JOSH RITTER

The Beast in Its Tracks

My marriage ended on November 1, 2010.  It was a cold, blustery morning in Calgary, Alberta, and I was on tour.  I hung up the phone and looked around me.

I had no experience with divorce.  My parents had been together for over forty years.  My marriage had lasted eighteen months.  I felt quite certain I could walk out in front of a bus at any moment. Contemplating suicide feels like being granted a special power.  That night, and for the next three weeks, I went on stage as usual, smiled, and kept away from bridges.

I came back to Brooklyn and a good friend gave me a place to stay. The holidays came and went.  I wandered all over town.  I drank a lot. Someone said they had seen me wearing a cowboy hat, but I don’t remember that.  I hope it looked good on me.  I wrote, because that’s how I try to deal with everything in life, but the songs that came
were unfocused, full of hatred and self-pity.  I could have recorded them, but these lines I was singing weren’t songs yet, just stillborn, terrifying things. Far from allowing me some release, seeing them lying there on the page before me they only made me lonesome. They were painfully personal, and I’d always disliked autobiography in songwriting. My marriage had fallen apart, but the same thing, and worse, happened to people all the time.  All heartbreak is awful – my broken heart wasn’t unique. But these songs were helping me get through the night and I didn’t have the strength to care or question.

Heartbreak comes on worst when the sun goes down.  In the daylight hours you can muddle through, believe that you’re finally through the worst of it, but come sundown there’s that old beast at your heels again.  Some nights, working on the songs helped me to stay ahead of it, other nights the heartbreak caught up to me and I made a pretty tattered picture shambling around town.  A doctor prescribed me sleeping pills.  The nightmares were fantastically horrifying; I wrote about them.  I flew to New Orleans and found a store filled with vengeance powders and wrote about that as well.

I met a girl.  She’d been through her own share of hard times as well. She told me she loved me so many times that I started to believe her. I wrote some songs about how good that felt.

Suddenly a year had passed.

I realized that I had more new songs than I’d ever had at one time. Far from the grand, sweeping feel of the songs on So Runs the World Away, these new ones felt like rocks in the shoe, hard little nuggets of whatever they were, be it spite, remorse, or happiness.  I told all this to Sam Kassirer, my producer and friend.  If we recorded these songs, which felt so personal, their starkness needed a corresponding
simplicity of production.  I hadn’t composed this stuff, I’d scrawled it down, just trying to keep ahead of the heartbreak.  They needed to be recorded like that.  We needed to work fast, make decisions quickly, keep the songs as spare as they could be kept, and above all never allow ourselves to blunt the sharp edges.  Some of the songs were mean or evil.  So be it.  Some were full of sarcasm or giddiness. Sam knew how to let them stand as they were written while somehow making them larger.  Over several sessions, with my compatriots from the Royal City Band and my great friend Josh Kaufman, we recorded The Beast in Its Tracks.

Listening to it now makes me very proud.

I moved in with the girl who told me she loved me enough times that I started to believe her.  She was rattling around in the kitchen. I’d just finished writing one of the last songs on the record, “Joy to You Baby.” I took a beer and went up to sit on the roof. It was still an hour until dark, and mares’ tails were gold in the sky. The song was all about forgiveness, and it was true.  Mostly.

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