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American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter talks to Jackie Hayden about the more technical side of playing music, touring and writing songs.
Jackie Hayden, 05 Apr 2011
Josh Ritter was born in Moscow, Idaho in 1976, to parents who were both neuroscientists. He actually followed the family trade by studying neuroscience, but then changed direction to major in American History Through Narrative Folk Music. The change might be indicative of Ritter seeming to espouse a decidedly non-scientific method in relation to his musical activities.
As a teenager Josh caught the songwriting bug from hearing his parents play Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. “I knew right away that songwriting was something I wanted to do.” Fired with a new zeal, he tried to write songs on a lute that his father had made, but then bought his first guitar at K-Mart.
As he explains, “I had played violin for about 13 years, from about the age of four having been encouraged down that path by my parents. I probably didn’t even pick up a guitar until I was about 17. I think I was looking for an instrument I could play while moving my mouth! I also think that by then I had stored up a lot of things I wanted to say. So discovering the guitar was the way to go. In a way it’s always been about using the guitar to create a mood. The song comes out of that mood if it’s there. I think I started writing the day I picked up a guitar and never really stopped. It just seemed so right for me. But then at 17 I had yearnings too! (laughs).”
He didn’t study guitar books or take lessons on guitar but he can still remember that first K-Mart guitar.
“It was a Yamaha. It was a cheap model. It still sounds great, although I don’t use it these days,” he says.
This was a solitary occupation for the man from Moscow.
“I lived about 15 miles out of the town and there weren’t a lot of bands going on around where we lived or at high school. It wasn’t until I got near the end of my college days that I started playing with some other guys. I still play with them!”
He plumps for Mississippi John Hurt as the main influence on his early playing.
“He was the biggest inspiration, by far. At first I actually thought there were two guitars going on in his stuff. That’s how good he was. It was a source of wonder to me that it was just this one guy. He had a great finger-picking way of doing things and he played so clearly. I could hear exactly what he was doing. I could almost see it in my mind. Another artist who rarely gets any credit for being an amazing guitarist is Odetta. She had this incredible thumb. She got this really plunky thumb rhythm and her arrangements were super cool. They were the two main influences on me as a guitar player.”