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.