by Michael Christopher June 23, 2017
Much like the career of multi-talented singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur himself, his 2002 album Redemption’s Son, went down several winding roads before people caught on to its brilliance. Stuck in major label limbo after being discovered by Peter Gabriel and delivering the landmark LP Come to Where I’m From in 2000, he was a critical favorite who suddenly had no one to distribute his material.
Redemption’s Son first came out overseas in May of 2002 and finally a deal was worked for its release late that November in the States. Since then, Arthur has been prolific to say the least, with a staggering 14 albums and 11 official EPs under his belt. He’s also been involved with several high profile side projects including contributing to Afghan Whigs frontman Greg Dulli’s collective known as the Twilight Singers.
Today (June 23), the 15th anniversary edition of Redemption’s Son will be released on 180-gram double LP, double CD, and digitally. There are also nine previously unreleased songs which form a “lost album” which Arthur has named Morning Star. He’s currently on tour playing the record in full, with a show tonight in his adopted hometown of New York City, where last month he opened for the Afghan Whigs much-anticipated show at the legendary Apollo Theater. It was during that gig when Arthur plucked a girl decked out in a gold lamé from the audience while the Whigs were on the final song of their encore – and almost derailed the entire show at the same time.
Catching up with Arthur, he talked about that incident, the history of Redemption’s Son, the death of Chris Cornell and – perhaps the most important topic of all – what’s going on with his hair.
What was it like playing the Apollo?
That was my second time. I actually headlined and sold out the Apollo with my band Fistful of Mercy with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison. The Apollo is, like, golden in my mind – I got to have a golden moment at it, you know? So it’s funny when that door got reopened. I’ve been friends with Greg [Dulli] for many years and he calls me up and says, “I’ve got a curveball for you,” and I’m like, “Uh-oh.” He says, “No, it’s a good curveball.” [laughs] He says, “Do you want to open for the Whigs tomorrow at the Apollo?” and I was like, I had 24 hours to prepare, but it was fun – I had a great night that night.
You looked like you were having a blast – especially during “Faded,” you were dancing like a madcap, pulled that girl up on stage…
Yeah, I almost blew it in the Whigs set [laughs], like when I pulled that girl up onstage. I was watching her dance, and I was like, “She needs to be up onstage.” When she first went to Greg’s – she went right for worship mode and I was like, “Oh no! Am I gonna have to bounce this girl off right now?” But then she killed it. It was awesome the way she did it – it was almost like we planned it, but it was not planned. And then I almost tripped over the guitar rig and stopped the gig which would’ve probably promptly ended my friendship with Greg [laughs]. But sometimes you gotta risk it all for magic – you know?
I think I was most struck by your shaved head – when did you do that?
I’ve been doing that off and on since, I mean, well my first album [1997’s Big City Secrets] is me with a shaved head on the cover. So I came out the gate with this as my look [laughs]. Then I became a hippie in front of everybody. It’s just one of those things; my hair tends to go “classic-rocker-bad-haircut” look, so I just shave it every now and again. It started to grow back in, and I didn’t know I was gonna open for the Afghan Whigs or I probably wouldn’t have done it, but I had just shaved it with, like, a beard trimmer two days before – because I didn’t expect to be out in public for a while. It wasn’t on purpose and I couldn’t “fast grow” hair” [laughs]. I want to do a cute David Bowie cut, like a mullet but spiky on top.
So Redemption’s Son. The record has quite the storied history. Do you think that’s part of the reason why it’s one of the fans’ favorite albums, because there was this period of difficulty in getting it out? Like, it’s available only in the U.K., there there’s cover changes, the track listing changes, then it’s out here.
Man…that was such a weird period. It was sort of when my relationship with Real World Records fell apart, which is thankfully totally back together. I was kind of having this moment of being the critic’s darling at that time. But [the music industry at the time] was so numbers-based and you’re dealing with major labels and I had all that critical acclaim but I sold like 20,000 records – like nothing at the time. Politics being what they were, I was in a state of being dropped by Virgin, but I was not dropped at the same time – it gets confusing, but I was trapped and in a holding pattern for a couple years there. And it was right when I shouldn’t have been – I was really, really going for it.
And now the Morning Star songs are all out.
Dude, it’s so gratifying, and instead of being like, “Oh, why didn’t this happen then?” It’s more like, it’s all now – it doesn’t really matter. And I’m more excited to play these songs than I typically am to play a new album. I love the album.
Looking back, what do you see in the Joseph Arthur of 15 years ago? Is there anything that makes you cringe, or parts that are like, “Yeah, good on that dude,” what do you see in yourself?
That’s a good question. I think I was writing really good songs and it’s just so funny to be investigating them and remembering where my head was and what I was doing and why I was deciding certain things. Then you realize, “Oh my god, there’s so many different ways I could’ve chosen to evolve.” It’s hard to explain, but this feels like a very forward-thinking time for me and yet completely appropriate to be reapproaching this album in particular. There’s no songs on it that make me fully cringe; there’s a couple where I’m like, “Really? You put that on the record and not that? Are you insane?” But at the time, you’re thinking in terms, like, that throws in a different flavor. What’s great is you can reinterpret things and fix things. I’m into that.
When you revisit something like Redemption’s Son in concert, do you have to tap into the same emotions you had at the time…
Oh that’s easy. Good songs are just like good outfits; you put them on and the dude of the day is wearing the clothes. A nice outfit, you’re gonna feel good any day even if it’s 10 years, “Oh – this old suit still fits!” you know? “And it looks good too!” [laughs].
Some of these songs you haven’t played live, so are you struggling with relearning any of them?
The struggling with me learning looks like this: procrastinating in beginning to learn [laughs]. So “yes” is the answer – it just means I haven’t attempted it yet. I know I’ll find a way into each of these Redemption’s Son songs.
Shifting to a more somber topic, you developed somewhat of a friendship with Chris Cornell in recent years and published a moving post on Facebook after his passing. How hard is his death on you?
[Let’s out a big sigh] There’s no way to quantify that. Ugh. Death is so shocking and beyond…it’s hard to talk about it. I didn’t know him that well – I described my level of friendship; it was a few times we hung out and it was nice. He is a sweetheart of a person, a really beautiful soul. He gave us a lot and he’s a legend, an amazing artist and just a beautiful guy. There’s not gonna be another one like that dude ever, ever, ever – that’s a one of a kind human.