Like Josh Ritter, I rarely mix personal with professional. However, since Ritter’s The Beast in Its Tracks is his most acutely personal record — a perfectly circular journey from divorce through recovery — I’ll make an exception. Barely March, I can say this unequivocally: The Beast in Its Tracks is and will remain my favorite record of this year. I’ve spun it (no joke) more than 200 times on the pantry stereo, and the record broadens and deepens with meaning every time.
The Moscow, Idaho-born songwriter (and new father) will debut his new material on March 14 at the Americana Music Association’s showcase during South by Southwest. If you’re in Austin, go.
“South by Southwest is so much fun,” Ritter says. “For lots of musicians, it’s the chance we have to see friends that we meet on the road. It’s gonna be amazing. We’ll be in the sun in the wintertime and have a Lone Star and eat some brisket, and I get to play a show after Emmylou Harris!”
CMT Edge: How did the new album take shape?
Ritter: I was playing a lot of shows after (2010’s) So Runs the World Away, and my marriage fell apart during that time. It was a really horrible, horrible period. It was weird being on the road, and two hours a night would be the best thing ever, and then I’d come home and my life had been turned upside down. I didn’t have a place to go. It was really, really rough. These songs came out of that chaotic time. They are emotional and personal, but I wrote them during a time when I was just trying to get through the night. They came out of a time of real necessity.
Explain the album title.
I always get titles at the end of recording. It takes a while to get all the songs together and for there to be a phrase to describe them. The Beast in Its Tracks was a number of different things, whether it was heartbreak or loneliness or the stuff that happens at night that sneaks up on you that wasn’t there during the daytime. It was a free-floating unease. (laughs)
There’s definitely a feeling of rebirth by the end, though.
Yeah, definitely. I agree with you. One thing I’m really happy about is that the songs came about over a period of time. There’s enough activity going on that you could record songs and put them out really quickly these days, but I didn’t try to make a record in a week. They wouldn’t really have stood for what this period of time meant. It began with a really awful experience and ended up in such an amazing place with a new person and a new life. There’s certainly the idea of an album about a divorce in there, but it’s also about the time after that.
Tell the story behind writing “Heart’s Ease.”
I wrote that song when I had come back from a tour. I was home for a little bit … and my partner [author Haley Tanner] and I found out that we were gonna have a baby. We were in the Dominican Republic, and I was writing that song during the day. It boils down to finding your own sense of well being, whatever that should be. None of the rest really matters, whether you have notoriety or money. If you don’t have that sense of ease in your mind, you’re looking for the wrong thing in life.
Will you write autobiographically more, or was it just to get through this phase?
I think that’s when that stuff’s actually useful. I put to test some of the ideas that I had about the things that matter in my life. Who was my family? What did marriage mean? What does love mean? What does infidelity mean? To what extent do they control what I’m going to do as an artist or just as somebody who does a job and loves writing and wants the things that everybody wants — a family and a good relationship?
I wrote about that stuff on the record because that’s what was foremost in my mind at the time. I could write about things that were foremost in my mind at other times, but I don’t think they would have the same emotional resonance. I don’t think they’d be as important to me as this moment was. … This one felt like what was right in front of me was the only thing that mattered and the only thing I had energy to think about or work on.
I really believe that putting out records that are based on personal experience makes songs lose their freshness. If you give away that stuff, people begin to think that you’re only chronicling your own life like hundreds of other songs out there. I just don’t want to do that. I don’t think that’s my responsibility. That’s not what I want to do with my life. I want people to hear songs that wouldn’t have been written otherwise.
Does the subject matter make these songs hard to sing live?
I was curious whether it would be, but I think now that they’re out there, they feel like songs that I’m performing [rather than inhabiting]. The writing is personal, and I wanted to make sure I could get them the way that I could sing them and feel good about them. Now that I’m starting to play the songs out, I hope that people hear the new songs. They’re written in such a way that they’re relatable to everybody without being, “This is a guy singing about himself up here.” I hope that this is the case. That’s all I fear. I feel like I’ve crossed the Rubicon of writing about the stuff I’ve been open with that way: “These sorts of things happened. This is how I feel about them.” Now, singing them onstage just feels like an extension of that.
How did you approach recording? The album’s stripped down but also has tons of textures.
Because of wanting it to be stripped down and not layer things on, it was fun to go in and keep as much stuff off as possible. Then the stuff that came on had a real place. When I started writing these songs and recording them by themselves in my room, I found out that I liked to have these double guitar lines for solos. Even if there was only one guitar for the song, there are two guitars for the solo. [Keyboardist and producer] Sam Kassirer’s great, strange keyboard parts were almost like these cool sci-fi bits that added this bed of something people just don’t hear a lot of on a record like this. It’s a much different style of recording than having a large canvas, like laying down three or four French horns on a song. (laughs)
“The Appleblossom Rag,” with the conversation and dishes in the background, really feels cinematic.
Yeah, definitely. I just was in the kitchen one of those days. You know, the great thing about recording at the Great North [Sound Society in Maine] is that it isn’t a studio away from the house. It’s one big rambling set of rooms that you can record in. We were in the kitchen when that was going on, and we were just lucky. Haley and a couple other people and I were talking about stuff that they were reading and doing the dishes. That was really, really fun part of recording with Sam. It’s very spontaneous. You can choose what you like later, but the magic stuff, you want to make sure you get.