Literate songwriter Josh Ritter finds time for fans

Paul Flahive

On stage, Josh Ritter is floating. Anyone attending his show three years ago can tell you: He looks like the happiest man in the room, with a giant, aw-shucks grin and charisma bursting from every pore.

He said on the phone from his home in Brooklyn that the jubilation he feels on stage gives him the opportunity to be the person he wants to be the rest of his life. He said that up there, everything falls away and he is concentrating to such a degree that he ends up in a beautiful, slow place.

"It's like when you dive in, when you are racing, when you swim and when you look up and you can see people cheering, but it is silent," Ritter said.

The Idaho-born singer/songwriter is in the middle of a return visit to Alaska that has resulted in three sold-out shows, including Saturday's at Discovery Theatre.

Ritter considers the fact that people still show up to see him a miracle, which might be why Ritter makes a point of sticking around after most of his shows to sign whatever is handed to him and get photos with whomever wants one.

"Many times, Josh will have hundreds of people waiting to talk to him," said Doug Rice, who started a Josh Ritter fan site that has since been incorporated into the songwriter's official site. "And because he gives every fan so much devoted attention, the venue must close down for the night. And even recently that didn't stop him -- he took everyone outside onto the sidewalk and continued to talk, sign autographs and even hug every fan until the very last one."

Ritter described his touring schedule as intense but pretty common for a musician. "I try not to keep count," he said with a laugh. "It's sort of like looking down when you are on a tight rope."

Ritter carefully chooses how he says things and his songs reflect that, garnering comparisons to wordsmiths like Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. Paste magazine listed by him as one of the greatest living songwriters, so it isn't a surprise to find out how devoted to his words he is, describing their importance the way engineers describe load-bearing walls.

"Everybody has wild dreams at night, but unless you are able to write them down in a way that you can express what you are feeling, all the wild imagination in the world doesn't do you any good," he said.

In harnessing that imagination, Ritter has not been content to stay put when he has found a sound he knows will work. You find big contrasts between 2006's contemplative "The Animal Years" and "The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter," which followed a year later. The latter album, his fifth studio release, was recorded in a two-week frenzy and offers a more rollicking approach.

His latest album, "So Runs the World Away," is another departure, with more instrumentals and a larger, more deliberate feel.

Ritter admits to wanting to push the envelope and to the differences in albums. He hopes his fans trust him enough to go along with him on these journeys.

"They are giving you money, and they aren't giving it to you so you can get a tan and eat fancy yogurt," he said. "They're giving it to you because they want you to do more stuff, and doing more means not only just putting out more stuff and writing more, but really trying to take some chances with it and take them to new places."

One of the chances Ritter took in 2011 was publishing his first novel, "Bright's Passage," the story of a soldier in World War I who returns to the states with an angel in tow. He described the story as a comedy, but it does have several dark scenes of war and violence.

Ritter is obviously proud of the accomplishment. Last year was one of the most intense years of his life, he said, with the publishing of "Brights" and the unraveling of the musician's marriage. People may remember the opening act from his last trip to Alaska with Dawn Landes, his then-girlfriend. He doesn't dwell on the divorce in the interview, quickly focusing on how ready he is to start the new year, which he said will include a new album. He is writing another book as well.

While the artist regularly performs with a band, Ritter will play a solo set in Anchorage, and he's happy about it. While he loves his band, he doesn't love the idea of never getting the chance to play solo the way he used to.

"It's like going back to your hometown."

By Paul Flahive
Daily News correspondent