Joseph Arthur on the Unconscious Power of Art and Sound

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Joseph Arthur on the Unconscious Power of Art and Sound
Myriam Santos

If Joseph Arthur weren't so insanely talented you might be tempted to doubt the prolific pretense of his visual and musical art. But his talent, his gift for realizing his visions, is simply undeniable. Since his association with Peter Gabriel and Real World Records first brought him to a wider audience in the late '90s, the New Yorker has never stopped with his visions, from the violent and beautiful collision of the figural and the abstract in his paintings and drawings -- visible in his online Museum of Modern Arthur -- to releasing album after album, EP after EP, and so many singles, each remarkably different from the one before, but all marked by his strangely arresting way with the ugliest noise, the airiest harmonies and the most exquisite acoustic tones.

His latest release is Redemption City, a kind of self-produced, electronic-driven answer to Sandinista and the work of the Beat poets, full of songs and spoken-word poems of freedom and violence and "traveling as equals or not at all," no matter how dark and surreal the journey gets. He's giving the double album away on his website (donations are welcome). In song, Arthur can sing (or speak) of sitting on the banks of the Mississippi and hearing the howls of slaves around him and he can call you "man" and "brother" in conversation and it never sounds false. He seems to be in touch with things us lowly critics only pretend to talk about, even in a casual phone call from New York on a rainy afternoon.

Joseph Arthur performs at Off Broadway on Friday, June 1.

Roy Kasten: I downloaded the new album. Don't worry, I didn't listen to it on my laptop speakers.

Joseph Arthur: I listen to all my music through laptop speakers. That's actually not true, but it's hard not to sometimes.

A lot of the songs on Redemption City go back three or four years.

Someone said I should make a spoken-word record, because I'd written a lot of poems and had read one or two before, and it developed out of that. But then they developed into songs, even though in some of them I'm just speaking verses. It came from an unusual way of arriving at songs, an atypical way, at least for me. It was all words first, and the music came second. That's unusual for me.

Were you writing them as poems or as songs?

They were all there, I'd written them as poems, so I had this backlog of stuff to choose from. You look around for what's OK. For me record making is a phase-oriented process. It becomes your thing for a couple weeks, or three days, or five weeks, and you work really hard on it and then walk away from it, and it's not done. I went through a couple phases of that. I'd play the songs for friends and they'd say, "You should release this, it's really cool." And then I just finished it. I don't know how or why. I started working on a couple of other songs that I thought would be on a different record, "I Miss the Zoo," "Travel As Equals" and "Yer Only Job." I thought they might be something I could incorporate into a different record. But once I finished those, I realized that they belonged to Redemption City, that they would give more weight to it. I used that as motivation to finish.

Was Redemption City finished before or after your previous album, The Graduation Ceremony?

No, this one was finished like three minutes before it came out. That's the first time that's happened. It's really gratifying. You're still connected to it. You have to start doing interviews defending why you did whatever you did. By the time you have to start defending that you no longer know why you did what you did.

A sense of redemption is present in a lot of your songs. I'm wondering what that means for you. Is it redemption in this world or in a spiritual world?

Oh God, I don't know. That's heavy. We'd have to have this interview 'til after the sun went down. I don't know, man. I think it's both. It's something that drives humanity. I can only speak for my own experience, but I've always felt that way. I don't really know why.

I don't want to get too heavy on you but you started it with these songs.

I guess that's true.

A song like "No Surrender Comes For Free" has all these images of pain, and I'm wondering if that's cathartic for you, for those destructive feelings?

Why destructive?

The images of pain and angst. Maybe destructive is the wrong word.

It's weird. Talking about art is a little bit like talking about dreams. The person that could answer that question can't really answer that question either. It's a whole conglomeration of my experience and what I've gone through and manifesting itself through the unconscious. When you're tapping into that, and you try to use your mind, it just paralyzes you. Poetry or lyric writing, if it's any good, reveals something to the person while they're writing it. It's almost like a spiritual therapist. I don't have the lyrics in front of me, but I've been through a lot of that stuff in that song.

So it's a dream state?

Dream state is the wrong way to put it, but there's not necessarily a cohesive, analytical reason behind it. There might be but most often it's abstract. It's putting mundane things together to evoke some kind of spark. Like words. So when you try to explain it you rotate yourself into a hole.

All right, I'll throw you a rope and we can talk about the sounds. You're using a lot of electronic music on this double album, and you've done that before, but here it feels more central.

I use projects to sort of react off of each other. This record is a reaction to The Graduation Ceremony, for lack of a better word, the maturity of that album, the traditionalism of it. So this is going the other way, to do sonic and songwriting experimentation. I think The Graduation Ceremony has that as well but in a different way.

Are there any electronic artists or DJs that you listen to or are inspired by?

I like a lot of different ones. I listen to Burial sometimes. I'm not big into electronic music but I never shut it down. I love it but I'm random with it. I'm not super into the culture. It's one of those weird worlds; I don't understand it completely. I don't know if anybody does. Like house and techno -- I still don't know the difference between them.

The art for your albums has been really important. You won a Grammy for the design of Vacancy. How do you handle the art when you're doing digital releases?

We're doing a triple red vinyl gatefold LP for this one. And we're trying to get an iTunes release for all that. I wanted to release it in a more traditional way sooner than we will. You have to have different avenues. If you give something away, why would someone want to buy it? But they do. People still ask when the CD is coming out. I don't know if it will. Why don't they go to the website and download it? But some people don't want to take music that's online, even if the artist is giving it away. I guess there's a certain valor in that.

I watched a video of you doing live painting along with a performance. I've never seen anything like that before. Is that something you plan to keep doing?

I started doing that a long time ago. The first time was in Los Angeles. I didn't paint and sing at the same time, just at the beginning and at the end. And then a journalist the next day said he'd heard I was painting and singing at the same time. A light bulb went off. I realized that I used loops, and shit, I could do both at the same time. I've done it on and off for years. It was definitely scary the first time I did it. It's always a little scary when I do it. You can feel the audience open up, and there's this energy.

Do the two bleed into each other? When you're painting, do you think of a song or vice versa?

They've always worked together for me. I remember the first time I started to think as a painter while I was mixing music. With a painting you have an image and you can degrade it. It's similar to putting a layer of noise on a track and degrading it and making it more interesting.

This is going to be a solo tour?

We're still debating that, but I think so.

Do you feel as a solo performer, with the looping, that your chops have gotten better?

I think I'm looser at it. I care less about it. There are so many people doing it now. Some people will open for me and they're really good at it. Holy shit, they'll have these techniques, and I'll get inspired. For me it's creating a backdrop to jam off of and explore. With anything, if you do it long enough you get more natural with it, you know? With art, you evolve and devolve at the same time. You gain things and lose things. Hopefully you gain the right things and lose the right things.

Update: For his current tour, Joseph Arthur will be backed up by Russell Simins of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion on drums and Kraig Jarret Johnson of Golden Smog on guitar.

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