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Testing his chemistry

Fri., July 18, 2008

Ritter incorporates history, science into music

For a revered folk balladeer who is often compared to the likes of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen, Josh Ritter is kind of a nerd.

His fifth full length album, 2007’s “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter,” show the Moscow, Idaho, singer-songwriter’s penchant for historical heroines with lyrical references to Florence Nightingale, Calamity Jane and Joan of Arc.

And 2006’s “The Animal Years,” was political satire bathed in love songs.

On his next album there’s a chance Ritter may be ready to drop some science.

Creating space after his last studio effort, Ritter found that his interests were attracted to the world of physics.

“There are tons of metaphors in physics that apply physically – laws we can see happening – where something like love is almost more of a metaphor than gravity. Love pulls things together but it’s more nebulous than the force of gravity,” Ritter said during a telephone interview while visiting a friend in New York.

Ritter’s affinity for electrons comes from being raised around science. His parents are both neuroscientists who teach at Washington State University and his brother studies computer science at the University of Washington. Ritter briefly studied neuroscience at the prestigious Oberlin College before changing majors to America History through Narrative Folk Music.

“Studying music allowed me to study everything. You can explain anything to yourself through music,” Ritter said. “My parents didn’t think I as crazy. They love what they do and they saw that I was getting obsessive about something I loved.”

These days Ritter is performing musical experiments by testing his chemistry with classical violinist Hilary Hahn. The two played a series of live exchanges in New York in May.

“It’s an odd thing to play with someone so good and trying to find a common language to set up a show and play to strengths without watering each other down,” Ritter said. “It’s an experiment we’re going to keep doing.”

On his current tour Ritter is sharing the bill with another equally respected singer-songwriter, Andrew Bird.

“Hillary Hahn and Andrew are both the type of musicians you stand back and watch. He’s a hurricane,” Ritter said.

Bird is like a one-man orchestra accompanying himself on violin through looping glockenspiel, guitar and singing and whistling. He’s been praised by The New York Times, The Onion, Pitchfork, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Paste.

Expect Andrew Bird and Josh Ritter to share the stage for a song or two when they appear Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the Bing Crosby Theater, 901 W. Sprague Ave. Tickets are $25, through TicketsWest,, (509) 459-5299.

Nightwatch tracks the local live music scene.


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