photo by Christopher Nelson
Between his visual art and music, Joseph Arthur has always been a proverbial fountain of creative energy. His albums — since the release of his 1997 debut, Big City Secrets, on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label — have flowed steadily at a rate of at least one every couple of years, dotted by a handful of EPs and supplemented by his side project, Fistful of Mercy.
His art, which won him a Grammy for best packaging on the 1999 Vacancy EP, is so proliferative that he eventually opened up his own Museum of Modern Arthur (MOMAR) and continually shows at galleries across the country. And if you’ve ever been to a live performance by Joseph Arthur, you’ve seen this massive creative outpouring on display as he builds looped, multi-layed songs singlehandedly while surrounded by his surreal, Basquiat-esque canvases, which he sometimes even paints on stage. Yet despite this creative deluge, no one expected a new release, let alone a 24-song double album, to follow so quickly on the heels of his 2011 LP, The Graduation Ceremony.
On January 19, barely seven months after the last album’s release, Joseph Arthur announced the immediate release of Redemption City to fans and followers on his social media, making it available to anyone completely for free! No mere gathering of b-sides, demos or incomplete song scraps, the new album is a fully produced collection of fully conceived songs that are as good as and at times even better than anything he’s written yet (and that’s saying something!). Straight ahead rockers like “Travel As Equals” and “No Surrender Comes for Free” are immediate hits, and the dreamy “You’re Not the Only One” could easily fit in with any of his early albums. Other songs show a wide range of experimentation and instrumentation, all performed by Joseph himself.
We here at KEXP were completely thrown by the suddenness of the new release, especially since in his August 2011 in-studio he had only mentioned a different forthcoming project, a pair of albums for and/or by a character named Boogie Christ. So, we decided to go to the source himself and get a few answers:
After already releasing a full length in the spring of 2011, what made you decide to release another album in only about 6 month’s time?
I tend to work on both songs and albums in clusters. I will write no songs for a while and then I write two or three at the same time, one will give me a place to go when I hit walls with the other. Redemption City started before The Graduation Ceremonyas part of a new way of writing songs (for me) that centered around the words before the melody. I’ve been working on both Redemption City and another album called The Ballad of Boogie Christ for going on five years now, both of which are kind of epic and conceptual and I thought for awhile might be part of the same whole. Boogie Christ is a big production with horns and singers and features musicians like Garth Hudson and Jim Keltner and is recorded on tape. Redemption City is 24 songs with more words than any record I’ve ever made with me playing all the instruments and is built from the beat up. It was easy to hit walls and get confused in the separate processes of those records. It might seem more confusing to begin work on something simple and straight forward like The Graduation Ceremony, but that album actually provided relief and a safe station to hang out in while I let those other projects manifest and work themselves out. At the same time, once Redemption City found its feet and I knew I had a clear way to bring it home, it felt important and safe to protect its vision by putting it out immediately and also exciting to get it out and to fans when I was still inhabiting its space. It’s the first time that I’ve still been in a record at the time people are receiving it.
So what about the Boogie Christ album now? Are you still working on it?
I think it’s finally done. Redemption City helped me clarify what that album is all about. There are themes from both albums that overlap, and so Redemption Cityreally took some pressure off of Boogie Christ and now Boogie can breath. Boogie Christ lives in Redemption City. In my head, Redemption City was actually by Boogie Christ and The Ballad of Boogie Christ is by me and about Boogie Christ. Plus, I had and have the idea that the whole thing could and maybe should be a Broadway musical. I’m sure that sounds like madness, but I went deep inside this concept and again that’s why I believe making The Graduation Ceremony in the middle of all this prevented me from losing my mind.
You decided to release Redemption City completely for free. How has that worked out for you? Have you been surprised by the reaction?
Well, I think ultimately it remains to be seen but initially we are excited by the results and the feedback and the general buzz about the record. It seems as though its being received rather well and in the spirit of its intention. I think people can hear that its experimental and expansive and the people who have followed my music are happy that I am pushing myself in those ways. Artistically, I’m most happy when I’m taking chances and pushing boundaries. In some ways I think that’s what its all about.
Recently, you posted on Facebook that you lost your distributor and radio team because you gave your record away for free. How do you see things changing for you with this new approach?
We are all reaching for new ways of putting things out there and trying to reach an audience. With Facebook and Twitter, the lines keep getting blurrier. For small artists or artists with limited fan bases such as myself, the fans ideally become part of the team that helps you to expand your base. I posted that on Facebook because it was true (at least for Redemption City) but also to help garner support and energy in this grassroots campaign that we have begun by releasing the record in this way. I still hope and believe there is a way for us to win back our radio team and distributor and blend the old model with the new, but if not I think independence following creative whims in real time and immediately is the wave of the future