Thursday, August 21, 2008

Song School Installment Three: Josh Ritter (now LONGER)

I've been listening to The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter rather obsessively for the past few weeks. I knew he would be at Song School and the RMFF so I wanted to be prepared. I had various songs by him on various mixes from Nate, but I wanted to really give him a listen. This just got me more excited.

As I said previously, Josh missed the first day of Song School due to flight problems. The second day, Tuesday, I wasn't sure if he was there. There had been no announcement and no one had said "Hey! There's Josh Ritter!" So at 1:30 I went to the Mountain Lion Tent where his session was supposed to be. I was the only one there. I decided not to move--to sit in faith that Josh Ritter would appear. A guy named Ken appeared and we discussed the chances of this deal actually going down. Ken decided to take action (good man!) and go ask somebody. There I sat, alone in the Mountain Lion Tent, when in walked Josh Ritter. I wasn't actually sure it was Josh Ritter. But I said, "Hi, I'm Emily" and he said, "Hi, I'm Josh Ritter." So, yes, no question about it...Josh Ritter. And there we were alone in the Mountain Lion Tent.

But as soon as people could see that there were people (me and Josh Ritter) in the Mountain Lion tent they began to come. I was afraid it would be huge, but it was only fifteen or so people. Let me just say, that Josh Ritter looks like he's 15--maybe 20. He was very nervous. He said had never taught anything before and was quite unsure what to expect from us or what we expected from him. He said he had a bottle of whiskey in his bag should worse come to worst. But we were very easy and he was great.

He had seven or eight principles of songwriting to share. Two that have really stuck with are 1) never use cliches and 2) mulch your ideas. Cliches are the easy way out. We should strive to say things--convey our ideas--craft words so perfectly that we create the new cliches. As songwriters we should be writing so beautifully that people will borrow our wording.

The mulching is a little harder to explain. Josh said that he rewrites and edits...well...a lot. He said he works with an idea for as long as he can until he is certain it simply isn't going to work and then he mulches it. He visualizes chopping off the idea and letting it drop to the floor. Then, all his future ideas, all his potential ideas eat it. They cannibalize it. It becomes mulch or compost and feeds his future ideas. It's the conservation of energy--nothing is lost. Even though it may be frustrating to strike a thought you have put a lot of thought or energy into, it isn't lost. It feeds your future ideas. Parts of it may emerge later in another form.

We talked for a long time. It was very conversational, very participatory. Then someone (Sarah Sample, I think) suggested he sing a song for us and then tell us about his songwriting process. He played The Temptation of Adam, Kathleen and a new one called Folk Bloodbath. It was awesome. He closed his eyes and smiled and sang his heart out right there in the tent for the 15 of us. Ahhhhhh.....

Nate wanted more details, so I thought I'd tack some on.

Regarding The Temptation of Adam, Josh said that he had been mulling over the concept of this song for some time. He had the story. He specifically had the ending in mind--"I look at the great red button and I'm tempted"--and had to work backwards to fill in the story/events that precede it. He did a lot of research about missle silos. It sounds like he reads a lot. I think he was speaking specifically of this song when he talked about his rewriting and editing process. He will write the same song over from multiple points of view, with different rhyme schemes, in differet meters until he finds what works best. I can't say that I've ever been that committed to a song--to keep rewriting it?!

Another thing he talked about, which I loved, was debunking the myth of "the artist." A person doesn't have to be mentally ill, or medicated, or wacky to be an artist. Josh admonished us to be healthy, go for a run, get a good night's sleep and go buy groceries--"you'll write better." He also said that crediting being an artist or crediting "genius" for great songs does everyone a great disservice. It devalues the work of the songwriter. Songwriting is a craft, not an art--through discipline and work songwriters hammer together words into songs. To say that someone writes good songs because they are an artist implies that songs magically appear. It implies lack of effort. It implies ease. It also implies that you have to be a certain type of person (ie: unhealthy, medicated, wacky, up all night, messy, difficult, etc--you know the stereotype) to create good work. That was affirming to a fairly straight-laced gal like myself. It is also great to think that I can improve. It's not some gift and you take it or leave it. It's a craft and you learn it and practice it and improve it.

Regarding "Kathleen," Josh mentioned something about getting into a fight at a Dunkin' Donuts and somehow that tied in to the writing of the song. I never quite made the connection, but it was funny to imagine him getting in a fight at Dunkin' Donuts.

Clearly, I'm all out of good details.


Nate said...

Words cannot express my level of jealousy.

Please tell more! "The Temptation of Adam" is one of my favorites by him. What did he say about how he wrote it?

Seriously, thanks for the details Em. The whole thing sounds like an incredible experience.

Nate said...

Thanks for the new details Em!

emdunbar said...

you're welcome!