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July 26, 2014
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Half Shell preview: From Idaho to Starbucks, Josh Ritter keeps it genuine

Half Shell gabbers take note: Josh Ritter doesn’t make for the best background music.

Talking this Tuesday might even get you “shushed,” as Moscow, Idaho’s finest, Josh Ritter, is the next to play at Music on the Half Shell.

“Lyrics aren’t useful unless there’s something there that you can carry around and think about,” he said by phone this month.

Ritter’s sound is often described as “literate” and “authentic,” as if he were an actual poet who just happens to play music. He’s drawn comparisons to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, and, as if that wasn’t pressure enough, the label “voice of a generation.” He’s talked about as the antidote to the pompous folk frontman, you know the one: lots of hair and feelings, but with little to say.

Ritter’s sound is stripped-down, and certain. He’s spoken out against the label “folk,” preferring “rock,” but with a wide range of influences.

His songs tell stories, and not just the typical, boy-in-love variety. He wrote “The Curse,” from his album, “So Runs the World Away,” about a mummy falling in love with the archeologist who revivifies him.

He’s full of imaginative description.

“You sort of drift toward an idea like a cork bobbing,” he said describing his creative process.

Ritter, 37, grew up the child of university professors in the college town of Moscow, listening to classic rock and Top 40 country, but never thinking music would become his career. He was a solitary kid, preferring long walks in the woods.

He wanted to be a scientist like his parents, and set out to study neuroscience at Oberlin Collge in Ohio. He took one year of that before switching to music. He recorded his debut album, “Josh Ritter,” committed to seriously pursuing music and moved to Ireland. He achieved some mainstream success there, and began making inroads back in his home country with his third album.

Playing in support of his fourth album, “The Animal Years,” he played American television shows and started appearing on playlists at Starbucks shops across the country, a definite boon for his career.

Throughout it, he’s danced around the edges of fame without quite reaching the stratosphere. He’s tended his love for the written word, both in his song lyrics and books. Ritter started writing songs at 17 and says he always put time and care into crafting his lyrics.

“I wrote with pens in notebooks wherever I was, be it in chemistry class, on the way to a track meet, or in a movie theater. When I began my life as a touring musician, this habit didn’t change,” he writes in his blog, “Book of Jubilations.”

One day he wrote a song, but instead of it leaving him so he could focus on something else — what usually happened — the song stayed with him. He knew something was wrong with it, then it hit him: “It wasn’t a song. That (expletive) song was an (expletive) novel!”

He wrote the first draft of his first novel, “Bright’s Passage,” in a month and half and spent a year editing.

These days, he’s neck-deep in his next book, a “big, rowdy, fun” one. He talked about going deep when he writes.

“It’s like being in a trance. There’s nothing around you. You don’t remember any of it after it’s gone. It’s like being on stage: Once it’s over, it’s gone.”

Ritter is quick to recognize his support team, the core of which he’s kept around since the beginning. Manager Darius Zelkha met Ritter on their dorm floor. He’s rarely played with a bassist other than moustached sideman Zack Hickman, and the rest of his Royal City Band has been with him for most of the ride.

Ritter is an avid runner who aims to run an hour a day. He’s married and has one kid. His mom, Sue, is from Medford.

His last album dealt with a painful divorce, but he said he’s rounded that corner, and the crowd at the Half Shell will catch a performer in full stride.

“Everything is just fantastic right now.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.


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The News-Review Updated Jul 28, 2014 06:37PM Published Jul 30, 2014 10:21AM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.