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Josh Ritter's new outlook shows up in his music

| Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 8:08 p.m.
Laura Wilson
Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter's songs usually tell stories. For instance, his previous album, “So the World Runs Away,” had songs about an awakened Egyptian mummy and a showdown between murder-ballad writers Stagger Lee and Louis Collins.

“I don't like writing autobiographical songs,” Ritter says. “I like writing songs about other things. There's so much more to write about in the world than what happens right in front of you on a daily basis. And my favorite books are — they're flights of imagination. It's really important — I always feel it's really important to write those rather than write about yourself, because that's where so much fun stuff happens.”

But with his new CD, “The Beast In Its Tracks,” Ritter, who performs May 20 at the Byham Theater, Downtown, couldn't avoid some autobiographical content.

In 2010, his marriage of 18 months to fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes came apart.

“To turn around and pretend that it hadn't happened, I think it would have felt dishonest,” Ritter says. “But it would have also been a huge missed opportunity to write about something that mattered so much to me at that moment.”

In talking to Ritter, it was obvious how much pain and sadness the divorce had inflicted.

The end of the marriage came suddenly, while Ritter was on tour in November 2010.

“It did happen in a way that it came about very unexpectedly,” Ritter says. “It was my decision that stuff was all over. I decided that a line had been crossed that I was not going to be able to come back from. And it was cold. It was hard. It was really bad. It was at times ... impossible to sleep. It was an awful, awful time.”

Despite being devastated, Ritter went through with the remainder of his fall tour. When he returned home to Brooklyn, he did what always came naturally. He started writing songs. But it took time for Ritter to start feeling good about what he was writing.

“When I first started writing, I was real anguished,” he says. “I wrote for blood. I wrote for real vengeance. And that stuff was just terrible.”

But after a few months, Ritter's mood started to improve and songs softened into sadness and eventually even some hope and forgiveness emerged, particular with “Joy to You Baby” and “Lights,” the two songs that end “The Beast in Its Tracks.”

“Having that time to write and to think really made those songs better, I feel,” he says. “They made them more honest.”

What also helped Ritter to arrive at a lyrical tone that felt right was meeting a new girlfriend, author Haley Tanner, who understood what he was going through and further brightened his life. The couple recently had a daughter, Beatrix.

“I started to think much less about the divorce and maybe about everything that happens after, which is really what it's about,” Ritter says. “It's not about the shame or the pain. It's about all the stuff that happens after that that's better.”

Ritter says he's proud of how the new album turned out. The playing is stripped down, “but still feels like it has great momentum and has a real feeling of people I love, like the Everly Brothers or the Louvin Brothers,” he says. “It feels like it still has a bit of a simpleness to it. I'm really proud of that.”

Alan Sculley is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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