Update: Earlier this year, Akron native Joseph Arthur took Donald Trump, who was not yet the president-elect, to task with “The Campaign Song,” a rousing number typified by droning guitars and sneering vocals. The track includes snippets of Trump speeches as Arthur sings, “Trump is a chump.”
“My first version of the campaign song was nuts,” says Arthur via phone as walks the streets of Brooklyn, where he says he’s preparing to play some shows and trying to overcome jetlag after returning from a European tour. He performs at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 23 at the Tangier in Akron. “Once I got the 1930s lingo idea, it was pretty cool. I went on tour with RNDM, and I had been on a news hiatus. I got off the road and checked in on the news. I remember writing the song when I was on the road. I saw the rallies and crazy weird shit I’ve never seen in America before. I thought it was nuts, and I wrote the lyrics and then wrote the song. He hadn’t even been elected as the Republican choice yet. To me, [the song] was pro-Bernie in my little sphere, but I guess it’s mainly anti-Trump more than pro anyone.”
Created by Ehud Lazin, the accompanying music video features footage from artist Spencer Tunick’s large-scale anti-Trump installation “Everything She Says Means Everything.”
Both outsider artists, Arthur and Tunick have known each other for years and have collaborated in the past. When Tunick heard Arthur’s tune, he told Arthur that he wanted to contribute to the video.
“We finally got it all together and got it out, and it seemed like okay timing,” says Arthur. “Eminem released a song the day after mine called ‘Campaign Speech.’ That was kind of cool. I like what he did. It’s a totally different thing, but it was dope. I love it. I think it’s cool the title is almost exactly the same as my song.”
Arthur says he thinks people "weren’t that worried" about the possibility of a Trump presidency and seemed "bored" by the Clinton and Trump presidential campaigns, but he says he always felt the “the amount of danger” that Trump represented was something that required more action. When he performed at a David Bowie tribute in New York in April where he covered the Bowie track "The Man Who Sold the World," he waved an American flag that read “Fuck Trump” on it.
“I caught some flack for that, and that was before he became the Republican nominee,” he says in reference to the flag-waving incident. “I don’t know what I’m talking about with politics, but I did sense the danger. The wild thing is that I’ve been in kind of a bubble. I wasn’t listening to how people were responding to it. I was responding and being free with my response. Once I investigated what other people said, I realized I wasn’t that far off point. Some of my favorite commentary people were saying the same things I was saying. What I responded to heavily was the wild way in which he was promoting his campaign through the racial stuff and the ‘build the wall’ stuff. As soon I come out against him, then people start telling me that Hillary Clinton is a criminal and all that stuff. I’m not an expert. I’m just going from my gut. Normally, I would go for the outsider. My kneejerk position was to go for Bernie [Sanders].”
Arthur played a show in Manchester, England, the night after the election and read a poem with the repeated line “countries like junkies.” In it, he referred to Trump as “a clown with no brain in a red-button war.” He says it felt “therapeutic” to read the poem.
“Manchester is the Akron/Cleveland of the UK,” he says. “Both have put out great music. Manchester is huge. You should do a comparison between the two. I wonder who would come out on top. Any UK person would say, ‘Are you kidding, mate? Manchester, easy.’ But we have some high rollers [in Ohio] too. That would be an interesting subject for an article. It could even be a whole book.”
He says he won’t let the results of the election put on a damper on his annual appearance at the Tangier, where he’ll undoubtedly have some friends and family members in the audience.
Additionally, Arthur says he currently has a “loose concept” for his next album but says it won’t be a concept album per se. Real World, Peter Gabriel’s boutique record label, has plans to reissue his 2002 album, Redemption’s Son, so he says he doesn’t want a new studio album to interfere with its reissue along with the reissue of the Junkyard Hearts EPs.
“I feel like I need to have some reason to put out an album other than it’s just ten songs,” he says. “I could cobble something together but we want to do this reissue because I’m engaging again with Real World Records. We want to do a reissue of that along with Junkyard Hearts I, II, III and IV. It’s okay to shine a light on the past work. When you’ve been around as long as I have, you have to remind the kids of who you are. It’s like, ‘Hey kids, this happened before you were born.'”
Joseph Arthur is an ‘artist’ in the truest sense. Not only has been releasing material for over a decade and a half, his sheer poetic nature and obtuse motivation has delivered a acclaimed reputation. Not only is the singer-songwriter back with a new album for Real World Records, The Family, but he informs us about a new book he is working on, and this time it’s not his online poetry. It would appear that we will not be subject simply to his beautiful acoustic melodies in audio format, although being a great champion of the audio book. We will soon see them written, his prosaic literature.
Interestingly, he has based his new album around the acquisition of a Steinway Vertegrande from 1912 that he had acquired, and wrote all of the material around the notion of the family. The way family dynamics shape us and make us who we are.
