This week Joseph Arthur unveiled The Ballad Of Boogie Christ. Fans of the chameleonic singer-songwriter have been waiting for this record, waiting to see what has been on his mind since early 2012’s Redemption City. With a cool Tom Waits vibe slinking in and out of the new tunes amongst the confusion and tranquility and almost too honest to bear feelings, this new offering has a lot to say. After rocking out with Jeff Ament and Richard Stuverud on RNDM’s 2012 Acts, and harmonizing with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison in Fistful Of Mercy in 2010, Arthur sprung a leak in his soul and as he gathered up the droplets, Boogie Christ was born.
Of our modern-day musical philosophers, Arthur is one of most underrated best. With the mood of the early-60’s coffee house days in the New York City Village, Arthur is a narrator of his own colossal multi-colored womb. He doesn’t flinch talking about drug afflicted angels or angry beasts or sorrow-filled martyrs. “Now I’m lost inside the thunder of pain which holds insanity,” he sings on “I Used To Know How To Walk On Water.” Can you be any more honest than that? And say it any better? “I need the saint detective who can find my stolen years,” he almost jingles in “Saint Of Impossible Causes,” while he rasps melodic that “you had the flesh and she had the knife,” in a Plastic Ono Band sizzle on “King Of Cleveland.”
Discovered by musical shaman Peter Gabriel in the mid-90’s, Arthur has quietly been building his legacy one song at a time, gathering fans at every stop on his desert road highway, picking up bits of inspirational dust that his boots kick up. And even though his song “In The Sun” was covered by Michael Stipe and Coldplay’s Chris Martin for the 2006 Hurricane Katrina relief EP and he has collaborated with some big name artists, Arthur himself still remains a partially-hidden enigma, albeit beloved by those who have found him.
The day Arthur called in for our interview was also the day The Doors’ Ray Manzarek passed away. He hadn’t heard the news yet and after telling him what had just been announced, I thought maybe the interview would be cloaked in a filmy melancholy. “They were a great band. I loved the Doors for sure,” Arthur said somberly. But a funny thing happened on the way to Joseph Arthur’s psyche. I discovered he had a remarkable sense of humor. After years hearing him sing such songs as “A Smile That Explodes,” “Honey & The Moon,” and “In The Sun,” I had built up the impression that he was an artist cave-dwelling in moodiness. I’m delighted to say, he proved me wrong.
What is The Ballad Of Boogie Christ?
I wrote a poem called “The Ballad Of Boogie Christ” and this character idea was sort of born to me. It’s about somebody that could be enlightened or be insane or could be a mixture of both. It’s sort of oscillating around that theme. I mean, I’m trying to give a well-rounded depiction of a human being that’s somewhat vain-y and somewhat enlightened and just going through the process of life … Most of the songs on the record all came from lyrics, which I have two ways of songwriting, which is music first or lyrics first and that was kind of like the rule of this album, that it was mainly going to be lyrics-first songs. So it’s primarily about the words.
Did you have these songs for a while?
Yeah, they stretch out. It became like somewhat autobiographical and somewhat fictionalized and I just sort of pulled from a bunch of different places. Sometimes I looked at my history, at older songs that could fit into the theme, and there’s lots of new songs as well. So yeah, it’s coming from different times, which I think is sort of an important aspect of it.
You did this album a little bit differently. You went through PledgeMusic to help raise the money and you’ve had a really good response.
Yeah, it’s been pretty good. I thought about doing a PledgeMusic campaign or Kickstarter or something for a while but I just never felt really comfortable with the idea. But as the years passed, it just seems like that’s more and more the way indie artists are funding their projects. I just kind of lost whatever reservations I had about it and went into it. Now, I kind of think it’s a great thing cause it sort of gets people involved and gets your fans involved in the process a bit more. I really don’t see a downside to it.
Being an independent artist, do you find it harder to make a name for yourself or to get your music heard than if you were, say, a typical band because it’s just you?
I don’t know. I think it’s not easy for anybody, whether you’re a band or solo. I’ve been a member of bands as well. Even with someone like Jeff Ament, it’s still not easy (laughs). But I just don’t think it’s easy. I think you have to be in this for the love of it first and if that’s the case then you’re going to be willing to endure whatever hardships there inevitably are and just not take for granted anything positive that comes out of it. But for me, I love making music and it’s been the way I lived my life since I can remember. I can’t really imagine doing anything else other than maybe some other form of creative endeavor.
