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DAVID GREENE, host:

When Josh Ritter started working on his new album, artistic panic hit. He'd lost the spark, as he calls it. After a successful decade as a touring singer/songwriter with a loyal fan base, Josh Ritter wondered if he could still write songs that meant anything.

His journey to find that box of matches in the dark, as he put it, eventually led to his latest project, the album out this month called "So Runs the World Away."

Mr. JOSH RITTER (Singer/Songwriter): I was looking down kind the barrel of a lost 10 years, you know. You know, I had these nightmares about ending up basically singing medleys of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RITTER: Which was just a terrifying thing because I feel that in order to perform songs, you know, some of them five or six years, 10 years old, those songs have to be kind of infused with the life of whatever it is you're working on currently.

GREENE: Well, Josh Ritter, your new album, "So Runs the World Away," and the lyrics to one of the songs, "Another New World," they seem to reflect what youve talked about going through.

Mr. RITTER: Yeah, there's a lot of - on the record - a lot of exploration. And "Another New World" is about a polar explorer who takes his boat, the Annabel Lee, up and tries to find a continent past the ice and gets stuck there. It's about his relationship with his boat.

(Soundbite of song, "Another New World)

Mr. RITTER: (Singing) The leading lights of the age all wondered among themselves what I would do next. After all that I've found in my travels around the world, was there anything left? Gentlemen, I say, I've studied the maps and if what I'm thinking is right, there's another new world at the top of the world, for whoever can break through the ice. I looked around the room...

GREENE: As we listen to a little more to the song here, it doesnt sound like things end especially well for our intrepid explorer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Another New World)

Mr. RITTER: (Singing) And as I chopped up her mainsail for timber, I told her of all that we still had to see. And as the frost turned her moorings to nine-tails and the wind lashed her sides in the cold, I burned her to keep me alive every night in the loving embrace of her hold. And I won't...

Mr. RITTER: For me, what is important about this record and my own writing is that I started to realize that certain songs can be about moments, and other songs are about an arc of a story. And for a story to be a story, something bad has to happen - something unexpected, something that may not be totally resolved. And I wanted to build these little dollhouses and then kind of just burn them all down.

You know, I wanted to kind of let the characters run around and may be come to untimely ends. You know.

GREENE: Why is that? Why build something really carefully and then just bash it all up?

Mr. RITTER: Well, I think it's part of what I love about good fiction, you know, is that there is simultaneously a very intricate machine being built -the story is very intricate. But its ends are not necessarily always good for the characters, you know? Thats something that I really appreciate about people like Flannery O'Connor or Muriel Spark - these authors that I can tell take, you know, kind of simultaneous delight in building something and seeing what happens to the characters because of it.

Im a kind of Rube Goldberg sort of in fiction. And I feel that can be done with songs, as well, you know.

GREENE: And you certainly do this, build something beautiful just to tear it down in the song "The Curse," which I guess you got your inspirational moment in part in the bathroom?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RITTER: Yeah, well, I had just moved to New York from Idaho and I had not been used to living in a city like New York, you know...

GREENE: Smaller apartment, I would imagine.

Mr. RITTER: Yes, much smaller, fewer coyotes. And that the sound of the garbage trucks outside, for the first four or five months, just terrified me - would wake me up. And one night I woke up with this garbage truck out there. But I was also - there was this - also this story that just was in my head when I woke up about a mummy who wakes and, you know, he falls in love with the archeologist who finds who has found him.

(Soundbite of song, "The Curse")

Mr. RITTER: (Singing) He opens his eyes, falls in love at first sight with the girl in the doorway. What beautiful eyes, how full of life after thousands of years what a face to wake up to. He holds back a sigh as she touches his arm. She dusts off the bed where till now he's been sleeping under miles of stone, the dried fig of his heart under scarab and bone starts back to its beating.

(Speaking) I kind of started the story with the mummy's curse, it's such a beautiful idea, you know, that you can find your way into the tomb and these, these archeologists found their way into the tomb and they discovered all these treasures.

But along with these treasures they unwittingly picked up a curse. And in the same way that a, you know, sometimes you could find what you think is love, what you think is a sure thing, and in the end it's much worse for you than you ever would've expected.

GREENE: It's really quite a beautiful waltz. Why did you decide to go the waltz route?

Mr. RITTER: I really love the waltz and I haven't written a lot of them. But I just really loved writing in that cadence. It was fun and it also felt old. It felt like it wasnt of this time, the waltz.

It's always fun. Writing is always - when you have a song in your teeth and you're going for it, it's just an incredibly exhilarating experience. And there's times when that doesnt happen, but when it does, it's a thrill to write it.

GREENE: Even though there's a dark quality to this album, your fans should know that you're back to having fun.

Mr. RITTER: Oh, I mean I think I always had fun writing. And I always think of a thing that Flannery O'Connor said when she was writing. She said that she was sitting there grinning like a Cheshire cat. And I totally relate to that. You know, it's always fun to see the story through.

GREENE: And you brought your guitar with you today, or...

Mr. RITTER: I did, yes. Ill have to get it out. All right.

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. RITTER: Let's see, maybe I can do...

(Soundbite of guitar)

Mr. RITTER: Maybe I can do a song called "Folk Bloodbath."

GREENE: Sure, yeah.

Mr. RITTER: All right, it's another that I feel it kind of puts the characters through their paces. So yeah, this is "Folk Bloodbath."

(Soundbite of song, "Folk Bloodbath"):

Mr. RITTER: (Singing) Louis Collins took a trip out west. When he returned, little Delia had gone to rest. The angels laid her away...

GREENE: Josh Ritter, surely smiling like a Cheshire Cat in our New York studios. His new album is "So Runs the World Away." And if you'd like to see a video of one of the songs you just heard, "The Curse," you can go to NPR.org/music.

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