Acclaimed indie-folk artist Adam Arcuragi is back with a new album, Like A Fire That Consumes All Before It…, named in part for a favorite passage from The Iiliad. We asked Arcuragi, who Esquire once described as “a Philly soul with the old-school power of Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen,” about songwriting, his favorite lyric on Like A Fire and more.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
I wrote my first song when I was really young. There is video footage of me at about six years old freestyling a song about marrying some girl in California. Or was it wishing I’d married her in California? Either way I’ve, evidently, had the desire for a while. I ended up writing songs on guitar after my first day of learning chords. I can still remember the song. It was, in fact, terrible. In high school I did a lot of solo work. No band yet. Just playing in coffee shops for a few bucks here and there (and free unsold pastry… divine) with my mom’s acoustic guitar. That was a turning point because then I actually had to try and gauge reaction and feedback once I’d slipped in an original or two.
You can never be totally satisfied with what you do though. My friend Rick said “Never not be hungry.” All the best writers and thinkers seem to work until they die. Rimbaud is an exception. But if Whitman revised Leaves of Grass endlessly then I have no business being sated. I am certainly proud of the work we’ve done on this record, but I’m already working on the next one as well.
Who inspired you to start writing?
I’ve always been a writer of some sort or another. Everyone I admire inspired me to start writing. I’ve always had a very real reverence for all who’ve come before. If the innate desire to create is just there I guess the desire to foster it is shaped by the stuff that gets you excited. Earliest that I can remember was probably Michael Ende or Roald Dahl. I loved them when I was a kid. I guess Whitman too. I really took a shine to poetry early on.
Songwriting inspiration credit has to go to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Beatles via my mother. She gave me all my first albums to listen to and let me steal her guitar for about five years. Her love of music was sewn into me. She even played guitar against her belly while she was pregnant with me. So I’ve been getting prepped since before I was able to breathe on my own.
What’s a song on the new album your particularly proud of?
“The Well” gets me excited when I listen to it. We recorded it right in the middle of the session so you can really hear how hot the band was cookin’. The chorus too makes me excited, the band lifts up the song just the right amount to accent the idea of everyone eventually experiencing that land where we’ll never grow old. To their credit too, the band never needed to be told what the vibe of the song was or what the words were about, they just jumped in and played their hearts out.
What’s a lyric on the album you’re especially proud of?
“It will beat death/ on its own time/ when in action/ and when the little ones touch fire/ to every lip and every thigh”
That’s from “Oh I See.” I don’t know why. I don’t really even remember writing it to be honest. It’s one of those things that just came out in the flow. Looking back on it though I don’t know why I am proud of it. It always catches my ear. So much so that I stop and think “Damn brain, what are you trying to say?”. I’ve listened to that song a whole bunch during this whole process and it always leaps out at me. It’s also the way the band comes way down on that line too. Such a nice bit of touch on everyone’s part.
You know, it’s sort of arrogant like Achilles but also joyous like singing and dancing. Humans get to have that leeway and it’s fun to point it out.
Are there any words you love, or hate?
I am a language lover. I love it all. I’m like the Will Rogers of human languages — “Never met a word I haven’t liked.”.
It’s almost like an affliction. I usually have a pocket OED etymology dictionary with me. If someone uses a word in an interesting way, I sneak off and look it up and find out where that word comes from. One of my favorite books is The Singing Neanderthals by Stephen Mithen. It’s un-testable (as the author freely admits) but it is a great use of archaeology, linguistics, biology and whatnot to try and posit what the ‘first language’ was. Highly recommended reading for anyone. It made me feel sentimental and connected to our human lineage in a weird way that I’ve never been able to shake.
Idioms make up a good percentage of arrows in my quiver so I’ve loved them for a long time as well.
Do you revise a lot, or do you like to write automatically?
Songs seem to want to come in either two ways. One is automatically like an electrical discharge. I could be walking down the street or eating at someone’s house when it steps into the light and is there. Sure there might be some tweaks that come from playing it a whole bunch to sweat out the unnecessary bits or re-place a bridge somewhere, but those songs, for the most part, come fully formed like a healthy baby.
The other way songs seem to want to come is with one line. Either a phrase, hook or melody. They could unravel into a whole song in an hour, in a day, heck I’ve still got melody lines I’m trying to find a home for that I’ve had for years. For this path, there is a lot of editing. Trying to match bits and pieces together is the work; that is the discipline.
It seems like my job is to be ready. Dressed and in shape and ready at all times; waiting for the train to pass by. Because I don’t know when or how fast it’s going, I need to be prepared and fit. The train comes. It seems that it is my job to be able to jump on when it feels it is ready. Because really the conductor is a gorgeous silvery lady who will slow down for her devoted, but she never stops all the way.
Who are some of your lyrical and musical influences?
The list is too long to be able to write it all out and it is sure not going to be easy for me to pick and choose. It’s songs or lines that I’d wished I’d written. Whether it is a guitar riff here or a cool lyric there or a piano part that bubbles up from the bottom. Those are the lights I go tramping through the bog to find.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
I had a young man come up to me one time and tell me how I am become joy helped him get through his friend dying of cancer. They would listen to it together and it made them happy. So then when the friend passed away the album reminded him about the good times. That was the kind of feedback you don’t ever anticipate. I’m still not sure what to make of that other than being so humbled it hurts.
People seem to really love different songs for different reasons. “Bottom of the River” gets to people because it’s a barn-burner so it gets the heart rate up. For me I’m more interested in what their reaction is. Someone once told me that they loved “She Comes To Me” because it made her feel like someone understood her desire to become a veterinarian… which is great but not even close to anything that crossed my mind. It is such a treat to be able to send out a ‘ping’ that comes back from the void in so many different shades and colors.
Who’s an underrated songwriter in your opinion?
Jack Carter, from Jack Carter and the Armory. The Rooster is a firecracker. All the best bits of Ryan Adams, Bob Dylan and Alan Vega all rolled into one with that one.
Kellen Shipley. He has a band called Bats In The Belfry that is just amazing. His ability to turn regular words and phrases on their ear and make them seem like you’d never heard them before still blows my mind.
Jesse Elliott from These United States. All his songs are great, well-written passionate songs. He wrote a song called “So High So Low So Wide So Long” that I’m still trying to best.
Gary Eddy is a fellow I know from Atlanta and he is maybe one of the most talented guys out there who’s not out there. Gary plays out sporadically but he should be on the road and making records constantly. I’ve never met another songwriter like him. In his songs he is funny without being joke-y, he’s serene and moody without being too serious and his melodies… someone could hum them on a kazoo and I’d still get chills.
What do you consider the perfect song?
Here are my picks for the ones that get pretty damned close to perfect:
– “Stories” by Bill Withers
– “I Know Where The Summer Goes” by Belle and Sebastian
– “New Morning” by Bob Dylan
– “Be My Baby” by Greenwich, Barry, Spector
– “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” by Brother Claude Ely
– “Death in the Morning” by Reverend Anderson Johnson
– “Margret vs. Pauline/Set Out Running/Deep Red Bells” by Neko Case
What’s the best career advice you ever got?
Get a band to play with you, with musicians that are better than you.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years?
I’d like to be making a record. I’d like to be in Santa Fe or Majorca; and while I’m daydreaming, I’d like a pony.
(Photo: Sarah Law)