Life lyricist

Josh Ritter bears his story writing

By Joey Ferber

Photo: Josh Ritter strums with honesty in Cincinnati Sept. 25; photo: Brian Stowell

Josh Ritter is a storyteller from Idaho who travels the world as a musician. Ritter’s songs are wide ranging, with a discography of guitar folk tales and electrified poetic anthems. With an ever-evolving creative perspective, Ritter’s listeners can’t predict the outcome of developing projects. He himself acknowledges, “I never know what I’m going to write about before I start.”

Ritter’s professional artistic journey spans nearly two decades. When asked about the highs and lows of that lifestyle, he offers, “The thing that I try and remember about being an artist is that you have to live with being dissatisfied with yourself. A little bit all the time. But that just makes you feel a little more alive. You’re feeling the fire inside. You will not not die. It is not poison.”

For times of burdensome self-critique, Ritter expresses the need for growth with others and shares a personal anecdote as advice for aspiring musicians: “There are times when I have to get pushed a little bit from somebody else…sometimes I write off a song I’m working on well before it should be. I’m a harsh critic of my own stuff.”

Ritter recalls the song “Good Man” from his 2006 release, Animal Years, as one he was inclined to scratch before working with fellow musicians helped develop the song into the version that made the cut. The song’s verses speak on judgement and trust in a negative world while the chorus exudes a narrator who affirms self-worth as a partner and as a “good man.” This beautifully ironic transformation from self-doubt to self-confidence is an inspiration for pushing through the “dry spells, hard times, and bad lands” of human experience, as the song aptly describes.

“The most important thing about having a life in art or doing art at all is to have one sense of perspective,” Ritter continues. “Having perspective is being able to sit back and take stock of your accomplishments…and also not to belittle your accomplishments. We’re artists and we’re making something out of nothing, and it can be scary to think of what we’re not doing.”

Realistic about the pains of his trade, Ritter also acknowledges the importance of learning from failure: “We’re in it to celebrate life and to kind of be up on stage and be a model of someone going through life and messing up and getting back up again. I feel like people want to see artists trying and failing, not because they’re mean spirited but because it’s an illustration of the things we sometimes go through in life that we can go through very much in front of people.”

After a moment of consideration, Ritter concludes, “It’s an honor to mess up and get back up again on stage. It proves your audience is with you and wants you to do well. Being human is the biggest thing you can possibly do as an artist.”

Conversing with Ritter was a story itself. He was intentional with his answers, which were well crafted with clear honesty. In discussing “authenticity” of narrative perspective, Ritter says, “There is a pressure to be rooted in some sort of authentic thing within a genre. Personal autobiography is only interesting for so long. Hip-hop, country, rock, are rooted in personal experience, but you can’t let your autobiography get in your way…The only way to write what I’ve discovered is to let the songs come on their own – don’t try and make them about yourself. Whoever gave the advice to write about what you know did a great disservice to writers because what’s out there? The world is out there. Look outward, look at the world; there’s so much to see. Think of all the things going on in our country. How could we not write about some of the desperation going on?”

When discussing the development of his own writing process, Ritter also expresses appreciation for diversity in writing styles: “However anyone writes a song is fantastic to me, which is why I got into it.”

With a balance of humility and confidence, Ritter acknowledges the lingering political undertones of his words: “It depends on how you feel [about] where your responsibilities lie. A lot of people do feel like their job as a writer is to bring people’s attention to certain issues, and that really gets them going and creates great art. I find that I can’t focus that clearly on a moral; I just have to write about stuff and hope that that comes out if it does. A lot of times a song is just a little song, you know? It doesn’t matter one way or another. It’s nice to have it, but the world doesn’t care.”

Initially, this is a jarring statement. Maybe Ritter is saying a song’s worth exists primarily in its creation, with meaning to the songwriter and any outside judgement secondary. Regardless, Ritter continues writing songs.

Josh Ritter performs Sunday, Sept. 25 at Midpoint Music Festival, at Over the Rhine in Cincinnati. Band of Horses headlines Sunday. One-day passes are $50. For more information, please visit

Joey Ferber works out of St. Louis and Dayton as a musician and writer. You can hear him on electric guitar with St. Louis jazz-rap collective LOOPRAT at and on his original theme song for the Dayton-based podcast series Unwritten at, for which he also contributed to as a scriptwriter. Reach him at

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Joey Ferber works out of St. Louis and Dayton as a musician and writer. You can hear him on electric guitar with St. Louis jazz-rap collective LOOPRAT at and on his original theme song for the Dayton-based podcast series Unwritten at, for which he also contributed to as a scriptwriter. Reach him at

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