TF: So you have a new album out in June and you are touring now? You must be excited about that.
Yeah, I am really looking forward to getting out there. I played a show in New York City a couple of days ago and that was pretty good.
TF: So this new album was mostly inspired by the new acquisition of the piano, the Steinway Vertegrande – how did you obtain that?
I was walking through Brooklyn and I came across a music store. There was a Fender Rhodes electric piano and I had the idea that this would be nice to have in the studio. I could sit down and just play whenever instead of turning on computers and all that kind of garbage. When I went into inquire about it, the guy inside actually restores old pianos and I started looking at upright, and started thinking that upright pianos don’t actually take up that much room. He went about looking for one for me and about a week later found that Steinway in Connecticut. Stenway, 1912 and it was a lot of money, so I got it, I got it dropped off and had it tuned. And that’s about it. It didn’t need any repair or restoration at all. It was just kind of a magical thing.
TF: Was it nostalgic sitting down to this instrument, having flashbacks of your old piano lessons, and practising?
For me, making a whole record around the piano was a bit nostalgic. I don’t even know if nostalgia is the right word. A little bit haunting but that would be way too over the top of a word. Somewhere between nostalgic and haunting.
It was a little daunting. I’ve enjoyed playing the piano around the time I have been a recording artist. I have written a song here and there on piano, I’ve used it as a production tool and I can always play a little bit, but I’ve never really written a whole series of songs around that. When you have been doing this for as long as I’ve been doing it you have to find new ways of approaching it I think.
TF: And thinking of the family and your tour, is it true that you have family from Scotland? How will it feel to be playing back here soon in early November, will that history of your grandfather resonate with you?
My grandfather comes from Glasgow, my last name is Arthur. Glasgow, Scotland, that’s my roots.
I am sure it will. I can’t help but think about these things especially when making music. If you’re coming from a place where you’re attempting to come from your heart, which for better for worse I tend to come from that place. Regardless of where I am when I am playing particular songs, it’s kinda nice in a way, cause all of my grandparents have passed away now, some of the people who I am singing about are tired songs on the record, they are passed now. It’s nice when I am performing the songs, I feel like they enjoy it. I don’t know if this is just in my head or not but it feels like they like attention.
TF: What are your thoughts on Bob Dylan being given the accolade of Nobel Prize for Literature? For music to be recognised and poetic and lyricial within such prestigious circles must have some impact on you, especially with your own book published?
I appreciate you thinking of me in that regard but I don’t really know what to think about it. I don’t have enough of an understanding. To me, it’s like winning an Academy Award or something like that. The way he has handled getting this award is kinda funny, the way he has ignored it. It’s probably self-serving. The Nobel Prize possibly people need a bit of a rock and roll flair, they probably needed a controversial move, give it to Leonard Cohen next year (sadly not). You would be hard pressed to find anyone that’s inspired people like Bob, fair play to him.
TF: Tell us a bit more about your own book you have published.
I have been writing a lot of poetry on the road, ever since I started doing the stuff, and whether it is ill-advised or not, I get to post it on social media. The books I have published so far are more collections of stuff I have written online. I am actually though working on a book right now, as I find long-form fiction pretty compelling and fun to investigate. In fact, just before we started this interview I was about to sit down and listen to Stephen King’s book on writing. And I like audio books. I want to give a shout out to audio books right now.
With the new album, The Family, Joseph Arthur is presently on tour and will be hitting Glasgow tonight at the intimate King Tuts. And with his grandfather from Glasgow, it might be fascinating to take a gander up Saint Vincent Street to witness this gig.
Joseph Arthur is an alternative singer-songwriter who fuses a diverse array of sounds, gravitating towards folky and indie rock jams to create uniquely moving material. This talented jack-of-all-trades artist was picked up by Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records when he was just 25 and has collaborated with Fistful of Mercy, RNDM and The Lonely Astronauts, as well as being an accomplished solo artist.
Hi Joseph, thanks for taking the time to chat with The Upcoming, are you excited to be performing in Hackney this evening?
There is always an extra pressure when you play in a big city like London, it’s never just a gig. So yeah, I get quite excited about performing here.
You’re a musician, artist and writer, but if you had to choose one trade to focus on for forever more, what would it be?
God that’s tough. I might pick writing because I feel like I’ve made a lot of albums already. I definitely have music in me still that needs to come out, vital vibes. But if I was gonna answer honestly, let me hold onto writing. I wanna write all the stories that have happened, it’s been a pretty interesting life.
Let’s talk about your latest release, The Campaign Song. You are mocking Trump and his slogan “Let’s make America great again”. When did you decide to write and release it?
