Josh Ritter has never made it a secret that he isn’t much of a fan of writing autobiographical songs. He prefers to be a story teller. (His previous album, “So The World Runs Away,” for instance, had songs whose characters included an awoken Egyptian mummy and a showdown between murder ballad writers Stagger Lee and Louis Collins, among others.)
“I don’t like writing autobiographical songs,” Ritter said in a recent phone interview. “I like writing songs about other things. There’s so much more to write about in the world than what happens right in front of you on a daily basis. And my favorite books are flights of imagination. I always feel that it’s really important to write those rather than write about yourself because that’s where so much fun stuff happens.”
But with his latest CD, “The Beast In Its Tracks,” Ritter couldn’t avoid writing songs with autobiographical content. In 2010, his marriage of 18 months to fellow singer-songwriter Dawn Landes came apart.
“To turn around and pretend that it hadn’t happened, I think it would have felt dishonest,” Ritter said. “But it would have also been a huge missed opportunity to write about something that mattered so much to me at that moment. I’d never had something where I felt like this matters so much to me that I had to write about it even though it’s personal.”
In talking to Ritter, it was obvious how much pain and sadness the divorce had inflicted. The end of the marriage came suddenly, while Ritter was on tour in November 2010.
“It did happen in a way that it came about very unexpectedly,” Ritter said. “It was my decision that that stuff was all over. I decided that a line had been crossed that I was not going to be able to come back from. And it was cold. It was hard. It was really bad. It was at times like really, impossible to sleep. It was an awful, awful time.”
Despite being devastated, Ritter went through with the remainder of his fall tour. When he returned home to Brooklyn, he did what always came naturally: he started writing songs. But it took time for Ritter to start feeling good about what he was writing.
“When I first started writing, I was real anguished,” he said. “I wrote for blood. I wrote for real vengeance. And that stuff was just terrible. It was not good. It was badly written.”
But it didn’t take long before Ritter started to see his mood improve and some phrases and words that felt like lyrics began to emerge.
“A little bit of time went by, just a little bit, a few months, and suddenly a few little ideas and phrases started sprouting up,” Ritter said. “Even the season changed a little bit, as far as not being winter all of the time. It started to become spring a little bit. Even those little things made a difference. I stopped feeling quite like a caged rat, and I started to look up and look around and see the friends I had and those things.”
As time went on Ritter’s songs changed. The ones that were written first, like ‘Nightmares,’ ‘New Lover’ and ‘Evil Eye,’ come out of a very angry period. Then the songs turn more mournful, he said. Over time, those sad emotions softened further and even some songs of hope and forgiveness emerged — including “Joy To You Baby” and “Lights,” the two songs that end “The Beast In Its Tracks.”
“Having that time to write and to think really made those songs better, I feel,” Ritter said. “They made them more honest.”
What also helped Ritter to arrive at a lyrical tone that felt right was meeting a new girlfriend, author Haley Tanner, who understood what he was going through.
“We kind of both were at a certain point in our lives where something had knocked us sideways,” Ritter said, noting that he and Tanner recently had a daughter, Beatrix. “She was like one of the few people who came along who just let me be angry and she was never telling me to be good to myself or things would get better or everything would work out for the best. She was just like happy to be angry with me for a little while. That was so comforting. Then she just like fed me really good food and she took care of me in a way that I had never felt.”
“Those things really added to the writing,” he said. “I was really sick. I was just sick. And she made me better. That comes out in the music. It’s not about the shame or the pain. It’s about all the stuff that happens after that that’s better.”
Given the strong emotions that inform “The Beast In Its Tracks,” it makes sense that Ritter went for an austere sound. Tunes like “Evil Eye,” “Nightmares” and “Appleblossom Rag” are spare, largely acoustic numbers that put the emphasis squarely on the strong vocal melodies and descriptive lyrics. A few songs get a bit more instrumentation (”Hopeful” and “In Your Arms Awhile”), but they remain in character with the rest of the album.
While Ritter has pursued a folk-centric sound on all six of his earlier albums, “The Beast In Its Tracks” marks a notable contrast from 2010’s “So Runs the World Away,” which was a more studio crafted, sonically and instrumentally bigger sounding effort. The more stripped down sound should allow the new songs to translate well as Ritter performs them this winter on an acoustic tour with bandmates Zack Hickman and Josh Kaufman. Ritter also thinks the organic and simple sound of “The Beast In Its Tracks” suits the songs.
“I’d say I think I’m really proud of writing about something that I felt like it had a real immediacy to it,” he said. “Also, I’m proud of the playing on this record, which is stripped down, but still feels like it has great momentum and has a real feeling of people I love, like the Everly Brothers or the Louvin Brothers. It feels like it still has a bit of a simpleness to it. I’m really proud of that.”
If You Go What: Josh Ritter with Gregory Alan Isakov When: Wednesday and Thursday March 5 and 6 at 7:30 p.m. Where: Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville How: Tickets are $34.50 by calling 617-625-5700 or visiting www.somervilletheatreonline.com. The March 5 show is sold out. Note: Ritter will also be playing the Portsmouth Music Hall on Friday, March 28. For more information on that show, visit www.themusichall.org.