Josh Ritter has had the type of career so far that an indie singer-songwriter would kill for.
The architect behind eight full-length albums, steadily gaining more critical praise with each new release, Ritter has become one of the pre-eminent performers on the concert circuit today. He has also been named one of the “100 Greatest Living Songwriters” by Paste Magazine, so to lay the cliché description of “Dylanesque” on Ritter would actually be underestimating the young singer in this case (perhaps the term “Ritteresque” will be used to describe great lyricists in the future).
Ritter is keeping both critics and fans on their toes by following up his heart-wrenching 2013 disc, “The Beast in Its Tracks,” with his most upbeat album to date. Whereas the earlier record revealed the artist after a devastating break-up, 2015’s “Sermon on the Rocks” has the singer entering a genre of music that defies labels; the sound of the album might be best described as gospel honky-tonk.
Ritter acknowledges that the final result wasn’t evident at the beginning of the recording process.
“It all just starts out with a feeling,” he explains over the phone, during a break in his current tour that rolls into Durham’s Carolina Theatre on Thursday. “The feeling I had about what I wanted was that it just needed some shaking in it; I just wanted the album to shake. Sometimes that’s hard to do, a hard attitude to take, as far as working each song in that direction. When I started to see the form that each song was starting to take, I realized that was the direction that the album was taking; the songs that wound up on the album all stacked together, and once they are all together it takes shape. I think one of the most gratifying things about making an album is seeing where it ends up, and this one ended up being so much funkier than what I expected.”
Ritter’s music has been described in many ways, but “funky” had been an elusive term until “Sermon’s” release. The songwriter makes it clear that Trina Shoemaker, the Grammy Award-winning engineer and producer best known for her work with Sheryl Crow (“The Globe Sessions”) and Brandi Carlile (“The Firewatcher’s Daughter”), deserves much of the credit for her influence behind the boards during production.
“She brought her wildness,” Ritter says. “Her approach is just different when it comes to making a studio album, just how she makes each day feel rich with portent, where you just don’t know what you’ll end up doing that day. That’s exciting. She has a vision of what she wants on your record that may not be what you had in mind, and this is my eighth album, so I like surprises. I have faith in the material, so the idea of taking it in another direction sounds exciting to me. If she hears something really cool, I want to go on an adventure too.”
During down time recording the album, Ritter wanted his band, crew and family to be able to experience a fun city.
“Almost the first thing I wanted when I thought about making the album was to record it in New Orleans,” he says. “I wanted to go there and have the adventure. I wanted to take my band and family down there and just have fun. There is so much honest, cool art made there that I just wanted us to be around it when making the album. Not to make a musical tribute of any kind to the city, but just to be in party mode for a little while.”
It may have taken eight albums for Ritter to deliver a true party music, but that is the mood he and his longtime backing band, The Royal City Band, are bringing into venues on this tour. Audience members may be surprised not to find a stage set with dim lights and Ritter solemnly strumming an acoustic guitar.
“You know, I actually like my audiences to be surprised,” Ritter says. “I tend to like my music the way that I like food; I like strong tastes that tell me I’m getting the absolute most I can get out of something. I grew up playing solo, but when I get out there with my band, that’s one of my greatest joys. I want that to come across to people who come out to see us, and assume that people realize that we are all out there pouring our hearts into everything we’re playing.
“I want to go back on a solo tour at some point down the road, but right now I just want to focus on performing a full rock show. It’s just too much fun.”
Who: Josh Ritter with the Royal City Band
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org