I wrote the song before he had won the nomination. For me the song was more for Bernie and it took me awhile to produce it, I probably overproduced. By the time it came out it was basically just about Trump and Hillary. I’m supporting her. It’s interesting because it’s going on right now. Jesus I don’t know what’s gonna happen. This weird underbelly of racism was exposed and I’m just baffled by that. It’s nuts, you know the negative nonsense exists and you know people are ****wits but you just don’t know how many of them there are.
You hail from Akron, Ohio. Have you voted? and which way do you think this key state will swing?
I’ve lived in New York for 20 years so my vote doesn’t really count, it’s gonna go Hillary – which is who I’ve voted for. I hope Ohio does me proud. My parents still live there, I feel an affinity to Ohio and I’m still a Browns fan but if they vote Trump then that would be a stain.
Why do you think Trump has garnered so much support in the USA?
I think he speaks to the disenfranchised, he’s tapping into some of the same things as Bernie. But also racism and a fear based backlash against Obama. Trump didn’t wind up where he is arbitrarily, look at the way he ran his campaign: the loudest voice of the birther movement against Obama, he aligned himself with hard-right wing, fear-based energy. I think he’s smarter than people give him credit for and I think he’s and idiot as well. Let’s hope he’s just a ****ing postscript after tonight.
You’ve also released a new album this year, The Family. Can you tell us about the writing and recording process?
I got this piano and started writing songs on it. I hadn’t had a piano in a while so that felt like luxury; I kept writing songs about family dynamics and interviewing my parents about their histories, which hit an interesting nerve. The writing and recording of the main part happened in a few weeks I’d say.
Do you have a favourite song in the record?
You Keep Me Holding On, Lighting, Sister Dawn and Machines of War… I enjoy them all and the album is not easy. I would like to make a fun one next time. This isn’t exactly fun but it does have beats and interesting production – and it sounds good too.
Your career started also thanks to Peter Gabriel, what was the extent of your relationship with him?
There was no relationship but from my perspective I felt like he mentored me. I don’t know if he would say that or not. He might just say “Oh I signed that guy to my label” but I think he would own up to mentoring me. That’s how it felt. I’ve been involved with Real World Records for 20 years and there’s a family vibe there, it’s organised in a nice way.
What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you on tour?
I got sucker punched last night in Paris. There is something a little embarrassing about that because dudes are supposed to be ninjas, to see things coming. This is an unusual occurrence, which is why I’m letting it be in the interview – it’s a story worth putting down. If you’re going to take a hit, you might as well tell the story about it. The guy came up to me outside the restaurant, I was about to have a smoke and hadn’t even lit up when he came at me all loud and thuggy, talking real french and fast. I was like “I’m good man”, the universal whatever. Before I got words out fully, he hit hard in the temple area. I’m fine now but that was a weird happening.
Do you prefer performing within a band or on your own?
I’ve had amazing times doing both.The first few years of touring I did it just solo and I was developing that whole self-looping thing the whole time. It felt vital. I guess the answer is that I like doing both, I like doing whatever is creative and alive at the moment. It’s about what’s still unknown, and you can find that by yourself or you can find that with other people, it doesn’t have to be contingent on one or the other.
Is there a target audience your music hopes to reach out to?
Not really, I’m just trying to make something I like and usually before I put it out there’s some part of me that doesn’t like it or has a problem with it. It’s like the final level of fear, your own self rejection. Not any one expression can cover everything about you as a person. They say we are vast, we contain multitudes you know, so as an artist you have to be okay with releasing what you have in segments.
What is the highlight of your career to date?
When somebody sincerely tells me that my music has helped them or given comfort during a time of darkness. I can relate to needing something and being so depressed and watching Peter Sellers in The Partyand taking comfort. That’s a different example but music does it too and to have helped in that way is a highlight. After that, it’s artists covering your songs, it feels very rewarding. I haven’t really got any awards like Grammys or anything but those two things are really the most rewarding aspects.
What is your biggest regret in life?
There’s lots of regrettable things in a life, at least the one I’ve lived. Even if I don’t like who I am, I like who I’m trying to be. But it’s true that that’s not always been the case. I’m in a place where I feel positive forward motion. I don’t really regret anything, except for everything.
If you had to describe yourself in three adjectives what would they be?
Fierce, strong and sexy.
Joseph, thanks again on behalf of The Upcoming and best of luck with the show.
Ohio-born solo artist Joseph Arthur talks about the influence of hip-hop on his career, and why he’s been reluctant to admit it. He plays Manchester’s Deaf Institute, 9 Nov, in support of his new album The Family.
Tell us a bit about your sound and your influences.
