Joseph Arthur is both a singer and a songwriter, but if you know what’s good for you, you won’t ever call him a combination thereof. He uses various electronic guitar effects to turn his solo outings into one-man-band performances, which permanently separate him from the “tears on the acoustic guitar” crowd. He has also experienced the collaboration of a band, having recently recorded and toured with the group Fistful Of Mercy, which also featured Dhani Harrison and Ben Harper.
His latest release, The Graduation Ceremony, is about as sad and serious as an artist can get. With a session guest list that ranges from Jim Keltner to Liz Phair it was – believe it or not – a fun record for Arthur to make. Stereo Subversion recently had the honor to talk this talented artist about his ever-sincere music.
SSv: ‘Sadness’ is a word the comes to mind a lot when I listen to The Graduation Ceremony, so I wonder what was going on when you created it.
Joseph Arthur: Well, I came out of a long-term relationship, I guess a year or so before I recorded it. I think it kind of carries over the experience of kind of dealing with that. It was also recorded the year after that situation, so I feel like there’s a hopeful aspect to it, or just sort of a positive energy, you know?
SSv: But you’re not in that place now, right? You’re in a better place?
That’s not my favorite kind of music at all. I think that’s why I’m a good singer/songwriter because I don’t like singer/songwriters.
Joseph: Yeah, I don’t even consider that a bad place necessarily. It’s just a place, you know? I’m not in that now.
SSv: There’s some really interesting people you work with on this album, and one of these is drummer Jim Keltner, and he’s been around for a long, long time. How did you connect with him?
Joseph: I connected with Jim during the recording of my second record, which was Come To Where I’m From, and which was recorded in 1999. He played on that. And that was when T Bone Burnett was producing my records. So I met him through T Bone Burnett. Then I reconnected with him when I was recording Fistful Of Mercy with Dhani Harrison and Ben Harper and we wanted to get a drummer to record with us on that record and so Dhani called up Jim because he knew Jim and kind of grew up with Jim and lot of people. He’s a legend.
SSv: You mentioned the Fistful Of Mercy project, which was really an interesting combination of people. How did that project work for you? Did that really sort of energize you as an artist, instead of it just being your solo thing; you could collaborate with others and kind of create an energy that’s a little bit different than you normally do?
Joseph: I like to be a member of a group and just, like, go do shows just to be in the element of a band sound is quite a different way of going about it because even when I put together bands for my own stuff I’m still sort of a front person for it. It was nice to be not that. Part of that, but not fully that. That really felt almost like sort of a pressure-free performance. You’re part of a collective, in a way.
SSv: Whose idea was it to create the band?
Joseph: It was collaborative on that level too because I called up Ben to see if he would sing with me at The Troubadour and we had talked about recording for a long time doing something. So I was, like, ‘I’m in town for a little bit. Maybe we should do something.’ Then he asked me if I knew Dhani. So Ben was the center of it, in terms that he knew me and he knew Dhani. He brought all three of us together in that way. And then I met Dhani the first day we started recording in the studio. We became friends while working on the record.
SSv: Did it click immediately when you started recording together and performing?
Joseph: Yeah, it did. I mean, we recorded that record in three days…just the basics we recorded and pretty much wrote in three days. It went like gangbusters. The first three songs on that record are the first three songs we did, and they came out sounding pretty much just like that, other than now they’re a little a bit more produced on the rhythm section. But if you heard the initial roughs, they sound pretty complete.
SSv: Do you think you’ll do another project together?
Joseph: I don’t know. I mean, I hope so. There’s definitely an open…it feels like an open door. There’s not concrete plans, either. It could end up being a one-off, or it could happen again. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
SSv: One of the things I came away impressed with when I saw you perform live is that you’re pretty well self-contained. You could very easily play without a band and create a full sound. Is that out of necessity that you learned how to do that or are you comfortable having complete control when it comes to performing live?
