Music News & Reviews

STORYTELLING IN SONG

A s a child, Josh Ritter always had plastic brains around the house.

His parents, both neuroscience professors, used brain models to teach. And, naturally, a plastic brain always represented a good toy for a young Ritter.

“It was like a puzzle,” said Ritter, who performs at the Live Oak Music Festival Sunday. “You would put it together, take it apart, and put it back together again. It was pretty cool.”

With that early exposure to neuroscience, it’s not surprising that Ritter was also headed in that same career path.

“I went to Oberlin because they had a neuroscience program,” Ritter said. “I was studying biology with the idea that I would continue on, but I realized that it was not what I was interested in.”

Thank Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash for that, Mr. and Mrs. Ritter. Once your son heard “Girl From the North Country” — a duet by Dylan and Cash — he knew he could be cerebral in another way.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is something that’s so cool — and I could do this,’ ” Ritter said recently by phone.

While Ritter’s name isn’t a fixture on the charts, his folksy rock music is making a dent in the mainstream (that’s his CD you see at Starbucks right now). And next summer, he’ll make his first foray into the literary world with a novel that began as a song.

Born in Moscow, Idaho, the transplanted New Yorker bought his first guitar at Kmart and quickly began writing his own music. From the beginning, his music was influenced by story-

tellers—not just Dylan and Cash, but also novelists such as Philip Roth and Flannery O’Connor.

The idea of writing autobiographical love songs like most songwriters just wasn’t appealing to Ritter. So he made stuff up.

“How much interesting stuff can happen to one person?” he said. “In the end, if you start telling autobiographical stories,

you’re going to start repeating yourself, and I don’t want to hear about people’s old girlfriends.”

Still, before his current album, “So Runs the World Away,” Ritter found his storytelling needed help. After visiting some of New York’s museums, Ritter was quickly cured of his brief writer‘s block.

One song, “The Curse,” is about a mummy who has an affair with the archeologist that discovers him. With ideas like that, Ritter has won over writers such as Dennis Lehane and Stephen King, who have become fans. When asked what King stories would make for good songs, Ritter couldn’t pick just one.

“He’s got hundreds of them for songs,” Ritter said. “I really think that ‘The Curse’ is a Stephen King-y story.”

Given his proclivity for the literary, it makes sense that he would attempt longer-form fiction, which happened when he was writing one of the songs for “So Runs the World Away.”

“The song just got a little too long, and it felt like a foundation that could support a larger story,” he said.

Once he finished the album, he went back to “Bright’s Passage” and turned it into a humorous book plot about a World War I vet who returns to West Virginia with an angel. Eventually, Dial Press, a division of Random House, offered Ritter a book deal. Currently editing the book, Ritter said it should be out next summer.

“It’s been a goal of mine for a long time to finally get my thoughts organized long enough that I could write a book,” he said. “And it’s like running a marathon — it’s a constant reminder that you can’t do everything in a day. It’s not like microwaving a burrito.”

The book deal will provide extra income for Ritter, who doesn’t make a lot selling records. In fact, he makes a living by touring and licensing songs to TV shows and commercials.

While that once would have earned a songwriter a “sellout” label, in an era where recording artists seldom make a lot from record sales, licensing has become more accepted for lesser-known acts.

“I have a band to support, and I’ve got a life I want to live,” Ritter said. “People aren’t selling records anymore — at least not to anywhere near the extent that you could really support yourself or support a family. I don’t believe in not having the life everyone else has just because I decided not to put a song in a commercial.”

In addition to licensing money, he said, commercials also provide exposure.

“These days that’s another way for people to hear your music,” he said.

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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