Josh Ritter's 'Sermon' burns bright

How the 'big, embarrassing things' make life easier

Josh Ritter's favorite part of every show he plays is when new songs start feeling like old ones. Not in a monotonous kind of way, but in the sense that they share a common spark with his older numbers. "Live shows are the most sacred part of the whole deal," Ritter says. "I often think you're carrying a little match that's lit from one show to the next, and you're using that to build your fire. You have to take care of the match, you have to take care of the fire, and uphold the trust that the audience is giving you."

That spark is evident when Ritter hits the stage, running through songs with a near-constant smile that is as much a part of his performances as his crisp vocals and poetic lyricism. But the comfort and candor with which the Moscow, Idaho-born songwriter approaches each performance came gradually. When Ritter first started out, he was so nervous that he had a hard time remembering the lyrics to whole songs. "It felt like when you go with a friend to a party that you haven't been invited to," Ritter says. "You're not sure whether you belong there, you're not sure how long to stay, you're not sure who the people are ... It's a constant form of social anxiety, and it takes a while to realize that your job, as a musician and a performer, is to take the chances that don't get taken regularly. The stage is like a metaphor for the rest of life. You're supposed to fall down. You're supposed to get up. You're supposed to not let the big, embarrassing things overwhelm you."

Ritter's writing style also seeks metaphorical ways of explaining life. On his latest record, Sermon on the Rocks, religious imagery abounds despite Ritter's personal distance from any particular religion. "I prefer to believe in my friends and in music and whiskey and family," he says. "I don't consider myself conventionally religious in any way. But that doesn't mean I don't find the stories fascinating. They're oftentimes bloody and strange and one of the only ways our culture talks about itself — describes itself.

"As a songwriter, I'm always looking for the shortest way to describe an emotion or a situation," he adds.

Ritter's previous effort, The Beast in Its Tracks, is a reaction to his divorce. Sermon on the Rocks is a more lighthearted record. Its versatility emulates the stories handed down in religious texts, touching on universal emotions. "Homecoming" and "Where the Night Goes" capitalize on feelings of returning to where you came from. "I don't think there's anything more primal in our memory than coming home," Ritter says. "It's always a strange thing when you step off a plane or when you get out of the car for the first time. It's instant spike to the brain."

Familiarity is captured in the "Homecoming" video, which stitches together images from fans' ideas of what it means to come home. Lyrically, Ritter's songs rely on strong imagery, often describing vivid landscapes or capturing the essence of an environment before infusing it with emotion and nostalgia. "Writing a song or writing visuals is like looking into a tarot deck," he says. "The images are there and they're concrete and mysterious, but they're also very plain. I close my eyes and whatever flies through that kind of inner eye in your mind, just write it down. Not all of it will work, but those big, strong, colorful images are ones that I don't question. I consider them part of a subconscious that needs to be expressed."

That expression has taken many forms, from writing records to penning a novel and bringing his transcendent energy to the stage. But his message bears the same transitive property he admires in religion's storytelling tradition, and as he brings his art to a different city every night, he is actively and constantly inviting his audience to come home — whatever that means in the moment.