Joseph: Oh no, I learned that out of necessity I think. I’m not really a huge fan of singer-songwriters, per se. The whole acoustic guitar person singing songs… I mean, unless the songs are really strong that sort of is not my favorite style of music. I think I’m aware that I fit in that category at times, but I’ve sort seen myself differently than that. So I think it was a way to kind of create a sonic landscape that was more suited to what I actually like in music and also keep a door open towards more improvisational qualities in the musical realm. I can solo over chord progressions and things like that. I think it’s kind of important to me.
SSv: That’s interesting. I never really thought of it that way, but you do separate yourself from the typical singer-songwriter. And you’re right. Unless you’re somebody like Bob Dylan, where every song is great, it’s kind of tough to keep an audience’s attention if you’re just strumming a guitar and singing, right?
Joseph: That’s not my favorite kind of music at all. I think that’s why I’m a good singer/songwriter because I don’t like singer/songwriters.
SSv: One of the other people that’s listed on the new album is Liz Phair. When I read that, it seemed like kind of an unlikely collaboration. How far back does your friendship with Liz go?
Joseph: Back as far as the day she came in to collaborate on the record. Why does it seem like an unlikely collaboration?
SSv: I don’t know. She doesn’t seem like somebody that would contribute to someone else’s project. She seems kind of independent and kind of doing her thing, and if you want to help her, that’s great. Because I don’t really know her, maybe it’s her public persona that gives me that impression. Obviously, you know her better than I do. Tell me about the experience of working with her in the studio. What was that like?
Joseph: It was on the song “Midwest” and I was putting on some sort of rock & roll guitar, so it was a clean electric sound and I said to John Alagía, who was helping me produce it that, ‘This reminds me of something on Exile in Guyville, these guitars we’re putting on.’ And he was, like, ‘Oh, should we get Liz to come in and sing on it?’ And I was, like, ‘Can you?’ And he was, like, ‘Yeah.’ So the next day, she was in the studio.
SSv: Had he worked with her?
Joseph: He has worked with her, yeah. I never had. But she was super sweet and nice. Very fun to work with and had lots of cool ideas. She ended coming around the studio every once in a while. We would just hang out. There was a few different characters. Like, Madi Diaz was around. It was just kind of a fun atmosphere. It was the experience of making a record. You build these crews together and people come by and start hanging out and partying and it’s fun.
A show of Holding The Void (Joseph Arthur with Rene Lopez and Pat Sansone)
hands born dirty
false colored eyes
don't be afraid
blue jays and honey bee
look over your shoulder
gone without it
call a friend
nothing wrong with the city
honey and the moon
in the sun
Joseph Arthur (born September 28, 1971) is an American songwriter and artist from Akron.
Combining poetic lyrics with a layered sonic palette, Arthur has built his reputation over the years through critically acclaimed releases and constant touring.
His unique solo live performances incorporate the use of a number of distortion and loop pedals, and his shows are recorded live at the soundboard and made available to concertgoers immediately following the show on recordable media...
SM: I’m fine and you? I hear you’re having some problems with the touring van.
JA: I’m staying in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, the very hotel where John (Lennon) and Yoko (Ono) had their bed-in. So you know?
SM: That has to be pretty awesome.
JA: (laughs) And the van, it’s an eight-cylinder and I guess a couple of cylinders aren’t firing. So, I don’t know what that means, do you know what that means?
SM: Me? I have no idea. All I know is I’d be stranded somewhere.
JA: You are in Pittsburgh, right?
SM: Yes, sir.
JA: We are enemies!
SM: How so?
JA: Because I am a Browns fan.
SM: Oh no...
SM: Maybe we shouldn’t make that too know here in Pittsburgh...
JA: Yeah, yeah... you might want to keep that out of the article. (laughs)
SM: There is no quicker way to turn a Pittsburgher against you than being a Browns fan.
JA: Well, you guys won. So let’s just face it. (Won) the whole time, so.
SM: We are winning for the time being, but Cleveland is a team on the rise. We got to watch out.
JA: I hope so, it has been a lifetime of heartbreak.
SM: So, with the van broken down, is this going to delay the tour at all?