When I think of influences the first ones that pop up in my mind are Bob Dylan – OK, he is a huge one – Jimi Hendrix and the Four Tops. But another huge one, which is one I have never really talked about and that I’ve have been thinking of recently, is hip-hop. I graduated high school in 1990 and, being a white kid in suburbia meant that that stuff like NWA was huge. I love hip-hop beats. That’s the beat for me. If God came down and said to me you can have one beat, it wouldn’t be a rock and roll beat, it’d be a hip-hop beat. I was talking to my friend about hip-hop a couple days ago and it popped into my mind that I had never mentioned how much of an influence it had had on me, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to right that wrong. I think what stops a white person admitting a hip-hop influence is not that they’re ashamed of the hip-hop influence but because they fear a backlash. It’s easier to say Bob Dylan because it fits the image and doesn’t need explanation.
How have you evolved as an artist over the years?
That’s a weird question because it’s so big and abstract. Like asking “how have you grown in your life?” I’ve been broken and I’ve grown, I’ve evolved and I’ve devolved. It’s confusing because everything is happening all of the time. My friend shared some poems with me recently – he hadn’t written a poem in 15 years and I was braced for the worst but they were surprisingly good. I quoted Lester Bangs – “Rock and roll is all about not knowing what the fuck you’re doing” – and there’s a strength and energy when you discover what you can do in your life. The truth is, I don’t know where I was and I don’t know where I am right now, I don’t know if I’ve devolved or evolved. Talking myself into a corner and then awkwardly changing subject could actually be a metaphor for how I’ve evolved. Andy Warhol said: “Make art, and while everyone says how bad it is make more art.” If you’re an artist you need to make art to survive psychologically, not just materialistically. I’ve needed to hinge my existence on creativity.
What are you up to at the moment artistically?
By the time any album comes out, it will have been done for a while. I always need to have a project I’m working on otherwise, as an artist, essentially you’re unemployed. So there’s always five or six things I’m doing. Right now, I want to learn more about Ableton [music software]. My plan is to incorporate that into my live show. I feel like I want to be mobile with my recording process. I also like the solo performance aspect – I want to be able to start looping, live in the moment. I feel like Ableton will allow me to do that.
What’s on your rider?
Nothing! Here’s the thing – you pay for everything on that rider. You don’t need M&Ms and a bag of peanuts. Take the money and go to the store. If something had to be on my rider, I’d recommend three postcards from the town you’re in and new socks. That’s a good one.
Tell us about your worst live show.
I actually got a customer complaint about one show on Facebook recently. When you’re a people pleaser, like me, the idea of disappointing someone doesn’t feel good. But at the same time, if you’re doing anything interesting there should be some disparity in people’s interpretation of it. If there’s none I think you’re probably being pretty mediocre. So I don’t know if this show was bad or great, but this lady thought it was bad enough to write me on Facebook. Somehow musically you need to create that illusion that you heroically come out the other end. This was a time when I had some new equipment and I didn’t have that heroic moment. It was just awkward and I think the audience thought I was having a meltdown.
Joseph Arthur is performing at Oslo in Hackney just in time for the US Presidential election. His Campaign Song received backlash for bashing Donald Trump
“Let’s make America great again is the slogan of the liar who is stoking up the fire of the racists and the bigots who are following him.”
These are the opening lyrics of Joseph Arthur’s The Campaign Song. They don’t leave much to the imagination in terms of his political position.
“It’s hardly a revolutionary stance to go against Donald Trump,” says Arthur. “There was a point where I thought I’m just saying the sky is blue.”
But that didn’t stop the backlash. If there’s one place you can be sure you’ll find an argument, it’s the YouTube comment section.
“If you put something like that out and get no hate back, you’ve done something wrong,” says Arthur.
“The hate comes fast and furious and the people you know are likeminded people, they don’t exactly get on the internet and love you.
“I’m surprised about how many of my fans are Donald Trump supporters, it makes me rethink how much I even like my music,” he adds, laughing.
“It was originally just about me going on tour and not looking at news for a while and then checking out the news. It was the first time I saw Trump in those early violent rallies and people were going ape s**t and I just had a freaked out moment of: how is this real? What the f**k is happening?”
While The Campaign Song might be his most topical to date, he’s better known for the work that preceded it.
Arthur has released upwards of 20 albums, from solo records to collaborations with such giants as Lou Reed and Peter Gabriel, who discovered Arthur and supported him when he was in his early days.
Starting out on a Sequential Circuits Six-Trak synthesiser given to him by his now Trump-supporting aunt (“I love her dearly”), he created his latest album with the help of a 1912 Steinway Vertegrand piano.
The Family is a combination of fiction and non-fiction which delves into family dynamics, real and imagined.
“I started talking to my parents and interviewing them about their parents and I explored a bit of personal history and incorporated that into the songs,” he says.
“My parents had a limited music collection. The two records I remember were The 4 Tops.” He sings this down the phone. “That, to me, is amazing. I still love that. That and Jim Croce. It’s all I remember hearing for most of my early childhood.”
Joseph Arthur is performing at Oslo in Hackney on November 8, just in time for the US Presidential election.