How long have you been writing music?
Since I was a kid. My first instrument was actually an analog synthesizer called a Sequential Circuits six-something, six-track, which was like an analog synth that had a six track sequencer on it. So I would just compose these like analog synthesizer symphonies on it all the time and I thought they were amazing (laughs). I was my own biggest fan. But basically, though, the way I fell in love with music, and what I tell anybody that’s approaching music, is to just access your imagination with music and it will take over. If it’s a technical exercise, like you’re trying to learn chords or scales and stuff like that, it’s tedious. But if you are accessing your imagination, writing music and stuff, then it becomes like the greatest friend, the greatest escape, the greatest sort of pursuit imaginable.
You write very raw, putting your feelings out there in very vivid stories. Do you ever feel emotionally drained after writing so many honest songs?
To me, that’s what’s interesting. I think a certain amount of vulnerability in art is necessary to engage me. But that’s a personal taste thing, you know. I could see how that’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Some people want their music to be super not-emotional and not vulnerable. There’s all kinds of music for all kinds of different things, you know. Like if you’re going to the club, you don’t want to hear somebody sort of pouring their heart out (laughs). You just want to hear a beat and some cool vibes. And I like music like that too. But in terms of songwriting, I’m always more enamored by vulnerability and people being revelatory. I was always a big fan of John Lennon and his Plastic Ono Band, which was probably one of the most vulnerable rock & roll albums of all time, in terms of just what he exposed and talked about. Or Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, which depicts this sort of going through a divorce. I mean, that’s pretty heavy. And I love that kind of music. It just engages me. And it’s exciting.
Have you ever worried that you revealed too much of yourself in a song?
Yeah, it crosses my mind sometimes but I tend to think that’s probably not a bad sign. I mean, if it’s artfully done.
Probably one of the most poignant songs on Boogie Christ, at least to me, is “I Used To Know How To Walk On Water.”
Well, that’s coming from a place, like feeling like you were in an elevated state of consciousness and that you no longer are, which I think is just a very sort of human experience cause it’s kind of like framing it, I guess the way Jesus walked on water. It’s kind of a metaphor for how we all get to these places of feeling like we’re walking on water or feeling like we’ve sort arrived at a certain state of understanding. But life goes in cycles and you come to the other end and realize maybe you actually aren’t on top of it. So it’s kind of like that.
Do you prefer doing your songs acoustic or electric?
I like them both. Like, I just got finished doing a little RNDM run with Jeff and Richard and when I’m playing with those guys, I just want to be in a three piece rock & roll band and play leads on my guitar. That seems like the most fun thing to do (laughs) but it’s great to just be able to do different things and change it up. I’ve been doing this for so long and I think in order to keep you engaged, to keep an audience engaged and keep yourself engaged, you have to be changing.
And you’re not going to let Jeff give you any more haircuts, right
(laughs) Well, I didn’t let him give me one this time. I was worried about it but he didn’t bring it up (laughs)
Can you believe he’s still skateboarding?
I know and I’m in a band with Ben Harper called Fistful Of Mercy and that guy is into skateboarding too. So is Dhani Harrison who is in it. It was so funny cause Ben was at the festival we played at in Napa and Jeff and Ben were both talking about skateboarding and it was, “How come I keep getting into these bands with these dudes who are obsessed with skateboarding?” (laughs)
Playing with people like Jeff and Ben, do you feed off of their individual creativity to come up with all these different sounds for yourself?
You know, it’s different, like with Jeff I think it’s more of a three-piece rock & roll band. For me, it’s like we’re meant to play rock & roll music. It’s a natural thing for me to do but because I’m a solo artist a lot of the times, I tend to pick up an acoustic guitar and do it that way, until you finally get labeled a folkie kind of person. But I really actually prefer rock & roll music. When Jeff and I got together with Richard, we just made this three-piece rock & roll album which we cut mostly live. Then with Ben and Dhani it’s more focused on us singing harmonies together, mostly acoustic but with harmony. It became more about singing, being in a singing group.
