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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Josh Ritter works through his divorce on his deeply personal new album The Beast in Its Tracks
Letting it all hang out
on
Joyful songs grew out of melancholy feelings.
Joyful songs grew out of melancholy feelings.
Credit:Brian Stowell

Josh Ritter didn't let his 2011 divorce from fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes stop his creative process. In fact, the split - and the sequence of events that led up to it - prepared him to create his latest album, The Beast in Its Tracks.

But there was a moment of hesitation at the start.

"The first question was whether I was going to write about the divorce at all," says Ritter, who plays Overture Center's Capitol Theater on April 24. "I answered that one immediately. Of course I had to write about it. If I don't write about this, then what's the point of me writing about anything?"

Ritter knew he would offer up deeply personal material about a very raw subject. It would have been easy to make a bitter, melancholic record, but he wanted it to be more than that.

"I've heard lots of songs and records about divorce and splitting up, and I feel like the major flaw, what took me out of the moment, was they were striving to be about one emotion: anger," he says. "There wasn't even a thread of hope. I wanted to make sure this album didn't end up that way."

Ritter nailed that goal. Beast is decidedly upbeat, as many of the songs have a light, acoustic folk-pop vibe. On "A Certain Light," Ritter admits that he's "happy for the first time in a long time," and on "New Lover," he reveals how pleased he is that his ex has found someone new. "Joy to You Baby" sounds like it was written in a fit of euphoria.

The songs didn't start off quite so sunny, though.

"Most of the time, I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was worried about recording these songs," Ritter says. "At the start, my producer, Sam Kassirer, wisely said, 'We're going to put a microphone in front of you, record it, and get it all out there. Don't worry about what you want to cut.'"

This advice helped Ritter achieve catharsis without attaching it to any other goal. This removed an enormous amount of pressure and let him focus on the simple joy of making music.

"That was great because I got to sing all these angry songs, and I could still purge myself of all that stuff," Ritter says. "[It doesn't] rule my life anymore."

Ritter doesn't sing a bunch of ooey-gooey love songs on Beast, but his easygoing delivery shows that his spirit is in a more peaceful place now than it once was. In a way, Beast even represents a professional renaissance.

"These songs were meant to be very plain and just be themselves," Ritter says. "There was no grand scheme or motive, nothing where I was trying to be impressive."

This back-to-basics approach helped him tap into the pride and excitement he felt when recording his self-titled debut nearly 15 years ago.

"I think I had that same feeling back then, which is, 'These are my songs,' and not 'Here is a group of songs; I hope you like them,'" Ritter says. "That's a good spot to return to because you can't keep filling the balloon with hot air. You have to let it out sometimes and start over. This record was that moment for me."

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