Joseph Arthur’s Brooklyn home studio is perched so close to New York Harbor that only a quirk of street construction saved the block from the ravages of hurricane Sandy. Inside the close, cozy living room/control room where Arthur sat down to talk about his inspired, contemplative just-released new album “The Ballad of Boogie Christ” a few days ago, evidence of the singer/songwriter’s ceaseless creative process is everywhere.
Guitars and sitars jostle for wall space with his paintings and a hulking upright piano with its guts exposed. Almost the first thing Arthur reveals about the long-gestating “Boogie Christ,” his 10th solo studio album in a decade and a half of prolific music-making that has also recently included side-projects with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison (Fistful of Mercy) and Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament (RNDM), is that it’s the first part in a trilogy with act two already complete and set for a September release. “I like this idea of the father, the son and the holy ghost,” he says of the three-album cycle, conscious that at its center is a character he’s created called “Boogie Christ” – sometimes an alter-ego, sometimes a contemplation of deity, sometimes an any-man.
Above: The video for Arthur’s “I Used to Know How to Walk on Water”
“It’s definitely a rock and roll album. There’s something unhinged about it, but there needs to be.” Arthur says of the writerly 12-song first set in which rock and folk melodies meet a touch of soul and psychedelia in the service of his candid tenor and lyrics peering into a psyche in communication with despair, desolation and doubt but nonetheless, open, engaged, uncowed, and, Arthur hopes, with a sense of fun intact. The character is, “sort of based loosely on myself, or based on phases I’ve gone through in my life; phases of enlightenment and insanity.” But Boogie Christ, who particularly takes center stage on the mantra-like title track, is also a take on a Jesus Christ figure that “has a bit of a punk rock spirit and doesn’t mind joking around,” Arthur says. “Maybe Christ would have a sense of humor.”
The Boogie that populates the quiet, humbled “I Used To Know How To Walk on Water,” is “claiming real power but from the other side of it, of not having it anymore,” he explains. “And as a listener you can decide if that person is sincere or just megalomaniacal.” Directed by Ehud Lazin and filmed during a February 2013 blizzard, the video for the song, which Billboard.com premieres here, finds Arthur and a silent female friend in alone somewhere in noirish New York “during the middle of the night and the snow was coming down like crazy,” lost figures trying to find their way in a literally black and white world. The clips ends as ethereal voice of Ben Harper, who guests on the song, floats out into the frigid night.
Harper is far from the only other presence on the album. While Arthur and his multi-faceted protagonist take the lead, a cast of other performers also add to the sonic texture. Juliette Lewis sings on the beautifully drawn “Saint of Impossible Causes.” Veteran drummer Jim Keltner, the Band’s Garth Hudson, Joan as Police Woman’s Joan Wasser, and Catherine Popper (of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals) all lend their talents, among others.
And he’s got even more than the “Boogie Christ” albums on tap. He shares that RNDM will probably do more recording. “We’ve got a bunch of tracks [already] but Jeff [Ament] wants to start clean slate,” he says. “I think how high quality the [first RNDM] record was… We did great shows. Its going to percolate and I think the next time we put out a record it will have built. I’m super optimistic.”
Fistful of Mercy, meanwhile, also has plans. “We’ve been in the studio and recorded one more track recently,” featuring Jim Keltner on drums and Gillian Welch on bass. “We [FOM] are going to try to make a record I think, hopefully. I want to. it’s hard to get all of us together in the same city in the same schedule ready to go because everybody is so busy. but the vibe is good for us to do that.”
“Creativity begets creativity, It becomes a catalyst” Arthur says, strumming a hand-painted guitar. He talks of the responsibility of inspiration, of not letting a creative spark go uncaptured. He smiles, and plays on.