Interview: Joseph Arthur. The Ballad of Joseph Arthur.
Discovered by Peter Gabriel in the 1990s, Joseph Arthur’s musical pilgrimage since has seen him release ten albums, form ‘supergroups’ with high profile musicians, have his work covered by virtual household names such as Michael Stipe (REM) and Chris Martin (Coldplay) and be nominated for a Grammy. On a rainy night in north London, Joseph played a special, intimate show in an unusual church setting. Between soundcheck and showtime, Joseph took a break to talk with me about his latest album ‘The Ballad of Boogie Christ’, muse on the material dangers of creativity and let me in on some secrets about his next adventure in recording.
The new album ‘The Ballad Of Boogie Christ’ is divided into two ‘acts’. Why did you decided to present the album this way?
I mastered 35 songs for it and I was going to make it three acts and then I got it down to two acts. I went on a bike ride and I listened to the whole thing – it was a long bike ride. I liked it a lot and was proud of it – but I was kind of exhausted by it. The next day I went on a bike ride and did the same thing. ‘All The Old Heroes’ used to start Act Two and I got to that track and then I stopped and was like: that’s it, that’s the end of the album. I made it a single album, like it was Act One. I made it a concise album and I thought it really worked. I put it out in America and people loved it and it was getting lots of really hot praise. Then I knew Real World Records wanted to put out both acts. I thought that’s cool when they first said it. Then I started trying to talk them out of it. I was, like: I really think I’ve made a concise record – people think I’m nuts anyway, if we put this two thing out, people are going to just think I’m off my mind again or whatever! (Laughs.) Please let’s just keep it concise! They said no, we really want to make this. It was such a reversal – the record company trying to talk me into keeping a double album! It’s usually exactly the opposite of that. I’m really happy with the whole thing now.
I was never going to abandon Act Two or Act Three it was gonna just be like I’ll put that out later, it’ll be another record. But I don’t think I’ll put out Act Three next because I have this other record I’m working on that I’m really into right now. So, I think I’ll move on from Boogie Christ for a minute and come back to it later.
Can you tell me anything else about this next record that you want to do before you go back to record Act Three?
I haven’t really talked about it with anybody. Tchad Blake is working on it with me – he mixed Redemption’s Son and Come To Where I’m From. He does The Black Keys and has mixed everyone, he’s an amazing mixer. It’s a lot more back to my earlier records where it’s more modern, future songwriter with programming and real drums and those layers mingling together. Kind of like what I was getting after Redemption’s Son and Our Shadows Will Remain but almost taking it even further. All the songs were written on piano and none of the songs I’ve ever played live. So, it’s all completely brand new stuff. It’s another concept album too, but I’ll hold onto the title for now.
Has your approach to song writing changed over all the albums that you’ve made?
Yeah. Well, this album specifically, ‘Boogie Christ’, was words first almost entirely. I do that from time to time – write words first – but it would be like one or two amongst songs written from melodic content. Then creating words out of phonetic sounds, which the unconscious seems to find meaning in anyway. It’s cool, but it’s a little bit more of a laboured process. I write poetry but I also write rhyming poetry and the rhyming poetry I always think of like song lyrics, so I just decided to use those. But the whole thing got born out of a poem about a Boogie Christ. I thought that was such an uncommon, absurd title and funny and weird. So, I decided to spin the whole thing off of that – fit everything into the theme of this character that’s either megalomaniacal, or maybe he’s enlightened, maybe he’s insane, maybe he’s a little bit all that. Then thinking what would make a Christ figure and fitting all the songs into that context. Like ‘I Used To Know How To Walk On Water’ and ‘Saints Of Impossible Causes’ and then going in deeper, things like ‘I Miss The Zoo’. I was trying to flesh out the character. There’s a drunk pastor – ‘King Of Cleveland’ – OK, he was in Cleveland in high school, you know, thinking of it in terms of a character which is obviously loosely based on myself and my own story. But I took liberties and didn’t think it needed to be me.
You’ve used Christian imagery but it sounds like it’s more generalised human and spiritual themes and ideas you’re using – do you follow a Christian or any religious practise yourself?
I don’t. I don’t really have any clue and I wouldn’t tell anybody else what to believe. I definitely pray. Sorta. I believe in a creative intelligence. The older I get the less I know what that is. I think there is something you can definitely call god amongst us. I’m comfortable with that. But the minute somebody tries to tell somebody else exactly what that is, I think they’re out of line. They can suggest, they can recommend but when people start demanding that this is what it is and what you think is wrong, you lose me at that moment.
Was the selection of the church as tonight’s venue linked into the album’s themes?
No. But whoever booked it, it was a good idea. It’s the second time I’ve played a church in London.
When you’re playing a church venue, does that impact on the performance – the layout and the sense of reverence?
It does, yes! I think of life as a spiritual journey. I think of music and art in general as a spiritual practise, but also my livelihood and also just fun and my passion. I’m in love with it. I’m very lucky. So, yeah, I pick up on that energy. People come here with reverence, they come here to pray and I believe in the power of prayer. I believe in the power of intention. People put a lot of intention into a space like this and that resonates in the space. So, I think as an artist you can pick up on that and feed off of it and feed into it and give to it and take from it. So, it’s interesting.
Going back to songwriting – do you wait until you have inspiration or do you turn songwriting into a craft where you sit down and do it every day?
