This man is fabulous. A Canadian song machine he is a real life Mister Singer. One Who Knows.
On a yellow day Luis and I brought some gifts along for Josh in a bid to encourage him to expose his cogs of songwriting genius. With the help of Kathleen the strawberry plant and some lovely Norfolk cider, we managed to discover what makes him tick.
(NB. Josh is now very happily married to Dawn Landes...a super bird for his nest.Yipee)
A: If you were a bird, which one would you be?
I would be… a bird of paradise.
A: Mmmmm, good choice. With your wings, where would you travel to?
I would stick pretty close to home. But I would, um that’s a good question, where would I go? I’ve been everywhere, so I don’t know. I would probably go and spend a little time in Spain, I’d probably go to Hawaii for a couple of weeks (chortles)
A: Well I suppose if you were a bird of paradise you’d be born out somewhere nice wouldn’t you.
Yeah I’d probably go somewhere snowy for vacation. Be a snowbird.
A: You might freeze though and all your feathers would drop out. It would be difficult.
It would be hard. The life of a bird of paradise isn’t as easy as they make it sound.
L: And you’d have to try not to get poached.
A: Or stuffed. What would you most like to experience in your life as a bird?
I’d probably like to raise a family. I’d have a nest and a nice mother bird there. A chick (hahahaa)
A: Where would you base your nest?
In a cave.
A: A dark cave, or a beautiful cave in the mountains?
Probably a crystal cave of some kind.
A: Oh that would be good! Kind of along the lines of your lady bird friend- which historical heroin would you go and sing for to pass your days?
Oh wow. As a bird, or just me?
I’m a big fan of Joan of Arc. She’s the one. She’s the one for me. Someday we’ll meet.
A: Whilst she’s burning away you could sing songs of woe to her.
Yeah, yeah. And before that we’d sing love songs together. It would be great. (Looks highly impressed at self). I like the hard to get historical heroines.
A: I bet she was a lesbian.
You think so?
A:I dunno. I was just saying it to disappoint you really. (hah) If you were a bird, you could only sing, so would you still express yourself through songs if you couldn’t have words?
Yeah, I think that’s right. If you couldn’t fall in love why would you have any music, what would you need it for? I mean love or dying, those are the things you need music for the most.
A:What about everyday living, or would you say that’s aspiring to love?
I think music is like a pill, like a medicine. You need it at certain times and other times you don’t. And when you need it, you really need it. That’s why a song is so great because it’s like a little pill that you can take for a time when you really need it. I always listen to a Leonard Cohen song called The Future whenever I drive into New York, I always need that right then- it’s the perfect song for that moment.
A:Are you going to go see him on his tour?
I would love to.
A:I’m seeing him twice
Are you really! Is he playing here?
A:At the o2 Arena. But he’s also playing at the Big Chill festival.
Oh my god.
A:You should try and go along.
I think he’s probably playing a lot in Canada. I would love to see him. That’s awesome. What’s your favourite song by Leonard Cohen? You’ll love him when you see him, he’s amazing.
A: In so many ways I love his older, gentler songs. But when he hits it with albums like I’m Your Man it’s just fantastic. I couldn’t choose a favourite.
L: If you did go to a festival, do you recon you’d be recognised?
Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve been to festivals where that’s happened but it might just be the big hair…
L: Because you’ve performed at Oxygen haven’t you?
L: That’s a major Irish festival. I’ve read that you see Dublin as a second home? Because you have quite a huge fan base there.
Yeah, the Irish thing is kind of where I started you know, I started with the Frames, Damien Rice and those guys, and kind of got my introduction through them. So yeah, it’s definitely a second home. I’ve got lots of great friends there- really cool, happy people. Do you guys go there ever?
A: I went there once, two years ago. We had booked a hostel but we ended up only staying there a few nights, all the others we stayed with new friends. It’s quite expensive…but brilliant. I’d love to go back.
Kind of back on track to Leonard Cohen…say on your flights as a bird you found the bone of song, which songs do you think would be on it for you personally?
I think that all songs ever written would be on it. It’s kind of like religion or anything else; there was an original thing and then it kind of grew up and grew out. All songs are connected to each other.
A: It’s the same with stories
Yeah, just different combinations. It’s like the Rosetta Stone, there’s a key to unlocking all the language in the world, right there. And you can go from that to anything. It’s the same with song. Leonard Cohen said if he’d lived three hundred years ago he’d be the same person, just singing in a different language. You’d sing about love, god and war. What else is there, really. All the songs in the world have that.I think it’s odd that a lot of the pop songs now are just about love, and it’s love without any God and without any war…it’s empty in the middle. Not that it’s bad, it’s just that there’s a lot of stuff that you could sing about in pop songs, a lot of things that don’t get sung about.
A: Kind of relating to stories…if you could be any character out of any book, who would you be?