Do you think you guys will record again?
Oh for sure. I’ve been texting with Ben today. We’re definitely going to do something. We cut a new track for Fistful Of Mercy but we haven’t figured out when we all can get in the studio again to finish up a new album but we’re definitely going to do something.
Were you in awe when you met Peter Gabriel?
Oh fuck yeah (laughs). I was working minimum wage at a guitar shop in Atlanta, Georgia, at this place called Clark Music. Never went to college and just really didn’t see a way out of the trap I was in. Then I was playing in a sort of punk-y band in Atlanta and then I got an acoustic guitar and I started just writing simple songs and I made a 4-track demo of those songs and through luck it got to Peter Gabriel. I got a call from him and I ended up going and he ended up bringing Lou Reed to a gig of mine at the Fez in New York, which blew my mind cause I was a huge Velvet Underground/Lou Reed fan.
Then he invited me out to this thing called Recording Weeks, which was like all these families from India and Africa and Joe Strummer was there and Karl Wallinger was there and John Leckie and Tchad Blake and Brian Eno and all these amazing people improvising in the studio. I had always been a sort of bass player and one time he said, “Hey, do you want to come in the studio and improvise with us?” And I had like literally two weeks before that was working minimum wage at a guitar shop. I was so out of my depth. It was nuts (laughs). And I said, “Do you want me to play bass?” And he was like, “No, I think you might want to sing and write lyrics.” And I’m thinking, are you fucking kidding me? (laughs) Cause I had just started singing like a couple of years before that and in my mind I was just faking my way through writing lyrics. I didn’t know what I was doing at all but I guess he heard something in them that he really liked. He gave me my start.
He’s got lots of visionary ideas. He’s amazing and I’m so happy, cause you know I put out my first three or four records on Real World and this Boogie Christ album is the first album I’ve put out in a while that’s back on Real World Records.
Can you believe that you have put out as much material as you have?
I know, I know, but I’m not getting any younger. I’m at a good pace, keeping a good pace. But some of these old blues guys, they ended up putting out like forty records so I still got my work cut out for me (laughs). I think I’m doing pretty good but I can’t rest on my laurels yet.
What keeps you motivated as an artist?
I think it’s a survival mechanism for a certain personality type. I think there’s a sort of trying to survive mechanism, just trying to make it the way you make your living; a certain sort of freedom you’re trying to obtain through it. And then there’s just like this sort of hidden spiritual dimension that I think may be the primary thing, which is like you’re a channel for a certain thing coming through you. But I think it’s multi-faceted.
What do you like best about performing live?
Well, that’s kind of where all of it sort of comes alive. Like all those connections are sort of there together in a room and then also a fourth element of that, which is the people, are right there taking it in. And in a performance that is going well, it becomes effortless and you sort of really get in the moment with it. And there’s really no better feeling than that. As much as I love recording in a studio and creating, as much as I really, really, really love that, I think there is something about performing live that trumps that.
And you don’t feel naked up there with all your lyrics being as raw as they are?
Hmm, I think I will after this interview (laughs). You just ruined my life. No, I’m kidding. I just do it the way I do it. You know, I think it’s like the whole thing about if you tell your story truthfully then you’re telling other people’s stories. I just feel like we’re all living in a human condition and it’s sort of like these kinds of things are something we all go through. And like I said, I was most inspired by artists like John Lennon and Bob Dylan. I think that they sort of exposed themselves in a more raw way than just anybody. Blood On The Tracks is really what I’m talking about. Do you ever listen to the words of “Idiot Wind?” It’s pretty insane.
What are your plans for the rest of this year?
I’m going to put out this Ballad Of Boogie Christ record and then there’s an Act II that’s going to come out in the Fall as well. It’ll kind of be like a double record sort of thing. I’m going to tour, do like eight shows in June, eight or nine, at some of the bigger cities in America and then I think I’m going to tour more in the Fall in like Europe and smaller cities in America and that’s my plan in a nutshell. And hopefully Fistful Of Mercy will make another record and I think RNDM is going to be on the back-burner for a little while cause Jeff has this other band that are planning on putting another record out. I don’t know what they’re called but it’s some other band (laughs).