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Fresh from a starring role in the Readers Poll, Josh Ritter has even more reasons to be cheerful – like touring with Joan Baez and getting to know Damien Rice.
Paul Nolan, 12 Feb 2004
Currently riding the crest of a wave following the unanimously positive critical response to his sophomore album, the Dave Odlum-produced Hello Starling, US singer/songwriter Josh Ritter is in predictably buoyant mood when hotpress contacts him in London on a cold and wintry February afternoon. Indeed, the fact that Ritter is presently touring with one of his songwriting heroes, Joan Baez, is another significant contributory factor to his high spirits.
“Well, it’s interesting, in the past if an artist let me down with one album, then that kind of spoiled things for me,” considers Josh. “But with Joan – and Johnny Cash is kind of similar in this regard – what they do is so much bigger than any one album. And I also looked to Joan as something of a role model at the start of my career – the reason I moved to Boston from Idaho stemmed from people like her who started out in Boston 30 or 40 years ago.
“It always seemed to me that it was as good a place as any for a musician to start out, and of course latterly you had terrific bands like The Pixies and The Lemonheads. Also, the fact that Joan is one of these people, like Dylan, who just seem to weather every change in popular music, is very inspiring.”
One of the compositions that Baez has made her own in the recent past, of course, is Ritter’s very own ‘Wings’. Could Josh himself ever imagine following in the footsteps of Baez and Johnny Cash and recording an album of cover versions?
“Because he was so amazing at interpreting other people’s songs, Johnny Cash is actually one of the reasons I would never do that,” he replies. “He truly was a master of that art, and so totally inseparable from that Man In Black persona. Jesus, he was almost like a Shakespearean actor in that respect, sort of the American version of the British classical thespian. He was a connection to a past that went really far back, so when he performed songs by younger artists, the weight of his own experiences gave them an incredible gravitas.”
Next month, Ritter takes off on a European tour at the personal behest of newly crowned king of the troubadour circuit and third favourite son of County Kildare, Damien Rice. (The other two being your humble correspondent and the football team’s God-like centre half-back, Glen Ryan.) Is Rice an artist with whom Ritter feels a particular kinship?
“Well, there’s a definite connection there somewhere,” asserts Josh. “I met him my first night over in Ireland at Whelan’s. It was really neat, I remember it was after the show, and there was just millions of people in this incredibly portentous room upstairs. I remember thinking that the room seemed like a place where these people planned revolutions; there was a peat fire burning and a window looking out onto the rain-sodden streets below. And everybody looked kind of dirty and basically just incredibly cool. I got talking to Lisa Hannigan and then eventually to Damien, and we had a fantastic evening.
“What was cool was that we all had the short window of time to hang out with each other before everyone got really busy. And what’s gonna be great is now that we’re gonna be playing together, I’ll have an opportunity to properly hang out with Damien and the rest of his band, whom I’ve only met briefly in the past. I think it’s really healthy for any artist – not just musicians, but anyone – to have that community of people around you whose company you enjoy and whose opinion you trust.
“Actually, that’s a side of things I really want to cultivate – I’d like to get into playing shows with other people more, and just see the differing approaches to the craft and hear other people’s views on things.”
In the meantime, Ritter has his burgeoning fanbase to contend with. If one harboured any doubts about the extent to which his star is in the ascendant, you need only peruse the results of the recent hotpress readers’ poll, in which Ritter was voted Best International Male Artist and Best International Songwriter.
“That’s really cool, alright,” replies a chuffed Ritter. “It’s a similar feeling to having an artist you really admire cover one of your songs; there’s just this great awareness that the sweat and blood has finally paid off. So, make sure everyone knows how thrilled I am with the result. And tell REM better luck next time!”
Hello Starling is available now. Josh Ritter tours Ireland this month, dates include Black Box, Galway (Feb 12), Olympia, Dublin (13) and Cork Opera House (14)