Joseph Arthur

Joseph Arthur 'The Ballad of Boogie Christ - Act 1'

For every song Joseph Arthur has released in a critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated career that has spanned nine full-length albums and 11 EPs, he's probably kept three others in the vault for safekeeping. Indeed, Arthur has been known to start working on a new album -- or two -- while simultaneously trying to finish another.

It was amid this abundance of riches that the Brooklyn-by way of Ohio-native began molding a collection of music under a single narrative thread: The Ballad of Boogie Christ, described by Arthur as "a fictionalized character loosely based on my own journey."

At first, it was a song here or there, or a set of lyrics with no accompanying music. Then, those songs would get recorded and set aside. They'd get re-recorded and revised. They'd start to make sense in relation to their brothers and sisters, and then they wouldn't. And pretty soon, more than half-a-decade had flown by and Boogie Christ was no closer to coherency.

"For some reason, I've been avoiding finishing this record for a long time," Arthur says with a laugh. "It's been an albatross around my neck. I don't know why, but it has."

Yet despite its labored birth, The Ballad of Boogie Christ -- Act 1 has defied the odds to become another essential cornerstone of Arthur's robust discography. Encompassing sessions put to tape in upstate New York, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Arthur's own Brooklyn studio, the 11-song album showcases the artist's signature rich storytelling set to a diverse range of rock'n'roll.

"I don't know that there's a beginning, middle and end to the story, but there are definitely experiences, situations and perspectives that point in those directions," says Arthur. "I wanted to let the listener fill in some of the blanks without telling the whole story in a straight-ahead way."

The album begins with the surprising orchestral pop of "Currency of Love," on which Arthur unveils a passionate croon unlike any vocal performance he's ever given. From there, Boogie Christ offers epic affirmations on overcoming addiction (the seven-minute closer "All the Old Heroes"), anthems of open-hearted solidarity ("Wait for Your Lights," "It's OK To Be Young/Gone") and the kinds of slow-burning narratives ("Famous Friends Along the Coast," "I Used To Know How to Walk on Water") that have won Arthur a legion of fans around the globe.

Songs like "Black Flowers," "I Used To Know How to Walk on Water" and the title cut were recorded several years ago with help from the Band's legendary keyboardist Garth Hudson and bassist Catherine Popper (Ryan Adams, Jack White), while newer additions to the track list such as "Currency of Love" and "Saint of Impossible Causes" were crafted in Los Angeles with assistance from Chris Seefried (Fitz & the Tantrums, Lana Del Rey). Among the other guests on ?Boogie Christ? are Ben Harper (Arthur's bandmate in Fistful of Mercy), session drummer extraordinaire Jim Keltner, Joan As Policewoman leader Joan Wasser and composer Paul Cantelon (Oliver Stone's W., Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell & the Butterfly).

"There are certain moments on the album that are just pop music and sugary," Arthur says. "I didn't want it to be this diatribe of heaviness, and it had been like that sometimes. I definitely wanted moments of relief within it, where you just get a good jam."

At the center of the project is the autobiographical "King of Cleveland," a classic story song that connects Boogie Christ the character with Arthur the flesh-and-blood artist. On it, the narrator apprentices alongside a big fish in a small pond, "playing blues in the back seats, from biker bars to limousines" -- much like Arthur did in his early professional career in Northeast Ohio. Says Arthur, "He's just starting to live the life he's imagined, playing roots boogie in the real America -- Ohio."

With plans still taking shape for future installments of Boogie Christ material, perhaps as earlier as the fall, Arthur is hoping the project will eventually take on a life of its own outside of the album context.

"I've heard David Bowie talk about how Ziggy Stardust and some other records were the beginnings of screenplays that he just never finished," he says. "I could really see this becoming something deeper and bigger than just an album.

"Chuck Prophet reminded me that there's always the Great American Novel," he continues. "And that really stuck in my head about Boogie Christ. That's what I've been wanting to achieve with this album. He encouraged me that it was okay to dream big."

[A CONVERSATION WITH] RENE LOPEZ - b. 1969, The Bronx

So when was the moment you just knew you had to be a musician? What was the "aha" moment?

RL: Growing up Puerto Rican in the Bronx, music was all around me, so I do not remember any real epiphany. My father played the trumpet in the salsa band Tipica 73 and I probably spent more time at the side of the stages than I should have. I do have vivid memories of beautiful women, dressed in shimmering, tight dresses, their hair flying behind their heads as they were spun around by their partners. They would sweetly ask me to dance and everything; the smell of perfume and cigarettes, the sweating heat of the club, the intoxicating rhythms felt so natural that there was never a thought that I would do anything else.


Let's talk about the new album. There's a real old school soul vibe to it—your last record [2005's One Man's Year] had more of a rock feel—when did this new sound, especially from a song-writing perspective, begin to click, and feel right for you?

In the summer of 2008 I discovered a studio called The Document Room in Malibu, where I spent that summer. I decided to experiment; I'd write a song in the morning and record it in the afternoon. I wrote five in quick succession in the course of a few weeks and it was what came out of me naturally; the songs were almost stream of consciousness. And I was really happy with the results. I felt like I was in my childhood bedroom again playing music because…because it was fun, and because I loved it, and because I wanted to be doing it. It was like reuniting with an old friend or something.

You're a New York based singer-songwriter, and have been since the beginning of your career, going back to your first band The Authority, and the scene at Wetlands in the late 80s and early 90s; how does the city inspire you and does it still inspire you after all these years?

Oh yeah. For sure. New York's my home. I have a real love affair with it. Always have. From the diversity of the people, to the great music, amazing food and wine, and overall culture, I'm truly at home there and draw so much inspiration from it. And the music scene is really important to me—the camaraderie with all the musicians, and the built in support network. That's key.

You have a lovely wife and two adorable kids—your son's four, your daughter's two—so I imagine your days of late nights and craziness on the road, and the wild rock and roll life, are behind you; how has the experience of growing up and having children, and leading a stable and normal grown-up life change your relationship to songwriting and playing music?

I think it's made me more focused. I don't have time for bullshit anymore. I mean, my wife and kids come first, and it's a difficult balance at times to get things done with my music, but that's part of the challenge and I kinda welcome it. There's also an important lesson there too, and one that I was taught by my father's dedication to his family and his music. It is possible to be dedicated to both. And I want my kids to see how amazing it is to have a passion in life and how gratifying it is when you pursue things that you're passionate about.

You've dipped your toe into the acting world; you shot some scenes for Paul Morrissey's last movie, and you had a role in the blockbuster He's Just Not That Into You, is this something you want to pursue?

If it comes my way I'll give it my best, but I have no desire to pound the pavement going from audition to audition. I mean, I do enjoy the acting part, I just don't like all the bullshit in between. There's enough of that in the music business.

What are some things that inspire you right now? What about current musicians? What are you digging?

Well, I've been listening heavily to Boogaloo lately, which is Latin soul from the 60s—artists like Joe Cuba, Ray Barretto, Mongo Santamaria, Peter Rodriguez and Tito Puente. It's party music. It makes people smile. It's also the music I grew up with, the music my dad played. I've been working recently on a modern take on Boogaloo for my next record. I'm also obsessed with [the 1978 Jamaican cult movie] Rockers. It's so stylish and raw.

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Joseph Arthur with Rene Lopez

Wednesday, June 19 · Doors 8:00 PM / Show 9:00 PM at The Chapel