JA: No. The van is ok, it is a little shoddy, but it’s alright. It got me here. It was in the shop for a second, but it will be fine. We have no show tonight, but we hit Toronto tomorrow and that is like a 5 or 6 hour drive.
SM: Just wondering because you have a show here on Friday. I guess you have a lot of traveling ahead of you in the next few days.
JA: It’s fine. I’m used to it by now.
SM: So on to your latest album, “The Graduation Ceremony.” It came out it May?
JA: That seems like a long time ago. I guess so, huh. I really don’t remember the exact date, but I guess it is a couple months old now.
SM: In doing some research, I read that “The Graduation Ceremony” spawned out of two different records you were working on.
JA: Yeah, in a way it did. I have been working on this album called “The Ballad of Boogie Christ,” which is sort of like this psychedelic-soul record. It is sort of a big production and I have been working on it for a couple of years now.
I started to write a few more acoustic songs, “Out on a Limb” being the first one, and I recorded it during the recording sessions of “The Ballad of Boogie Christ” and I really liked the way it came out. So, I just started on working on the record alongside the other one and just finished it. And the thing about it is Jim Keltner came in to play songs on the “Boogie Christ” album and he turned around and played on all the songs on “The Graduation Ceremony.” So I had an acoustic/singing Jim Keltner record. All of a sudden, that started taking precedence.
SM: So, let me get this right; the album that you were working on is called “Boogie Christ?”
JA: Yeah, it is “The Ballad of Boogie Christ.”
SM: Now, is that a concept album? It sounds like it almost has to be.
JA: Yeah, kind of.
SM: The title alone paints that sort of picture. Do you mind me asking what it is about?
JA: It is either about someone that is enlightened or insane.
SM: Uh huh, that is simple enough.
SM: That kind of flows into my next question. I read on a PR release that you don’t have writer’s block; you almost have the opposite of it?
JA: I guess part of my predicament is trying to keep a focus on one thing long enough to fit in the cycle of whatever of I’m promoting or presenting to the people.
As opposed to just throwing stuff out there to the point where people don’t pay attention.
SM: I like him, but it is kind of like Ryan Adams that tosses stuff out at a moment’s notice...
JA: The thing is too, you know, people tend to think that when people are prolific, that it means that they don’t edit themselves and they are putting out sub-standard stuff. But I really don’t think that is true.
I was recently asked to do this thing for this radio station in New York called WNYC, where they were doing pick a year and tell us what it means to you. I picked 1977 and I was looking up things that had come out in 1977 and something that struck me was (David) Bowie put out “Heroes” and “Low,” two classic albums. Iggy Pop put out “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life” that year. And then you think about The Beatles and how long their career really was and how many records they put out.
I think the opposite is really true, that when people are flowing and not being too precious about stuff, that is when magical things happen.
SM: That is very true.
JA: But that seems like that is not how people paint it nowadays.
SM: Yeah, it is like people think that people let it go to the head and they can just throw out whatever they want, that it is supposed to be good or it is supposed to be that and it is not taken for face value. And everyone today has lost perspective, like you said with Bowie and Iggy, Queen was another one that put record after record out through the 70s and 80s...
JA: Or The Stones or Bob Dylan. Really when you look at, like, everybody that did the classic record, they were all done pretty fast. It is the rare bird that it is like this long arduous, over-thought, overwrought thing that comes out as a classic record. It is not the Stanley Kubrick syndrome in rock and roll; it is usually the opposite. But I don’t know why nowadays that it doesn’t get taken like that.
SM: It’s almost like instead of appreciating the flow of music, we (as a society) have ADD and can’t stay focused on one thing to appreciate what someone is doing.
JA: Yeah, exactly. Well, there is something I always think about; on Charles Bukowski’s tombstone he put, “Don’t Try,” which was his philosophy to writing. It is sort of like a punk rock, it seems like punkish, bratty thing to say, “don’t try,” but it is actually a very intelligent, deeply philosophical thing to say. It is like Zen almost. I would say as opposed to having writer’s block, I would say I have “don’t try.” I don’t really try, I don’t feel the pressure to write anything or not write anything. I’m a little bit backed up in terms of material I could release. I am cognizant of the fact I shouldn’t try and throw too much stuff because people then resist it for some reason.
