Joseph Arthur on The Family

Joseph Arthur on The Family

“All happy families resemble each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstói, Anna Karenina.

I never really sat down at a piano and asked for much from it. Though for me, piano runs deep as the nucleus of my relationship with music. It’s how I started. And a thing I hated – not unlike three hundred million suburban kids before and after me. But this thing in my world as a kid just stood there like a judgment of failure and a stunning opportunity, all at the same time. And was used that way against me and for me. And thus began my long, weird relationship with music. This saviour. This damnation. And I won’t apologize for the Emo direct sloppiness of this description. There’s no way to soft sell it.

Music quickly became the cornerstone of my identity out of need. And it has remained that way ever since. It’s a need to transcend this reality for another, and it’s what we all seem to strive for in one way, or another. For me, music means freedom and is still the best place to put all the love-frustration-pain-suffering-euphoria-bliss-magic I can muster. It always pays back and pays back in full.

A piano restorer in Carroll Gardens found my 1912 Steinway Vertegrand piano for me. When it came up on Craigslist, he said he was baffled by it. It came to my place for $1,600, all in. It was a steal. There are famous photos of John and Paul (The Beatles) playing identical pianos, writing their early hits. My piano tuning friend gave it the full inspection and tuning, but little to no repair was needed. It was like out of a time capsule. It was aged, and it had character. But nothing compared to what it was and how old it is. It had lived in Connecticut with the same family for generations, and it simply had become an artifact, despite sentimental value. Beyond all measure, though entirely impersonal to me, it had become a thing the family could no longer afford to deal with (as all things in this realm finally become.) And how unfortunate/fortunate for it to end up in an industrial garage space/studio off the coast of the waters of Red Hook, Brooklyn, where early in its new life it faced near devastation. It was only saved by friends who lifted it on cinderblocks when Sandy came to fuck us all.
But it survived.
We survived.

This record evolved right around the time the piano made its way to Brooklyn. I’d had a random conversation (is anything random?) with a woman I judged to be into speed and pills (okay, by her own admission). She was telling me about her problems with her ex-husband hounding her about the kids. This inspired the song, “You Wear Me Out”, which became the catalyst for the concept of this record about family dynamics. I set out to make an album that centred about all of the aspects and all of the relationships of “The Family”. And how fitting that these songs should begin on that hundred-year-old Steinway that had only ever belonged to one family.

So the songs just came. One after the other. It felt like some dumb divine clockwork. Everything else I had, or was doing, went out the window and seemed tired and irrelevant. I hadn’t yet released “Boogie Christ”, but I dove into this passionately.

“The Family” story is mostly a work of fiction. This isn’t about my family. It’s about family.
I did interview my parents. I asked for stories – anything they could recall. I remember thinking how strange it was that I hadn’t really asked before, and also how relatively little they seemed to know. I think many modern American families operate like this. Off the top of my head, I don’t even know much about my heritages. I know that one of my grandfathers comes from Spain, and the other comes from Scotland. My grandmothers are mixes that I can’t recall, and so it goes. We blend. Our histories are lost or confused. This is no bad thing, mind you. It’s life and it’s great, and I’m all for it. We should blend. We should progress. But I digress…

I used facts from things my folks told me and then quickly fictionalized. Not as a rule, but because I wasn’t interested in creating a personal history, or telling a story that no one really knows. I utilize the personal to imbibe reality into the universal.

For example, when I refer to ‘sister’ in “Sister Dawn”, I’m not speaking about my sister, though I did use her actual name in the song, “The Family”. However, it was me who would climb up every tree. And that wasn’t in West Virginia, either. It was in Akron, Ohio. But we did go to Anmoore, West Virginia every summer and every Christmas, and we did play football there.
I incorporated actual names of people who meant something to me, and for whatever reason, never changed them. Perhaps I should have. But songwriters know that names hold weight and are hard to change.

The songs are sung from the perspective of different characters, both male and female, both child and adult, in different times in history. World War II factors in heavily to the story, but for me it was always just about war right now—the loss we all have right now. That’s why I let it surround the main story, which is the way family dynamics shape us and make us who we are.

