Courtesy of Sam Kassirer
Though he has already released seven albums by age 36, guitarist and singer-songwriter Josh Ritter didn’t start playing the guitar until he was 17.
“One day I discovered the guitar and Johnny Cash … and I just knew,” Ritter said. “Some people know they want to be heart surgeons or the president. As soon as I discovered the guitar, it was just a wild, wild first love.”
Ritter is slated to play with The Royal City Band at Southern Theatre Monday at 8 p.m.
Determined to go to college, Ritter attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, to study neuroscience. He later changed his major to the self-created American History Through Native Folk Music and recorded his first album, “Josh Ritter,” at age 21.
Ritter said he loves writing music because people are constantly and intriguingly in a state of disarray.
“I believe people are funny and mean and crazy and good and evil and all these things mixed together, and it usually adds up to people being human and being just this big hot mess,” Ritter said.
He used that messiness of life as inspiration for his latest album. “The Beast In Its Tracks,” which released in March, is Ritter’s seventh studio album and his first since 2010’s “So Runs The World Away.”
Though Ritter describes the new album as “smaller in production and lyrically less dense” than his past ones, it is arguably his most personal work to date – he started recording the album in late 2010 after the breakup of his marriage to musician Dawn Landes.
“It was a difficult, nightmarish time for me,” Ritter said. “And I found one of the things I could keep doing was writing songs. They were songs that I was writing because I needed to, to make it through until springtime.”
Admitting the songs he initially wrote for the album were angry, Ritter said the tone of the songs changed over time as he started to feel less bitter.
“I started writing songs that were full of spite and hatred, and it just didn’t feel human to me,” Ritter said. “It felt wrong and didn’t feel like me. As time went by, the nightmare turned into something better. I met someone new … and real happiness started to come through.”
Sam Kassirer, who produced Ritter’s past three albums and also plays piano and keyboard in The Royal City Band, said Ritter initially struggled with deciding what direction the album would take.
“Writing angry songs was his first instinct, but I think he realized he’s better than that,” Kassirer said. “Eventually, he found his way to write about that experience from all these different crafty angles.”
Kassirer and Ritter spent a year and a half crafting “So Runs the World Away,” but they sped up the process for “The Beast In Its Tracks,” recording the album in less than two weeks.
“We wanted to go in a fresh, musically minimal way,” Kassirer said. “It was helpful for (Ritter) emotionally, and refreshing for me as a producer to move along quickly instead of so meticulously.”
Liam Hurley, who plays drums in The Royal City Band, said he thinks Ritter’s work ethic makes him a rare musician in a genre that is littered with similar-sounding artists.
“There are a lot of guys with a guitar, but he’s a very focused person,” Hurley said. “If he decides he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. It’s the same way with music – he’s attacked it with gusto and carved out a niche for himself that’s really impressive.”
Kassirer said he believes Ritter has an innate talent for music that can’t be taught.
“He has a really amazing musical personality, but he doesn’t have any musical training,” Kassirer said. “His ideas are always unexpected and creative so it’s really fun. He has this sort of natural ability to write songs.”
Sometimes, Ritter said, he wakes up in the morning with a song idea already formulated in his head. Most times, however, he is simply inspired by ordinary, everyday experiences that accumulate over time.
“I like the idea that you always carry a bucket around with you and you’re always pouring things into the bucket, and a song eventually kind of spills out,” Ritter said. “And you never get the song you want, so you always have to keep writing.”
Ritter said that desire to keep improving as a musician has perpetuated his drive to keep making new albums.
“You’ve got to feel a mojo about it,” Ritter said. “You’ve got to feel up to the challenge and up to the competition. You want to compete with yourself and do better than you’ve done before.”
Besides the chance to keep progressing musically, Ritter also points to touring as one of the most rewarding parts of being a musician.
“I love the experience of traveling – waking up someplace new and you don’t know what you’re going to get for breakfast,” Ritter said. “And I’m there with my best friends in the world.”
The Royal City Band, comprised of Ritter, Kassirer, Hurley, guitarist Austin Nevins and bassist Zack Hickman, has been playing together for 15 years. Though each member has his own side projects outside of the band, Kassirer said their strong friendship constantly drives them back together.
“We come back together because we love playing in a band and we love playing shows,” Kassirer said. “I feel like we’re so lucky because we have a good time together, onstage and off … which is as important as anything musically. It’s been, for all of us, what we love to do most.”
The Southern Theatre is located at 21 E. Main St. Tickets for the show can be purchased for $29 at the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) Ticket Center, all Ticketmaster outlets and www.ticketmaster.com.