On tour in Ireland five years ago, the American singer-songwriter Josh Ritter soaked up the applause of a modest crowd at his gig in Cork, packed away his guitar, and went to unwind at the bar next door. There was a local band on stage, and there was something immediately familiar about their music: they were playing his songs... all of his songs. But, he recalls with a smile, there were two big differences about his tribute band – the musicians were better than his, and the crowd was larger.
"It was a much bigger place than the one I'd been playing in, and it was balls to the wall inside," says Ritter, whose taste for outdoor exercise lends him a healthy glow that's unusual in a the normally nocturnal rock fraternity. "They'd taken all my songs and made them bigger and louder, and played them really well. At the time, I had a guitarist who played the electric guitar like you'd run a steam shovel, and these guys were amazing.
"I watched the whole set and they kicked ass. One of the songs actually made me cry, that's how good they were. Then they called us up and asked us to do a song, – and you could feel the silence coming off the crowd. It was just terrible."
That seems highly unlikely. At Ritter's pair of warm-up shows at a King's Cross pub last month, it was once again "balls to the wall" for a crowd that knew every word of every new song – which was quite something, since his latest album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, had yet to be released in the UK. And Ritter seemed to have picked up some tips from his tribute band: his musicians are ideal, and the new songs are bigger and louder than anything he's done before.
Ritter, who looks like the result of a Photoshop experiment merging a young Tom Waits with Rufus Wainwright, might not be a household name outside Ireland, but for those who have discovered his unique brand of intelligent songwriting, in which lyrical and musical complexity go hand in hand with humour and politics, he is something very special. Unusual, too: not many musicians, when asked to name their three favourite albums of the year, would cite a recording of the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin reading from her biography of Abraham Lincoln, alongside albums by the classical violinist Hilary Hahn and Bob Dylan.
Words, rather than music, are Ritter's richest source of inspiration: "Other people's music is great, that helps you a lot, but infinitely more words have been written, and the ideas are more fully expressed. You can unfold a song into a novel, but it's hard to get Anna Karenina into a song," he says. "Writers such as Umberto Eco or A S Byatt or Michael Ondaatje use language in this really poetic way that also unfolds into a narrative, and that's really cool. And non-fiction writers, too, like John McPhee [Coming into the Country] or Jon Krakauer [Under the Banner of Heaven] or William Least Heat-Moon, who wrote one of my favourite books, Blue Highways."
He adds, enthusiastically, that his favourite writers are Muriel Spark and Pete Dexter, whose novel Paris Trout is his "all-time favourite book".
Little surprise, then, to learn that books were a formative influence on the young Ritter, nor that he is currently working on his own novel. While his classmates were reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Josh had already moved on to C S Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, and at bedtime his parents – both academics – would expand his young mind by reading him the Huxleys and the evolutionary theories of Stephen Jay Gould.
Ritter's was an unusual background for a troubadour: the son of neuroscientists, he was raised in Moscow, Idaho, playing the violin from the age of four and attending the Lutheran church every Sunday. Moscow (population 21,291) is in a remote part of north-western America, a six-hour drive from Seattle and three hours from the Canadian border, and is home to the University of Idaho. As a child, Ritter recalls the exotic thrill of listening to Barbara Budd's offbeat political radio show, As It Happens, beamed into his home from across the border.
Ritter was planning to follow his parents into Academe when he belatedly discovered popular music at the age of 18, thanks to a chance encounter with Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline. Previously familiar only with the charts, he was so struck by Dylan's duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl from the North Country" that he went out, there and then, to buy a guitar and began writing songs. "It was like a revelation," he explains. "I no longer felt alone – my life had a reason."
Ritter had the good sense to finish his degree, but switched from biology to American history and music, writing his thesis on what popular songs tell us about public attitudes.
He's a firm believer that his parents' intellectualism is as much a creative outlet as his own artistic bent. "I think there's far less of a difference between scientists and artists than is often assumed," he argues. "Scientists pick up on everything in culture. My parents are fairly simple in terms of taste, but they've always been more about following what your mind is doing than anything else. As neuroscientists, they're always asking, why are you thinking what you're thinking?"
There's a rigour to Ritter's work ethic that reflects his scientific background. He follows a strict routine each day: rising early, running (while listening to a book or a play) and working for two hours "just to get the ideas going – I feel you're smarter in the morning", before making lunch and attending to business. In the evening he makes dinner and watches a movie, and only then does he put his ideas into action. "Around 9pm is when I realise that the ideas I had in the morning weren't that good but they showed me the way to this other idea, and that's when stuff gets cool."
He's not so much an instinctive songwriter, more a craftsman: he thinks very carefully about not just his songs – all of them written in the first person – but the overall themes of his albums, as well the instrumentation, the musicians, the producer and the location of the studio. Previous albums have been recorded in remote backwaters in Seattle and France, the latest in a farmhouse in Maine in midwinter. "I like rural places because I don't like distractions – no TV or video games," he says. "My instinct points me in the right direction, but then I want to be sure that what I'm doing has an intent to it – I think intent is the most important thing."
Ritter moved to Boston after college, and set about breaking into the music business. He did odd jobs in order to leave evenings free to call promoters, and weekends for gigging and recording his self-financed debut album, which he then sold at gigs. At one such performance he was spotted by visiting Irish band The Frames, who invited him to support them back home. He jumped at the chance.
Ritter's intimate songs and easy manner struck an instant chord with Irish-music fans, and he soon had a hit single – and, as mentioned, his own tribute band. In the US, however, he seems destined to remain one of those acts adored by the critics, who often compare him to Dylan and Springsteen, but maybe a bit too clever for the mainstream.
To which Ritter says, wearily, "The last thing I want to be is another Dylan. What's the point?"
Josh Ritter tours the UK from 16-24 November (www. joshritter. com); 'The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter' is on RCAReuse content