“When I Look At You” is sung from the perspective of a mother looking at her son as she is dealing with losing her husband to the war. As a songwriter, there was great freedom to take myself far out of the equation. And yet the songs felt like these things had been waiting for me, waiting for me to get out. Maybe they were stored up in that piano. Or maybe writing from that thing that had threatened me most was really setting me free. The story is non-linear and abstract, and works to help make it less personal and more universal. (An aside: I asked Tchad Blake to sequence it. He has a peculiar talent for this, as well as for mixing. This album came alive not only through his mixes, but through his sequence and edits.)

“Wishing Well” is about going to the mall in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s; it was the only suburban destination for my best friend, Jeremy and me. We’d spend hours with stolen twenties, playing Asteroids or Pac-man, smoking menthol cigarettes I stole from my mom, and joints we got any other kind of way — and looking at that freaky well in the center of it all — the weird display of financial lunatic freedom, right in the middle of the celebration of capitalism that was wooing us to sleep through sticky treats and flashing lights. But at the mall we could make some wish, to what or who, I don’t know. But no one ever seemed to take that money (from the wishing well). And lets hope at least some of those wishes came true. I know mine did.

In West Virginia, you could see the highway from a tiny porch of this little house that had been destroyed. It only exists, like it only ever existed, up here in the spirit where everything is eternal and forgiven, and the complicated aspects that make us these remarkable things called humans. That’s what I was trying to document here. That’s the story I was trying to tell. Love and loss. Dysfunction and surrender. Hopelessness and abuse. And the thing that somehow allows us to transcend it all. To let the things that at one point impaired us, be the same things from which we develop, or like a blessing, get our strengths.

Nothing in this album comes from judgment. These are stories being told from different voices and mysterious times, which hopefully resonate with all the families everywhere.

The last song on the record, “Daddy, The War Machine”, is sung from the perspective of an innocent child, with his simplistic understanding of where his father went, and why – and then with the complexity of his loss and absence. Then the grown-up in him sings almost with defiance, or even as a challenge, with a boxer’s pose at the end. It is the loss endured and turned into fearlessness – a kind of punk rock exuberance inviting the reality of this war machine that is the nature of man. It’s a celebration of it all. An acceptance and a love letter. To life. And to all families, including mine.

Joseph Arthur
March 2016


REVIEW : Temporary People - Patrolmag.com

by TIM ZILA on JANUARY 16, 2009

THE UNFORTUNATE result of releasing new music every month is that sometimes, when the real record comes around, the world is too used to your presence to notice it. The prolific Joseph Arthur’s Temporary People hit last September and has yet to be reviewed by Pitchfork, Pop Matters, Entertainment Weekly, Blender, Paste, orRolling Stone. (The lone dissenter: a one-paragraph Spin review.). And just to clarify, Arthur’s not an unknown artist. He gets reviews—good ones—from the likes of Pitchfork and Paste. But the curse of Arthur’s prolificness is that it downplays his sometimes quality, sometimes inventive output.

That’s a shame for Temporary People, Arthur’s most diverse, gratifying album yet. Starting with the title track, which plops well timed piano chords and electric guitar riffs atop an acoustic structure that carefully avoids mimicking “Slow Me Down” (from this year’s Vagabond Skies EP), the album sees Arthur balancing his penchant for country, pop, gospel, and more experimental fare. Unlike last year’s trainwreck effortLet’s Just Be (which might be code for “lets record a bunch of mostly bad songs and just let them be”), it’s concise and controlled. As time has shown, Arthur achieves his best results when he reigns in he and his band’s more indulgent tendencies.

On “Heart’s a Soldier”, Arthur enlists a choir of background singers and puts on his deepest gospel voice for the first chorus (“Go on, go on/Show a little faith in me”) and the even better second chorus (“It’s a real tough life when you’re searching for ecstasy.”) I can’t be entirely sure whether he’s talking about the abstract noun or the illicit substance, but my money’s with the drug. “Turn You On” exercises Arthur’s falsetto on the album’s most believable lyric (“You say/I don’t turn you on/Until/It’s time for me to go”) and adds a wandering organ line.

