Personal lyrics are a staple for many singer-songwriters, who plumb the intimate details of their lives and spill them out onstage.
Josh Ritter avoided them until the 2013 album, The Beast in Its Tracks, largely based on his experience bouncing back from a divorce. The gorgeous “Joy to You Baby,” for example, nails that moment when bitterness lifts and you’re able to legitimately wish an ex well.
Now that he’s done it, the 39-year-old Brooklyn-based singer is closing the confessional.
“I believe it’s something to be used sparingly, when you really can’t avoid it,” said Ritter, father of a 3-year-old girl with his novelist partner Haley Tanner. “After a while, it’s just boring. It’s boring to look at yourself. Who wants to look at themselves in the mirror for very long, and who wants to listen to it?”
Music is entertainment, after all, and Ritter fears losing an audience with self-absorption.
“I dread being the last one to leave a party,” he said.
Ritter is touring this winter to support a new disc, Sermon on the Rocks, which is filled with the literate wordplay that fans of the Moscow, Idaho, native (and published novelist) have become accustomed to. Several Biblical references in the lyrics make the disc’s title inspiration obvious.
His focus is outward instead of inward. Words come in a torrent for the catchy “Getting Ready to Get Down,” about a girl hustled off to a Bible college when it’s clear she’s having impure thoughts. He sings about a small-town murderer, a man intrigued by an old lover’s return to town and the joy of living in the country.
The rural references are no doubt inspired by his recent stretch living near Woodstock, New York, a well-known haven for musicians. Ritter ultimately found it a bit too isolating.
“There was nothing to do except to reflect, and the reflection was really illuminating,” he said. “After seven records, I felt like I was just getting started.”
Joined by producer Trina Shoemaker, Ritter brought his band and young family to New Orleans to make the new disc. They soaked up some of the city’s “homemade freakiness,” but weren’t looking to make a tribute album to the music native of the region.
“I wanted it to be my thing,” he said. “I wanted it to be such an adventure for my band and my family.”
Unlike many songwriter albums that are essentially acoustic guitar surrounded by embellishments, Sermon on the Rocks is very much a band record, with soulful ebullience. Ritter and his Royal City Band are on the road for all of January and February.