For Idaho's Josh Ritter, writing a song is similar to a bird building its home. "I think it's like a bird picking up weird things on the ground and carrying them back to the nest. If you watch them, you wonder what it is they see in the thing that makes them interested," says Ritter. "I just pick up what I'm interested in and somehow [it] turns into songs. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, the songs are good. Sometimes they fall apart!"
However, Ritter's songs are helping him forge a career that is far from falling apart. After making good friends in Ireland a few years ago, Ritter released the album Hello Starling on the small Signature Sounds label. It was a fairly intimate album recorded over 14 days in small cabin in France, but the album leveled everyone who heard it. Hello Starling was a sincere, melodic, intricate collection of words. It wasn't long before Ritter was picked up by V2 records (home to The White Stripes and Bloc Party), who re-released Hello Starling to a larger audience. Soon Ritter was showing up on the radio and touring the world. Within a year of signing with V2, Ritter retreated to Bear Creek Studios, a small cabin in western Washington, to record his next album. The resulting effort was called The Animal Years.
Produced by Brian Deck (Red Red Meat, Iron and Wine, and Modest Mouse), The Animal Years is filled with subtle soundscapes such as backward mandolins and effects, and electric guitars. Though not as radical as Dylan going electric, the album does represent a departure for a guy who recorded three previous records without anything but an acoustic guitar around his neck. "You follow your interests wherever they lead you," says Ritter. "I began with guitar because that was handy and economical, but I never felt a particular affiliation with guitar for guitar's sake. So as I've followed my instincts and recorded a record that I feel is more in line with what I'm interested in right now. Namely instruments that don't have to sound like the typical Americana record."
Beyond the new sounds on the record, Ritter has also tackled new subjects; gone are songs like Hello Starling's "Kathleen" (a song which nine out of 10 females prefer to nearly any other song in the universe). In their place are tunes like "Girl in the War" and what has been called The Animal Years' centerpiece, "Thin Blue Flame." Both are anti-war songs. "Girl in the War" is a discussion between two of Jesus' disciples:
Peter said to Paul, "You know all those words we wrote?/Are just the rules of the game and rules are the first to go."
"Thin Blue Flame" is three-chord bombast that goes for nine minutes and still barely holds all of Ritter's syllables:
Days are nights and the nights are long/Beating hearts blossom into walking bombs/And those still looking the clear blue sky for a sign/Get missiles from so high they might as well be divine.
These songs are not meant to be one-sided attacks, Ritter asserts. "The songs on The Animal Years are a picture of what's going on in this country right now. I think of them as pictures without captions to go along with them," Ritter added. "They're just pictures, but then again, some people are just writing captions." These "pictures" lend The Animal Years a bit of a dark tone--if only just a little bit. Ritter continues, "The songs were inspired by the war in Iraq but they are not meant to be a response to the war itself, but a critique of how we're talking about the war. Our leaders are placing such a premium on absolute conviction, and I just don't believe most people have absolute conviction about the war or about almost anything. When I look at people in the news today with absolute conviction, I see the Bush administration and suicide bombers. And we all know examples from history where people who forsook confusion for conviction ended up killers or the puppets of killers. [The songs on Animal Years] place a premium on allowing yourself as an individual to be confused about life, and in that way to search for your own answers."
But it is not just anti-war songs on the new album, there are others. One of the most captivating is called "Idaho." It is nearly an a capella tune, though you can hear faint strums of guitar in the mix:
Thought that I'd been on a boat/'Til that single word you wrote/That single word it landlocked me/Turned the mast to cedar trees/And the winds to gravel roads/Idaho oh Idaho
The song's inclusion on the album makes a lot of sense. Ritter loves Idaho. "I hope [to always be in Idaho]. In a time when it's hard to believe in my government ,it helps me to believe in a place. Idaho embodies what I love about my country," says Ritter.
Ritter's career has been going so well that he was recently able to buy a house in Moscow, Idaho, not far from where he grew up. When I ask how he felt about buying the house, he responds, "It floors me everyday when I wake up. When I moved in, I had only a few boxes because in the last 16 months I had been on the road. Mostly books and records. When you realize that notes in the air and words on the page built a house, it really is completely amazing. I keep waiting for someone to come and tell me that they made a mistake and the house isn't mine."
But it is no mistake. It's Ritter's ability to write a great song that is helping him carve out a career in music, a career that he hopes will be as long and creative as those of guys like Johnny Cash, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. His fodder for songs hasn't changed since his college days, and it doesn't need to. "I think I'm still just as hung up on girls and personally insecure and curious about life as I ever was, and that's all I think any writer really needs."