Josh Ritter
Spectral Lines

Josh Ritter has been thinking a lot about space exploration. It has nothing to do with his spellbinding new album, Spectral Lines, except that in a way, it really does.

“The Voyager spacecraft went up in ’77 and now it’s out there in a place that no one’s ever been before, and it’s sending back all these messages,” Ritter says. “I feel like songs do that in their own little way. They’re probes: they go out into the world, and sometimes you hear stories back from them, but really, they go off on their own.”

Ritter, too, is sending back messages, in the form of 10 new songs that are atmospheric and impressionistic. Like the recently launched Webb Telescope, or Voyager all those years ago, he’s looking for signs of life, reaching for a sense of commonality, something that feels universal in this infinite universe. Spectral Lines, his 11th album, finds those shared experiences in songs that push beyond the bounds of Ritter’s previous work. Recorded with longtime collaborator Sam Kassirer producing, it’s an album full of wonder and light as Ritter considers the ideas of love, devotion and what it means to be connected, to each other and to ourselves.

“I think it’s important for us to share some of our most basic and common experiences with each other, however we can,” he says. “That’s kind of what we really, really need right now.”

Spectral Lines is the follow-up to Ritter’s 2019 album Fever Breaks, which made a strong showing on the Billboard Americana/Folk and Independent Albums charts and drew praise from Rolling Stone, NPR and The Associated Press. Ritter began releasing albums in 1999, and started a collaboration with Bob Weir in 2015 that resulted in Weir’s 2016 album Blue Mountain. Ritter made his debut as a fiction writer in 2011 with the best-selling novel Bright’s Passage; his second book, The Glorious Goddamn of It All, came out in 2021.

Spectral Lines is a little different than your previous work. What did you have in mind at the start?

I wanted to express a certain thing with the kind of song that lifts the way a sentence lifts with a question mark at the end. And the question is, “Is there more out there?” One of the most affecting things I find about the current time is these amazing telescopes that we’re building. We can determine the atmosphere of exoplanets, which is so incredible — it means that we can see if there are beings out there experiencing life like we are. I know we have common experiences, and it’s important to telegraph those back because they don’t have to be lonely experiences. I found great solace when my mother died knowing that there are other people who’ve gone through that same thing.

You dedicate the album in part to your mother. What was her creative influence on you?

My mom was truly a fascinating person. Besides being my mother, she had a mind that went in so many directions. She was always questing, always looking. There are things that she devoted her life’s work to, but those things seem to be equaled in in the final equation by finding a pretty shell on the beach. She’s the one who made me realize that wonder is a reflex, and that reflex will take you to some amazing places, and will make your life richer and more beautiful. Something that I decided to do with the record, in a tribute to my mom, was to try and make it seamless, like a little journey of the mind. There are swings, there’s the wind on Mars, there’s tropical birds — that’s my mom all through it.

How did you pursue that seamless feel?

I’ve made records for a long time where I will go in several directions so as to satisfy all my desires at once. I get some of my story songs on there, I get some of these more atmospheric things, and I get a big number. But I realized, that’s not my boat right now. It doesn’t feel like it holds together, it doesn’t feel like a contraption that can run — it doesn’t feel like something I’m going to want to listen to. The tone is wrong. So I took out all the longer, wordy stories, songs that are very important to me, but they just weren’t right for the record. Once I got rid of those, I found that the songs that really stuck were the ones that were shorter and a little smokier and more atmospheric. I didn't always feel like there had to be like a steady beat. What I wanted was some kind of trip down a river, just to be carried along by this thing. Any songs that weren’t adding to that were getting in the way. How much of a learning process was involved in paring away songs that didn’t fit?

I think it’s actually the whole process. You start at the center of the maze and you work your way out, and you wouldn't remember all the turns you made, but you finally get there. It’s that way with making an album: you make all those artistic decisions trying to get toward the place where you started writing, and they all accrue into becoming a record.

How long did it take you to realize that?

There are things on this record that I wouldn’t have been able to describe when I was 20, and now I’m 46. In 2001 or 2002, I was on tour with Joan Baez in Europe, and we were in Italy or someplace. And she said to me, “Someday you’re going to start listening to other people, and you won’t have to pay so much attention to all those voices in your head.” And I was like, “Bullshit.” But she was so right. It’s not like the voices in your head get quieter, but you start to realize which ones are leading you toward real good and common experiences.

Does that stem from experience, or getting older, or both?

Hopefully as you get older you become a little more empathetic, and you start to realize that you have an effect on people’s lives —we all have effects on each other’s lives. You’re able to take a second and connect some of the dots in your life. Also, no matter what, a lot of stuff will have happened to you when you’re 100 that didn’t happen when you’re 30. There’s a beauty in that. Like the Voyager probe — if they could have sent it out past the Oort Cloud right away, there’s an argument for that, right? Like, let’s just get it out there, as far as we can. But we would have missed our entire solar system and we wouldn’t know anything about it. That’s how I feel about writing songs at all these stages. I think that’s the most beautiful thing. It makes the whole artistic life seem like it’s worth it.

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