Catching Up With Joseph Arthur

Music Features Joseph Arthur

Every day is a busy day for Joseph Arthur. The songwriter has been going strong with consistent releases since his demo hit the hands of Peter Gabriel in the late ‘90s, sometimes releasing three recordings a year. And that’s not counting his projects, Fistful of Mercy and RNDM, or his life as a successful painter, which is also integrated into his live shows, or his recently announced podcast. Lately, he’s been promoting a concept album, which quickly turned into a series, called The Ballad of Boogie Christ that he’s now touring behind with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills as his bassist and receiving some of the best reviews of his career.

Paste: So you’re in an album trilogy thing, right?
Arthur: Yeah, it’s a series. It’s a thing. The third one is called Boogie Rises. It’s a hip hopera.

Paste: Is it?
Arthur: It’s going to be a hip hopera.

Paste: So The Ballad of Boogie Christ is the whole thing.
Arthur: I mastered 35 songs for it. I’ve been working on it for a long time, and it just built up.

Paste: How do you keep an album cohesive when you’re working on it for that long? Because for a lot of albums, you write a set of songs in a certain amount of time and a theme emerges. But you’re trying to hold something together over five years with lots of breaks.
Arthur: Yeah, because this was sort of centered around a character concept. I had all of these songs that kind of fit into this idea of this character that was kind of enlightened and kind of insane, and when I base it off of a character I could write songs that were sort of autobiographical and go “oh, that could be about Boogie’s childhood” or “that could be about his high school years or his drug-addled past, or this could be loss of faith.” You start formulating the story in your mind, and then it almost takes on the form of a novel, and then it becomes endless and you write lots of chapters for it.

Paste: So this is like your version of R. Kelly’s Trapped In the Closet?
Arthur: It is! It’s my Trapped In the Closet. I take that as an enormous compliment.

Paste: Well, his new one is called Black Panties, and you’ve got Black Flowers
Arthur: Yeah. Well, I think Boogie Rises is a hip hopera; that’s in the same realm.

Paste: A little Shaft in there with the wah-wah.
Arthur: You think I’m kidding. There’s actually too much wah. It’s almost every song has wah guitar. I’m not kidding. Like with Redemption City, I kind of started to almost try to rap. I’m going there. It’s a leap of faith. And here’s the other thing with a trilogy. The third part of a trilogy is always really bad. Godfather III, for instance.

Paste: Godfather III was bad, but then you’ve got Return of the Jedi. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusaade is the best one.
Arthur: What? Really? I don’t know about that. Must be an age thing. I remember the first one being the best one, but you were probably just at that sweet spot age wise…

Paste: It had Sean Connery.
Arthur: Anyway, I figure it’s my get out of jail free card. I can throw out an experimental one, and if it sucks I can say “Hey, it’s the third of a trilogy. What do you expect?” But I think it’s great. My friends tell me it’s really great.

Paste: Your mom thinks it’s swell.
Arthur: My mom loves it and is encouraging me to put it out. Actually she hasn’t heard it yet. I’m afraid for them to hear it.

Paste: I find it interesting that the character isn’t the embodiment of Christ, but he’s kind of a Christ figure.
Arthur: Well, he’s wrestling with the idea that he might be Christ. Like, that’s in his head. He thinks he might be Christ sometimes. And then he’s not sure. Then he’s pretty sure he’s just a human. And then he think’s he’s Christ again.

Paste: It’s been an interesting couple months for religion. The Pope was just named Time’s Man of the Year…
Arthur: Somebody posted a picture of the Pope on my Facebook and said “this will be you in 40 years.” I didn’t know if they meant that I look like him or if I was going to be a pope that was a man of the year.

Paste: Are you looking to become the pope? This is where you and the fictional Boogie Christ become one.
Arthur: Right. What if I turn into the pope? I already got the hat.

Paste: This pope’s been good though, right? He’s been out helping the poor and everything.
Arthur: He’s the real embodiment. It’s good. We need that.

Paste: I was just reading this Neil Gaiman book about the apocalypse, and then you bring out The Ballad of Boogie Christ and I start thinking about how a lot of us perceive religion in different parts of our life. When you’re a teen is when you really start to question it. It’s all about the challenge. And then later in life is when some people make amends or just give in or whatever it is, but what I find about this album is that it’s like a grownup version of that teen era where it’s like, let’s reimagine what this could be.
Arthur: Right. It’s funny that you bring up age with it because I think of it as like, coming from my mid-thirties, because I’m 42 now, I feel like the seed of it came from things I was going through in my mid-thirties. I think that’s a hard time in a man’s life. You’ve got to assert yourself, and there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s a strange developmental time. Everybody’s life is their own personal journey so I don’t know if other people’s is like that, but I do see certain other people going through stuff that verges on megalomania and they’re in their mid-thirties, and I’m just like, wow, I wonder if that’s a thing?