All cylinders are still firing (with me). I just did another interview with somebody and they told me this Richard Thompson quote, which I thought was amazing, “The secret of my success is my continued failure.”
SM: Wow, that is...awesome.
JA: And I can totally relate to that. I just feel like I have this hunger that hasn’t gone away and I feel as hungry as ever, but not in a negative way. It has actually turned quite positive, because I still feel completely inspiring and useful about the whole thing. I don’t feel bloated and it’s done or anything like that at all. I feel like it is in a good place, a healthy place. Bukowski always used to talk about that like how he was so happy that he didn’t really get any of the prizes until late. He was always going on about, “Thank you so much for holding out on me.” And I think that keeps the work strong.
SM: Yes, it doesn’t go to your head like if you get the accolades early in your career.
JA: Yeah, it doesn’t become this heady thing and if you have massive success, how can it not be a heady thing. If everybody is paying attention to you, on one level it is great and it could be nurturing, but it could be the opposite.
SM: I don’t understand how people do cope with instant success, because I would think anything that you had following through your mind as your next step would automatically stop.
JA: Right, or just become analyzed to death. You would have to have a certain amount of not caring and not trying; you always got to incorporate that.
SM: You started your own record label. How is that working out?
JA: It is a mixed bag. I started actually for “Nuclear Daydream.” It has been pretty cool. It started out right on top of the record industry completely collapsing. It is not a controlled environment to assess the situation, let’s put it that way. It is like throwing something on to a complete pile of chaos and see how it deals with it. It definitely feels like it is the way things are going.
SM: I was just going to ask how you think the music industry is going now; CDs are gone, everything is online.
JA: I am surprised that CDs are as prevalent as they are.
SM: I just picked up a couple the other day and they are just vanishing from stores; stores aren’t carrying them anymore.
JA: I don’t know. I don’t really have an opinion about it. It is what it is, you know. It is the way things evolve. I don’t think it is either bad or good. I know, personally, I like having access to the music I have access to in the simple way I have access to it. It is not a romantic thing to say, but...I do like that. I know that is really not the party line... (laughs)
SM: It’s true and it is nice to hear someone say it. It is nice to be able to want to hear something and instantly go and have it.
JA: And, you know what? As much as I love vinyl and everything, and I have a massive vinyl collection, but right now my vinyl collection is in storage because of where I live in New York. I used to have a bigger space, but now I got a studio space and I have a recording studio with equipment that I need to make work. I don’t have the room for a massive vinyl collection. It takes up a lot of room. I mean, if you have a big record collection, that is one side of the thing people don’t talk about; unless you have a big space it takes up a lot of room.
SM: I would think it could be one or two rooms worth dedicated to a big collection.
JA: You could dedicate rooms to record collections for sure, easily.
SM: And bringing this interview full circle in relation to The Beatles, last year, you were part of the, quote-unquote, super-group, Fistful of Mercy (with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison). How did that come to happen?
JA: That came about because I was going to LA to play the Trubador for two nights and I thought I should try and change it up. I was just going through my phone and I thought I will call Ben and see if he wants to, well, at least tell him I’m playing and see if he wants to sit in on one of these nights. Just to make it different. He was, like, “Hell, yeah.” He sat in both nights.
Then I was like I am in town for a few days, we should get together and write something. I just figured we would write and record one song or something.
And then he asked me if I knew Dhani and I didn’t and I asked him, “Why? Is he in our band?” and he said yeah.
So we three just got together and we had three days in the studio. After the first day, we had three songs and we thought that if we can do three songs by the end of each day we can have a record. So then that became our goal and we met the goal and that was the record. We sat on it for a couple months, and we figured it would just come out like as is, but then Jim Keltner ended up playing on it. I really like the way that came out.