Writing songs for a new record, Josh Ritter found himself drawn repeatedly to the idea of storms. There were literal thunder-and-rain-and-lightning squalls. There were personal struggles that unfolded with the same unpredictable tumult of nature. And there were the external forces in society that collected like thunderheads, dark gray walls portending a fury to come.
Ritter didn't set out to work in that thematic realm, or even necessarily notice those recurring images as he wrote and wrote, absorbed like usual in a process that's so minutely focused that bigger connections only emerge later. Once they did, he settled on the album title Gathering, pointing not only to the rise of those storms, but to the particular feeling, a collecting of energy for its subsequent release, in this batch of songs that mirrored a storm gathering.
"A lot of times things don't emerge until after," he says. "What I found with Gathering is the thing that seemed really important was this idea of storms. There are a number of storms on the record. I grappled with that idea. I look for connections with the songs and that's one that continually seemed to come up."
The songwriting process for what would become Gathering generated 30 songs. Newly inspired after collaborating with Bob Weir on the Grateful Dead singer's 2016 solo album Blue Mountain, Ritter sought to break away from any past expectations or old ways of working, experimenting and reaching out in new directions. He tried to cut loose any songwriting voice that characterized his prior work, working to make his ninth record more adventurous.
"One of my favorite parts of making a record is the moments after," he says. "The things that you write about are not visible in the moment you're working on them. They're far more subconscious. In my case, I find I'm writing with a speed that doesn't bear introspection on what all of it means. When I'm real in the flow I have to just keep on working."
On 2015's Sermon on the Rocks, Ritter sought to make an exuberant record, what he called "messianic oracular honky-tonk," with big, energetic, Technicolor songs that often looked at questions of religion and how people treat one another. While not necessarily a response to that album, Ritter set out on Gathering to turn in an entirely different direction.
"Each project influences the one that comes after," he says. "I think that it's in the wake of a record that you get perspective of what you want to do next."
Part of what defined Sermon on the Rocks was Ritter's very specific vision for what the album should sound like, which led him to invite less collaboration.
"When it came time to make Gathering, I wanted to continue to work with Trina Shoemaker, the producer, and also bring in the ideas of the guys in my band who I've played with so long and get their unique musical views on the songs and work with them as an ensemble more," he says. "There were moments on the record I was certainly writing for the band. I could hear the electric bass solo on 'Friendamine' or hear the organ sounds on 'When Will I Be Changed.' I knew what my band members could do and I was so excited to hear what they would come up with. That was a fun product of the sessions."
Working as a co-writer with Weir on Blue Mountain, a collection of cowboy songs that evoke the complex history of the American West, Ritter got to glimpse the creative process of a musician known most for his improvisational nature. That record allowed Ritter to refocus his creative energy on how to make the most out of moments of inspiration.
"Bob was this sage. He's been through all this amazing stuff. He's lived his life in music in this huge way that permeates American culture," Ritter says. "Working with Bob was getting a chance to work with somebody who is amazing at capturing moments. He follows things and follows a feeling and a moment for as long as it will go. And then he changes it up. Working with him was a chance to see someone working very freely and openly. I needed to have that and he showed it to me, how to operate freely and without internal editorial."
Weir returned the favor, singing a guest vocal on "When Will I Be Changed," a folk-gospel tune that makes for Gathering's most evocative and emotional moment.
"When I was done with the song and felt like I had it where I wanted it, I couldn't let it go," Ritter says. "I realized that Bob's voice would be this luminous presence on the record. He has this voice of real experience and it's so beautiful. It gave the song a depth that I couldn't have given to it and I'm so grateful."
Gathering balances introspective songs like "When Will I Be Changed" with more outward looking and character-driven songs, like "Showboat," about a braggadocios man covering up for his own insecurities. As an album, Ritter says it's "the product of a strange and interesting time."
"With Sermon on the Rocks, it was more of a portent of a feeling of unease. On this record, what felt pent-up now feels released," Ritter says. "The record is steeped on the moment it was made in. That's one of the things about making records that's so exciting to me. They each capture a time period, a moment in my life, but also a moment in our time."
So various storms that raged across 2016 and 2017, from the pages of the newspapers to the 41-year-old songwriter's day-to-day struggles, come Gathering as one album for Ritter.
"Each one of them is a thing that, while it will pass, is totally unpredictable when it finds you," he says. "The weather inside our heads, or outside our heads, is so mercurial." ■