Joseph Arthur: An interview on Trump, regrets and being punched in Paris
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.
The Upcoming catch up with Arthur at Oslo Hackney, where crowds were gathering for his much anticipated performance. We discussed his recent altercation in Paris, the emotional resonance of music and his loathing for Trump’s North America.
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 Party and 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.
For further information about Joseph Arthur visit here.
Watch the video for The Campaign Song here: