relationship to God? I wanted to get down to the fundamentals of “What can I give my children?” I found that oftentimes in society in my upbringing, my questions were stifled, my body was stifled. I was terrified of the rapture and of hell.

I do feel like I can raise my children with the knowledge that the world is full of amazing and beautiful things that are far beyond our ability to understand. And we can appreciate those things and we can take part in them without having to lock ourselves in a box designed by humans.

Were your parents religious?

Very religious, but also, you know, scientists. I don’t question the authenticity. of either of those choices for themselves, but in my own life, it’s given me a lot of friction.

Astronomy seems to always play a big part in your songwriting but in particular on this album. Can you talk a bit about that?

I’m a songwriter so I write about stars, the moon, all the time—it’s like the first thing you gotta do. We have these abilities now to see things on so many levels and to see back to, you know, 600 million years before the Big Bang, all these things that are so amazing and awaken a sense of wonder. It’s comforting because we live in an age where we’re told that science has all the answers or that religion has all the answers, and you see that and it’s like—thank god, nobody has the answers. The amount of dark energy and dark matter floating around in the known universe totally dwarfs this tiny little bit of Earth floating around. We don’t know anything.

I wanted to get that out on the record in ways that are applicable to music. I had written several story songs and planned for them to be on the record, but I realized this was more about the feeling than the narrative story. I put in this little snippet of a recording from the Perseverance Rover on Mars and I thought that was really beautiful, too. I just love that sound.

You’re also a painter and novelist. When you have a creative urge, how do distinguish between them? How do you know if it’s going to pan out into a painting, or a song?

Painting is so immediate and there’s a beauty to that, but I also find that my brain just gets tired. It can’t constantly be writing something. I need periods of time where I’m still working in that beautiful feeling of creating something [and] it kind of calms down those weird epiphanies and lets my brain rest. It’s so great because before I found painting, I didn’t really have anything that gave me that. Running did, but I got so bored.

Yeah, brain stillness that’s not boring feels kind of ineffable.

Yeah, they did those studies of the caloric intake of these chess masters and they’re just consuming huge, NBA-level amounts, of calories. And they’re just sitting there. The brain is truly using huge amounts of energy. I’ve realized that I need something that will give things a rest, and painting gives me that rest.

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