Paste: When you’re writing something like this, it’s a concept that just happens to have the Christ word in it, and I don’t know where you are spiritually, but did you find that there was any intersecting about how you really felt about religion and what was coming on in this?
Arthur: I think there is some philosophical thing in it, but I mean personally I don’t like anything that is exclusive or that’s like “this is the way it is and if you don’t believe this, you’re out.” I think most spiritual communities fall prey to that. From Alcoholics Anonymous to Christianity, most of them fall into the thing of “this is the right way.” And I guess by their nature they have to fall into that.

Paste: Because they’re a business?
Arthur: I don’t know. I think to have an in-group you have to think you have the answer in some way, and I don’t really believe there is any one way. But I definitely believe this is a mystical journey we’re on and there’s obviously creative intelligence behind all of this. I think it’s interesting how some people separate creationism and evolution or Darwinism. The fact that we can see the evolution or the creation over time doesn’t mean that it’s still not creation. Or like, science doesn’t do away with religion because science is like a blueprint of the creation that we’re seeing. It doesn’t mean that it’s not creation. I don’t think they should be at odds with each other at all.

Paste: Does Boogie deal with it?
Arthur: I think he does in that the character is going through all of these questions and like “I need the saint of music, I need the saint of love,” stuff like that in the “Saint of Impossible Causes” or “I Used To Know How To Walk On Water.” Things like that. So it’s framed in religion, but it’s more about a spiritual journey than any sort of specific religious ideology.

Paste: And you put yourself in a few of those songs, like little parts of you. You name check two home cities for you, Akron and Cleveland. At this point in your life, you’ve not lived in Ohio for a long time. Can you go back there, as in like “you can never go home”? Because your lifestyle has lead you around the world. You’ve been in New York forever now.
Arthur: For 20 years now. New York is my home.

Paste: So when you’re writing about Akron or Cleveland, is it from the outsider’s point-of-view now?
Arthur: No, it’s interesting, I don’t know if it’s because Akron is a special place to me. My folks still live in my childhood home, so I get to go visit them. I still feel very much at home there. Akron specifically I feel is a magical place. We started this tour in Akron. The place we played is called Tangier. It’s like the fancy place where we used to go for special occasions with family. On the way to the bathroom there’s a wall of old autographed showbiz photographs with like Charro and Ike Turner and the guy who played Tattoo on Fantasy Island with the owner of the restaurant. I remember being there as a kid and always checking out the photos and dreaming that one day I’d be on the wall. When I played there, I said something from the stage that I didn’t care about being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but I needed to be on the wall of Tangier’s and they put me on. So I made it! So, I do feel at home in Ohio.

Paste: There’s something about those little moments, like you never have to go there but once your home base starts championing you, there’s a sense of pride. You couldn’t care less about your past before but still feel like you have to impress them. Why do we have that? What do we have to prove?
Arthur: Yeah, it doesn’t make sense.

Paste: 2013 also had a few dark spots in it. You lost a couple friends. Chrissy Amphlett, the lead singer of the Divinyls, and then Lou Reed.
Arthur: Lou was a big friend of mine…

Paste: He also seemed like a guiding light for you.
Arthur: I think he was like a mentor to me. I loved him. Just a good friend really. Someone who I looked up to and have a huge amount of respect for.

Paste: When you’ve got someone that big in the scope of whatever art you’re a part of, you have someone that important to music and to you as a musician, it’s like a double-level relationship you have with this guy.
Arthur: It confuses the relationship. I mean, I understood more what he meant to me when he passed, and I think that’s just the nature of what we’re dealing with as human beings. Yeah, it was a rough way to have closure. I think that’s the way death is though. It’s the nature of it. It’s impossible.

Paste: So what happens now? You have this cool trilogy of a record going on and this unique concept. Movie? Play? What do we have next in the saga of Boogie Christ after this?
Arthur: I’d like to do some kind of theatrical thing. I’ve thought about it as a one-man show. I read somewhere that David Bowie always thought of his Ziggy Stardust type albums as films and I’ve definitely thought of Boogie Christ like that. I wanted it to come out where I had a play around it, but it just got overwhelming.

Paste: Didn’t “I Miss The Zoo” come out in two different versions [an older version on his previous album, Redemption City]?
Arthur: It felt like an important part of the Boogie Christ album. I was thinking of it as a type of novel and fleshing out the character, and that gave it backstory. So like, this is someone who used to be a drug addict or something like that. It gave it more weight to the character. And there were two others I thought were important. One was “Travel As Equals” and that one felt like an enlightened perspective, so I wanted to show that the character had achieved some sort of enlightenment. And the other was “Yer Only Job,” which didn’t actually make it onto Boogie. But that show Boogie spun off and created Redemption City, which was the sort of spoken word electronic record.

Paste: So in a way, those records are related.
Arthur: They’re like brother and sister. Like, in the play, Boogie Christ would live in Redemption City.

Paste: You could do that with any of your songs if you wanted to, if you were going to do the big musical. Like, which one of my old songs…
Arthur: Yeah, “In the Sun” would fit in really well.

Paste: That’s a nice marketing bit. Let’s get the biggest hit and make sure it’s in the set.
Arthur: And let’s get it on Broadway! This is the way to make money in the music business in 2014.

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