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 –
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?
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.”
I MISS THE ZOO
I miss the drunk
I miss the fiend
I miss the simplicity of addiction
And the scene
I miss wandering aimlessly
In half-dead sewers with rats for eyes
Chewing on forgiveness
And the will to apologize
I miss the return of no return
As I burn in avalanches
Of white snow and yellow cocaine
I miss talking to brick walls
While following the grain
And human dolls as I plagiarize myself like a dummy
Stuffed with counterfeit money
For Cairo and black honey
I miss illusions begging to be chased
Even as they disappear into me (erased)
Until there is no one or nothing but the chase
And a powdery ghost with no face
And the woman of my dreams disappearing without grace
I miss evolving into a cloud
Of blue marijuana blown from the lips
Of hookers and pimps
As they shake each other down
In alleys for the dammed but mighty
With no one but the weak around
And the beautiful unsightly
I miss numb Neanderthals marching
In rows of living dead
From my wisdom teeth to Spain and back again (in my head)
I miss salvation in syringes and angels of mercy
In blooms of smoke numbing rain
Which drinks when thirsty
I miss glasses full of spirits
Who without tongues speak to me of Napoleon’s wild nights
I miss staying up for days and becoming a psychic pretzel
Chewed on by a Zulu heading with toads to Mars
A mysterious prison
And one without bars
(at least those kind of bars)
I miss waking in the arms of strangers
Like puppies just born in the pound to a dead mother with eyes
Looking for a tit to suck
And other dangers
When the night before laughter was our only pursuit
Even as knives carved up our backs
And demons sat like Buddhas eating fruit
Meditating on hate forever in our minds
I miss exposing even my bones
And the need that rewinds
Even my burning home
Even my gutted inner child
Even my dead grandfather
Beneath the ground that’s wild
Even my criminal family
Even my weed whacker thoughts
Whipping a thin plastic string
To cut the ears off others
As I sing
I miss van Gogh’s revenge
I miss his nightly binge
I miss spiders surrounding my bed
And lifting me as if an effigy
Or a dead king
A prophet of doom
A Jesus for the apocalypse
Wearing dirt like perfume
Or a mother for Satan
Or ghost for all the children of abuse
Taking me into the fire
Watching me burn
Like a goose
As they sing
In spider voices
There goes creation
There goes the moon
There goes the butterfly
Wanting a cocoon
I miss being a bloom
And a goon
Waking up too soon in the afternoon
A doctor of regret
Hanging onto guitar strings in tune
And hanging by a belt
Wrapped around some pipe to nowhere and felt
My lips, too, wrapped around
What appears to be stained glass
As religious figures dress like rocks with class
Burn into gas
To the center of my brain
The euphoria of dying and being born all at once
While wearing the hat that reads “dunce”