INTERVIEW : 2013-07-29 Joseph Arthur (by Julia Wallace)

It would be appropriate to introduce this Q&A in free verse, but it would just become a crude imitation of what artist Joseph Arthur executes below. And artist refers to many mediums; Arthur is a songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, poet, painter, designer, and as we discover below, an expert interviewee. His latest album, The Ballad of Boogie Christ, was released June 11 (read our review here) and he is about to release his first book of poetry, I Miss the Zoo and Other Poetry Selections.

We scatted with Arthur about the Shakespeare of suburbia, how this album differs from his last, and why the gods seem to be withholding their best material. Don’t forget to check out his poem “I Miss the Zoo” at the end of the interview.

Tell us a bit about your new album. How would you compare it to your last album?

Well, it’s called The Ballad of Boogie Christ.
It’s loosely based around a character that’s either enlightened or insane,
like all of us.
It’s a sonic landscape across the last few years of my life excavating material for my captors,
though they were illusions, every last one of them.
It’s related to my last record, which was called Redemption City.
Redemption City is where Boogie would/does live.
Redemption City is a more electronic version of a similar concept.
I made it out of the burden that was bringing Boogie to life.
Whenever I got burned out on the task,
I would move on to something else,
which was Redemption City and The Graduation Ceremony before that.
It was initially recorded on tape.
It has guests ranging from Ben Harper to Garth Hudson to Jim Keltner to Joan Wasser from Joan as Police Woman.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

I’ve been on a Howlin’ Wolf kick lately
and Robert Johnson.
Going back to the roots,
and then listening to the new Kanye, which is really just brilliant.

When did you start writing songs? (Were they good right away, or did that come later?)

Haha! Well, thanks for saying that it came at all.
It’s funny, but I remember telling my dad I was going be an important songwriter before I ever wrote a thing.
I don’t know what gave me that gumption or need.
I do know it’s important to have demons in us
and it’s important to want to escape.
The trick is in coaxing that drive towards creative, rather than destructive, ends.
I’ve done both and both can be fun and both can kill you.
It’s a balancing act,
dancing with the gods
when the roof is on fire
and trying to not jump.

What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.

It was about the colors of the rainbow.
It was when I was in 2nd grade.
I got an honorable mention in some contest for grade-schoolers.
Little did I know it would be a premonition and a metaphor for my entire career.

What’s the last song you wrote or started?

It’s a piece of electronic music– which I think would surprise people
as it’s so far away from the Boogie Christ album–
and it’s pretty much just about wanting someone.

How do you go about writing songs?

Well, you don’t really go about it
so much as let the flood come,
and clean up the debris as it smacks you in the head.

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

Same as Bukowski -
don’t try.
But then again, you have to find a way to start the flow and get out of its way,
all while guiding it without interfering with the thing beyond you, trying to make itself known through you.

What percentage of songs that you start do you finish?

All of them.
It’s just that some are finished
before they get recorded
and before they find words.
Some are finished in dreams.
I’ve woken up and tried to chase songs that came to me when asleep
and it pretty much never works.
It’s like the gods just don’t want you to cheat other dimensions out of their material.
It’s as if they are saying,
“Come up with your own.”

What sort of things inspire you to write?

The futility of everything is fertile ground.
And death looming past the viaducts of love,
falling into traps where misfits lay roses
and stepping on old chewing gum.

What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?

“I Used to Know How to Walk on Water”
is a gem.
And it’s different lyrically and musically to anything I’ve done or heard before.
Plus, it’s one that many have told me has resonated with them.
That stuff counts.
It’s hard not to pay attention to what people say,
especially when they say it right to you.

What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?

“I Miss the Zoo” is pretty good.
It’s a new perspective on an old theme.
Addiction is well-covered, but lamenting over it from a sober perspective is less so.
I haven’t really heard it in that way before.
It’s wordy as hell and I have it memorized, so that’s good for something.

Is it easier, or harder to write songs, the more you write?

I think it’s easier to write them
but harder to want to.
It’s like going to the movies and trying to fall in love with a really good-looking girl who you know will betray you.

Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?

Yeah, I attempt poetry and would love to try others.
Plus, I’m good at writing answers to interview questions.

Are there any words you love or hate?

I like the word “tape.”
Not so keen on the word “frog.”

The most annoying thing about songwriting is….

In and of itself, it’s a spectacular way to spend one’s time.
It’s all the other stuff surrounding it that gets annoying, but hey,
if you chose it then don’t complain about it, right?

What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?

“In the Sun” seems to have done its job rather well.

If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

Robert Johnson.

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?

It’s funny because people accuse me of being underrated frequently and I never know what they mean.
How are we rating it?
Is it based on fame?
I’m sure there’s a Shakespeare somewhere in the bedroom in some small American town
writing something that could save everyone’s soul that none of us will ever hear.
The Shakespeare of suburbia.
He’s the champ,
whoever he is.

What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?

I like that you clarified written by somebody else,
because I would have surely sequestered this question back into my own domain as I so rudely did the one above.
But let’s see…
It doesn’t get any better than Hank Williams singing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”


2013-07-26 - WOMAD Festival, Malmesbury

On Stage :

Concert with Bill Dobrow on drums

Setlist : 

currency of love
saint of impossible causes
the ballad of boogie christ
i miss the zoo
black flowers
in the sun
almost blue
yer only job
i used to know how to walk on water
travel as equals
still life honey rose

Recording :

Sadly, there's no audio recording of this event. 
If I am wrong, thank you to inform me by email.

Poster :

Pictures by Katherine J. Wood :


2013-07-25 - St Pancras Station, London

On Stage :

At 5:30 pm, Joseph played five songs with Bill Dobrow on percussions.

Setlist :

currency of love
saint of impossible causes
i miss the zoo
the ballad of boogie christ
still life honey rose

Recording :

2013-07-25 - Rough Trade East, London

On stage :

Instore performance, with Bill Dobrow on rebolo.

Setlist :

saint of impossible causes
i used to walk on water
black flowers
king of cleveland
i miss the zoo
still life honey rose
almost blue
yer only job

Recording :

Sadly, there's no audio recording of this event. 
If I am wrong, thank you to inform me by email.


2013-07-12 - Free At Noon, WXPN, Philadelphia

On Stage :

Session in public with Bill Dobrow on rebolo.

Setlist :

Currency of Love
Saint of Impossible Causes
The Ballad of Boogie Christ
I Used to Know How to Walk on Water
I Miss the Zoo
It’s OK to Be Young/Gone
Black Flowers
King of Cleveland

Recording :