Not everything works perfectly (see the sitar on the otherwise classic-rocky “Faith”) but almost none of it—and this is a big plus for Arthur—is blatantly out of place. The most malignant track is “A Dream is Longer than a Night,” where Arthur puts on his best Yorke imitation and waxes Radiohead; the track fails to do anything more than stick out awkwardly. Thankfully it’s only two and a half minutes long.

Most everything else on Temporary People speaks to a much-needed Arthur rejuvenation. He’s still the same quasi-Christian spiritualist, spinning tales of drug addiction and ever-lingering hope that’s always just a bit out of reach. He condenses and channels his best qualities here, just don’t be surprised if it takes a handful of EP’s and another album before it happens again. If there’s one thing we should have learned about Arthur by now, it’s that he is by turns indulgent and restrained, sloppy—but meticulous and inspired when he decides to be.


REVIEW : Temporary People - Spin

by Jon Young // November 14, 2008

Joseph Arthur’s obsessive pursuit of first-take ecstasy can produce moments of thrilling immediacy or create an unappealing mess (see 2007’s Let’s Just Be).
Having already churned out four EPs this year, the Brooklyn dynamo mostly gets it right here. 
Taking after Dylan, Neil Young, and others who prize grit over polish, Arthur puts his sandpaper rasp to good use on frayed, rootsy tales such as the sneering “Dead Savior” and the ramshackle “Heart’s a Soldier.” 
Most importantly, he seems to have great fun venting, which gives Temporary People an irresistible, 
what gives? spirit.


REVIEW : Temporary People - No Depression

by Edd Hurt

Temporary People takes loss as its subject, and anyone who's ever fallen passionately in love will recognize its mixture of ecstasy, terror, uncertainty and detachment in the face of big, unfashionable emotions. Joseph Arthur renders these dozen songs subtly, but the album's achievement rests in the Brooklyn songwriter's inspired use of the same old rock materials.

What's more, he has a sense of humor and a sly way with all the stuff he's lifted from a '70s canon that seems to favor Bowie and the Stones. "Winter Blades" lifts off with a basic rock 'n' roll structure, complete with a distorted vocal and a nicely executed fake ending. Like Chuck Prophet, Arthur likes to pile on the details: backing vocals, wah-wah guitar, harmonica, extraneous percussion. Unlike Prophet, however, Arthur often hides behind the density of his arrangements. This is appropriate for a record that lurks in the shadow of loss.

"Say Goodbye" feints in the direction of 3/4 time before settling into a simple acoustic-guitar pattern complemented by echoed guitar lines. "You left on a cold afternoon/Leaving winter in the month of June," Arthur sings. "Faith" features a vocal that seems to slouch, but Arthur stretches out his words and pitches his voice in the direction of hope, defiance – some useful emotion along those lines. For that matter, Arthur has a sense of humor: the way he inflects "go on" in "Heart's A Soldier" matches the droll soulfulness of lines such as, "You try to change the weather/Even though you know it's a mistake." And the exquisite, brief "Dream Is Longer Than The Night" turns on a perfect chord change. Here, Arthur's voice is a whisper trailing off into a rabbit hole, and the gospel-inflected 6/8 structure is perfectly judged.

The Lonely Astronauts follow Arthur every step of the way, with Greg Wieczorek's drumming particularly apposite. Garth Hudson adds piano and organ to several tracks. The closing song, "Good Friend", is invested with almost more emotion than it can contain. This is appropriate for a record which doesn't try to dodge the uncomfortable and oddly invigorating feelings that only love – and its discontents – can evoke. Temporary People feels strangely permanent, even as it sports a cover photograph of the band posing among various female mannequins. Joseph Arthur might be "naked and alone," as he sings in "Faith", but he makes that condition sound as temporary as any number of other afflictions that feel as though they'll last forever.