The Science of Songwriting

Josh Ritter conquers small towns—and some bigger ones—on his new tour

Call it a simple twist of fate or a clever marketing move, but just as Josh Ritter was taking his music to its most adventurous new heights, a relic from his humble beginnings suddenly resurfaced. On April 8, Ritter's new label, Sony/BMG, re-issued the 31-year-old singer/songwriter's self-titled debut album, nearly a decade after its mostly unnoticed release. Ritter had recorded these songs during his senior year at Oberlin College outside of Cleveland, Ohio, a school he had originally attended with the goal of studying neuroscience, as his parents had.

As it turned out, his passion shifted from the science of the mind to the science of songwriting—particularly the troubadour stylings of people like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Cash. But the transition wasn't as drastic as one might think.

"There are a lot of connections between science and art," says Ritter, en route to Towson, Md., on his Small Town USA tour. "What I love about science is the people who do it, who put their lives and creativity into it. It's really a creative discipline, and, like art, it's an exploration that people choose for a reason, because of an innate need for something. You have to learn the rules and how to work within those rules, and then put in a lot of work to find places that no one's found before."

Like a scientific study, music can go through its periods of trial and error as well. Long since removed from his days of open mike nights at Oberlin, Ritter is now a polished, major-label act with a worldwide following and a string of acclaimed albums behind him. Still, the little record he made as a wide-eyed college student, once upon a time, still holds a special place in his heart.

"They're not the kind of songs I would write now," he says. "But they're funny, and I kind of love them for what they are. It took me four years to sell 2,000 copies of that first record. Four years of open mikes and blood, sweat, and a lot of hours in a car. So I'm just psyched that's it's been re-released and it's actually out there in stores. That's really cool."

Also available in stores is Ritter's latest studio effort, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter—an album that's likely to be remembered as a major transition point in his career.

Lyrically, Conquests treads much of the same ground Ritter has walked before—character studies, lovelorn ‘70s-tinged balladry, and literate, often political folk tales of the Dylan variety. The difference is in the delivery. After the mostly mellow but tightly produced sound of 2006's excellent The Animal Years, Ritter was ready to challenge himself to loosen up, go with his gut, and play a little louder.

"These are big, bruising songs," he says. "A lot of times, you might make a record that feels different to you, but it's not actually much different from what you've done before. With this record, it was important to me to continually go for it and strive to make it new and different enough that everybody else hears the difference, too."

Fans and critics certainly seemed to hear and enjoy the difference, as Conquests—Ritter's major-label debut—has continued his steady rise toward mainstream recognition. It's a status he's already achieved in Ireland, of all places, where the locals have embraced the Idaho native as one of their own (thanks in large part to a long-time touring partnership with Frames singer and recent Oscar winner Glen Hansard). Still, regardless of how much fame finds him, Ritter remains protective of his private life, a fact that is evident in his songwriting.

"I just don't believe in reading your diary on stage," he says. "I want to read someone else's. I figure, your own life can't be as interesting as a life you can make up, and it's really fun to do that. You know, the whole world is open for you to write about. Why just write about this one little thing?"

On his current tour, Ritter has lined up a number of cities—not all of them necessarily small towns—that he hasn't regularly played before. He has only performed in Knoxville once previously, a Sundown in the City gig with My Morning Jacket back in 2005. But Ritter remembers it well.

"I actually signed the ownership papers on my first house when I was last in Knoxville," he says, "so it's kind of a special place for me. It's good to be coming back."