I’d be Huck Fin out of Huckleberry Fin.
A: Any particular reason for that?
I just really like him; I think he’s the quintessential American character. He wants to do good- sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. He tries hard. And he knows that there’s no answer to any problem, or any ethical problem, or anything that doesn’t come out of from what you tell yourself you believe in. He doesn’t look to God, or any figures in authority, he just kind of looks inside himself and sees what he believes. And he’s also really funny. I really love Huck Finn.
L: Do you think he reflects yourself at all?
I’d hope so. Most of the times I’ve gone to religion or authority figures for answers, I haven’t gotten the ones I thought were right, you know.
A: That might be if you haven’t thought it through as well. Often if you just go over something again and again you find the answers anyway. Especially if you are writing music…the answers will just come out.
Yeah, when someone gives you a definite answer it’s like somebody’s offering you a shortcut to something. And it’s like, you could take the shortcut and it would be really easy, but it doesn’t necessarily take you to the place you want to go. Though a lot of people are like that.
A: I suppose that’s how society has to work. People have to have easy answers and easy ways to do things and then they just live and then they die, then it all goes round in a cycle again.
Yeah, I think there are a lot of people that that’s true for, definitely.
A: Well, it’s great if you’re happy to do that.
Huckleberry Fin, he braced the law over and over again, it’s a story of a guy helping a slave to escape. If you listen to what people had told him he wouldn’t have helped the guy escape.
A: Sometimes things have to be broken. Well, a lot of the time actually.
L: I was listening to your album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter today. In ‘wait for love’, is it about a person who is kind of with somebody as a quick replacement for someone else they’re too impatient to wait for? What’s it about?
Well I was thinking about when you’re in love with somebody, and the things you do can be very similar to each other, just like the way you kiss, or the way you hold each other. But it’s not about that, it’s about being generous. It’s about someone being generous and not trying to make you into someone that you’re not and withholding their love from you. I wanted to pick out how sometimes you just have to wait for the right person, and that’s the hardest part. It’s easy to find somebody who’ll just hold it, but to hold it right is the hard part.
A: It’s like the answers to the questions, you’ve just got to wait for it to work out and fall into place.
Yeah, definitely, yeah.
L: Does that come from your own experience?
Definitely.(chortles) My on-going experience. Definitely for sure.
L: In ‘The Temptation of Adam’, two people are in a missile solo. I like the line about the oak tree…
Oh yeah, thanks! I was proud of that.
L: If you were in a missile silo, who would you most want to be in there with?
I think with that song, I dunno, there’s that moment of being in love where everything is perfect, and it’s not about real life or anything, it’s just about total stars in your eyes, and that can only exist for one, tiny little stretch of time.
L: Is that what you meant by saying it wouldn’t work out?
Yeah. It’s like the Garden of Eden or something. You could take all the religion out of the Garden of Eden story and say this is like two people who are falling in love, and for just a little stretch of time, it’s perfect. And then they start to discover things about each other, and things can never be the same. Being in the Garden of Eden is like being in a missile silo, where everything is in a climate controlled, sealed paradise. A little concrete cylinder way underneath the ground, and for a little while it’s perfect, but you know that it couldn’t last up above where there’s other forms of boredom- standing in line to get a ticket, or paying your bills, waiting to connect to the internet…
L: Everyday stuff just gets in the way. The stuff that makes up everyday life.
It is, yeah. When you think about some of these people that manage to do these amazing, huge things in their lives, and you ask them if you watch TV. They don’t have time. Its’ kind of amazing.
A: There are some good things on TV though.
Oh yeah, for sure.
L: I like documentaries.
I grew up without TV so I watch it when it’s around…
L: It’s kind of the same with me, I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch something, unless it was really really good. Was the idea of being underground in a bunker inspired by any fears of nuclear war, or anything like that…is that why you put those people in that situation?
Yeah, I was just loving this writer called Meryll Spark, she writes these great books where there’s a very definite ‘something is coming’; there’s a timeline, there’s a mountain that’s about to explode, you know someone’s going to die. She tells you at the beginning of the book that this guy’s going to die but you don’t know how or when, and that’s cool, because it gives you a certain space of time where something could happen. And you know when something happens that the story’s going to be over, but I really like that kind of feeling- just end it with a bang you know. But I mean, I’ve never been that worried about it, but where I grew up there’s definitely some spots where you don’t know what’s buried under the ground.
L: Does the earth upset you at all, what’s around you…how do you feel about the way human’s are?
I don’t think that humans are any different now to what they will ever be. I’m no socialist, I just think that people are people, you know. You can’t look at a grizzly bear eating a deer and not think that we are pretty much the same. People do what’s most convenient to them, and then they repent. In the words of somebody better than me. You’re going to do what you’re going to do. We’re in a very lucky place here in the first world to be able to make all sorts of moral pronouncements, but when you’ve got nothing to eat or nowhere to go, decisions are based on that, not anything else. That’s how I feel and I think things could go bad, or they could stay the same. But I don’t believe in a ‘golden age’, I don’t believe in people having an enlightening period or anything.
