Josh Ritter got the sound advice he needed from Jason Isbell
Josh Ritter says he wanted to shake things up in making his new record, “Fever Breaks.” He did it by changing who he worked with: Instead of the longtime musical cohorts who collaborate with him as the Royal City Band, he made it with Jason Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit. The record offers a collection of songs that often center on attempts to overcome obstacles — be it living with lingering heartache (the album’s most gorgeous moment, “I Still Love You (Now and Then)”), striving to become a better human being (“New Man”), or reckoning with the current political situation (the Woody-esque “All Some Kind of Dream”). As Ritter sings them with Isbell and company playing alongside, what emerges has a weightiness and gravity and a tough, electric edge that doesn’t just sound like Josh Ritter, or just like Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, but like a melding of the two musical personalities. Ritter brings his just-launched tour with the Royal City Band to the Wilbur Theatre for two shows this weekend; we reached him by phone ahead of those dates to talk about “Fever Breaks” and the experience of making it.
Q. How did the collaboration with Jason Isbell come about?
A. I’ve been making music with the same people generally over the last 20 years, and I came to the realization that I needed to experience being in a room with new people, that it was important for my musical life. Before I did anything, I wanted to get the blessing of my amazing band; that was very important to me. In terms of making the record itself, I had the chance to be out on the road with Jason a couple of years ago and really got the chance to know him and his family and band and their musical and life choices. So when I started to think about working with new people, he jumped to the top of the list.
Q. So you had already decided that you wanted to work with new folks, and then it was a matter of deciding on who you thought would be a good fit?
A. I would say that I turned into that question in reverse. I decided that I wanted to work with somebody who was a peer, who kind of shared the same space behind the microphone, you know? And over the course of time, getting to know Jason, I realized that I wanted to work with him. I asked him, and he suggested that we work with his band. When he suggested that, it was the first time that I ran up against the idea that if I was going to do this, if I was going to go for it on this record and live up to the expectations that I had for myself, then I was going to have to go all the way, take all the chances. So I said yes.
Q. You wrote all of the songs on the record, so it wasn’t a songwriting collaboration.
A. Not in the normal sense. But when we started to work with each other, I came down to Nashville and joined Jason and Amanda [Shires, Isbell’s wife and a member of the 400 Unit] on their porch and played them a bunch of the stuff that I was working on. And in several spots they really pushed me, saying this is good but you could take it farther or expand on this. That was a kind of relationship that I hadn’t had in the past with records.
Q. Apart from making the record with a different band, how do you think that “Fever Breaks” differs from its predecessors?
A. I think the major difference is I wanted it to feel like a reflection of the moment. I guess the record that it has the most kinship with is “The Animal Years.” On that record I was trying to describe an anger that I had, and with this record I think that I was reaching for some of the same words to try to understand the moment. So I guess that’s a long way of saying that it’s more instinctual.
Q. You’ve said in the past that you don’t set out to make concept albums, but that your albums often seem to end up with a certain coherence nonetheless. How would you articulate that in regard to the new record?
A. When I had the songs, I needed to do a couple different things: come up with a title, and track-list the record. In doing so, I had to look at what we’d recorded and how the songs hung together. It forced me to see that the record has a sort of darkness at its heart. And rather than try to assuage that, I decided that I was going to look at that fully. It’s a record about the anxiety of the moment, the preoccupations of the moment you’re in.
Q. That goes back to the instinctual character of the record.
A. Yeah. There’s a lot of violence on the record, and there’s a lot of desperation. I didn’t want to make that the overarching theme, but I also didn’t want to look away from it.
Q. You made the record with Jason Isbell and his band, but you are about to tour behind it with your band, the Royal City Band. How does that dynamic work?
A. One of the great things about songs is their mutability. I’m lucky enough to have these master musicians in my life, and they’re going to take these songs and rework them again into something new.
At the Wilbur Theatre, May 11 (sold out) and May 12, 8 p.m. Tickets from $32, 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.