Songwriting I never try to make myself do. Other things I try to push myself to do, but not songwriting because I’m always backed up and I always kind of want it to pause. I try to talk myself out of it! (Laughs.) But it happens in waves. The album that I was talking about that I’ve been working on with Tchad Blake, I think I recorded the bulk of it in five days. I mean, there was no hurry for it – I could be spending months on it. I mean, Chad’s working on it, and we’re sending things back and forth – the process is going. But the lion’s share of it was recorded in my own little studio. It kind of hits you like a fever in a way. I think I had to go out of town for a while and it galvanised me into action. I spent five days just on my own doing all-nighters and I lost my bike. You can lose material possessions if you go completely into your unconscious – weird stuff will happen because you’re conjuring stuff. I lost my bike in New York City just making an album! You know, how can you explain that, it just wasn’t in my apartment any more? I live alone. I have no idea where it is and I wasn’t doing drugs or anything. I loved that bike, I’ve lost that bike..and it was due to making this record. It was just weird – I was getting ready to go see Glen Campbell play his last show at Carnegie Hall and I ride my bike everywhere, even if I’m going to Carnegie Hall – I live in Brooklyn – so I’m a major bike rider. I love it. And it wasn’t in my place. I was totally dumbfounded, I had to take a cab, I was bummed out. Anyway, I’m trying to illustrate that there’s danger in creativity, you lose your bike! (Laughs)
With your art is it a similar case that ideas just appear and you paint or is there a focused discipline with that?
Yeah, the other thing I was trying to say is I set a goal and started writing towards that goal – I wanted to make this album concept and I was writing a lot of songs and they just came it was like a flood. And then I wanted to finish it and then there was all this work that I had to do and I just wanted to get it done. And the same thing with painting. I have an art show in Paris and one in Marseille. I’m selling paintings on the road. I’ve been painting like crazy. I made three paintings today just in the ride over. Once you start spinning it off, that’s what you want to do.
I see you have a canvas on stage. Will you be painting tonight during the show?
Probably I’ll paint tonight, yeah.
Do you have an idea of what you’re going to do or is it whatever occurs to you?
Well I just have like a style and I kind of always do that. I’d like to try to change my style but it’s hard to. It’s like writing your signature or something.
Are you going to be doing any more work with your ‘supergroup’ projects?
I hope that both of those projects continue. Jeff (Ament of Pearl Jam) texted me today he’s like: can we go on tour with Pearl Jam? I definitely know that we’re going to make another record. We actually have kind of started it – we have some songs recorded. I’m sure we’ll do something again. And Fistful of Mercy recently recorded a new track and then made plans to make another record – then everybody went away on tour and we didn’t do it. But I hope we do it.
For this album you used Pledge Music to raise funds. I understand you have quite an optimistic view of how changes to the record industry affect artists – can you speak a bit about this?
I mean, it is impossible to have a career in music nowadays, but before I had a record deal in the mid-90s, that was also impossible. It was a different version of impossible. That impossible looked like this: you could make a demo cassette, which you could give to ten of your friends. The end. That’s the end of your reach for your music. Unless you get this magical record deal, which was like lightening striking. So, that was not possible then either. I got so lucky during that time. I was working minimum wage jobs and I was giving out demo tapes to my friends around Atlanta. My story is somewhat famous and it’s absurd – I gave my tape to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to Peter Gabriel. You can’t make that up! And that’s exactly how it happened. I signed a record deal soon after and I was making records at Real World recording studios and I got a record advance and I thought I was rich. I bought a fancy sweater and pretty soon I didn’t have any money any more. I don’t know how that happened. (Laughs.) I put out a record now and people receive it and I’m lucky. But it’s all relative. For Lady Gaga this would be like a cause for suicide. Compared to her, nobody’s heard my record. Compared to somebody who’s struggling in a kitchen somewhere, it’s huge. So, it’s very relative, you know?
I’m optimistic because I feel like there’s avenues for people now. You can kind of complete the circle is what I’m trying to say. I can put my record out, somebody who’s working in a kitchen somewhere can put their record out on the internet. And yeah, ok, maybe it’s not going to go huge, maybe you’re not going to be able to quit your job, but there’s this completion that happens. And also, it’s out there. You can always fantasise that in a hundred years, after you’re dead, people will discover it and everyone will love you. I mean, that’s how I get by. (Laughs.) But also, about the Pledge Music campaign – I had it cued up with them a few times and my prided kicked in. But I noticed that more and more artists who have fanbases even bigger than mine were doing it, so I started going: well they’re doing it, they’re bigger than I am, so I guess I can do it. The other thing is I realised it was an avenue for promoting the fact that you have a release coming up, which was the real turn for me. I’m an independent artist with an independent label – not only will it give me funds but I’d promote the fact that I have a record out. At that point it becomes obvious to do it – you’re silly not to, I think. The other thing is you’re not just begging for money, you’re selling stuff and it’s great that fans pledge, I’m really grateful for that. They also are getting a record or they’re getting a book they’re getting something for their contribution. And it’s a lot of work. I think until somehow you can make money from music again in a real way, that’s going to be how it is.
And lastly, what music are you listening to at the moment?
Kendrick Lamar‘s new record, Jay Z’s new record, Kanye West’s new record. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop. I was going to a the gym a lot before this tour, so you listen to hip hop music. I go through stages where I wished I’d just made hip hop music and I still go through those phases. (Laughs) I was listening to some NWA and Public Enemy, some old school stuff like that. I also listened to Miles Davis on this tour because I can read and listen to that.
As showtime draws near, I leave Joseph to get ready in the church’s blessed backstage area. He seems to be enjoying this tour and hinted he many be back to play more European shows in the spring. Amen to that.
‘The Ballad Of Boogie Christ’ is available on Real World Records.
The Ballad of Joseph Arthur
Words and photos by Imelda Michalczyk. http://www.rebeladelica.com/
11 October 2013