L: It’s a constant struggle for everyone really, all the time. Nature.
A: We’re always going to be looking for the same things. Looking to survive. Experiencing love and death. Bringing love and death back into it, ha.ha.
Yeah, somebody who has everything could have just as many existential dilemmas as somebody who has nothing. But that doesn’t mean they have to be running away.
A: Sort of along those lines, I’ve kind of noticed a recurring theme in your songs about modes of transport coming in and ruining something for the protagonist of the song
Yeah, yeah yeah.
A: Obviously, industrialisation changed the landscape of the world; do you think it would be possible, well I think it would be possible eventually, but do you think we’ll ever come round to living back like…
A: Yep, do you think humans would submit to that?
I don’t think it’s a matter of submit. I think there’s a time when the world will obviously be limited. I don’t believe that we’re going to change our ways with fossil fuels until we run out of them. Then I think we’ll change. That’s the way I think it’s going to happen, as a cynic or…I’m not a naturally cynical person, I just think that’s how it’s going to be, because that’s how things seem to be riding. But I do think that the great thing is that things happen, we’re adaptable. We’re not necessarily adaptable from moment to moment, willingly, but we do learn to adapt, in the same way that a coyote would. We’ll figure it out as time goes on, and you know, maybe not all of us will, but…
A: You started your degree in Scotland, in folk and old roots music; do you think with the way the music trends are going that it’s circling back to music like that? Obviously there’s always going to be an undercurrent, but I’ve certainly noticed that in more popular music that people are exposed to, do you think it’s circling back to people finding those older roots?
I think that there’s so much music that’s just available now at the click of a button, that those people who are interested and are so inclined to find it in their own room without even going to a record store. It still passes on by word of mouth, I mean I don’t think it circles back, I think it’s always evolving in a direction. There’s no core to return to.
A: What about the use of it, as inspiration?
Perhaps, that’s true. I think every ten years or so that happens and there’s a revival. I don’t think it ever goes there to return and stay, it kind of circles.
A: Always evolving, like humans.
It’s not getting better, or worse, it’s just kind of returning over and over again, which is cool. It’s good for careers too, because if you have a long career of like forty years, you can come back every ten years or so (laughy laugh)
A: Do you think that’s what will happen to you in ten years?
I hope so! I think that’s the key. George Washington said that the secret to success is survival. And that’s getting harder and harder these days because of bands that come up and go. You even see it on myspace. They play some shows to like 20,000 people, then they’re gone, they just disappear. And if you can survive, if you don’t have to play to large groups of people, you can just play…
A: Just keep consistent.
Yeah, I hope.
A: This is a bit unrelated, but if you ran your own radio show, who would you have as your weekly slot to play?
Oh, I would have Tom Waits. (with much resolution.) I’d bring him in every week. I would love to be cohorts with him. I would say something, and then he would say something really funny. I’d be the normal guy, he’d be the crazy one. Because you always have one crazy guy.
A: Have you ever thought of doing a radio show?
No, I never have.
L:You obviously are a big fan of radio though.
I love doing notes from the road, I love writing stuff about everything. But I’d never thought about radio though.
A: You should do a show from the road.
It would be cool
L: A rodeo.
A: It would save you writing it…more environmental…no paper?
L: Do you do anything environmental, to change your impact?
Yeah, actually, I’ve just started this thing called 1% to the planet with some folks I know. Basically every year my company, which is a touring company, we give 1% of everything we make to this thing called 1% to the planet. They basically help me research environmental charities that I then give money to. 1% doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is. Especially with the organisation we have, a lot of money goes in, and a lot goes out, and there’s a little bit of money on the top that you can live on, but we give it everything we make. And that’s good. I love it. It’s the beginning for me.
A: We often ask bands about whether you can really do anything touring, like Radiohead who stopped effectively stopped touring to save emissions, but I think really that it’s for the greater good if you’re touring around and playing music…
It’s interesting, there are ways you can do it- but someone like me, I can’t afford to not tour. I have to tour to feed myself, you know, records don’t sell, nobody buys records. So you’ve got to go tour, and if you don’t tour, then you can’t support a band.
A: Have you thought of doing an un-venued tour? Nina Violet played at my house this year as part of a house party tour, and Willy Mason has done a house party tour too…
I started doing that, but I like to play in a venue when I know what the sound’s going to be like, and more than a few people can come. Willy’s a cool guy, and I think that might work better for him. And especially like… If I was playing at your house, that would be great, but there’s some people where it’s a different story…(chortle)
Interview- Ali Hewson & Luis Forte; Words- Ali Hewson