Joseph Arthur's Primal Surges

March 1, 2005

“There’s absolutely no separation between writing a song and whatever inspires it for me,” says renowned singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, who just released his fourth album, Our Shadows Will Remain [Vector]. It’s an engaging effort that frames his dark and brooding outlook with vivid imagery, rich textures, and appealingly eclectic arrangements. Although his songs may sound complex, their genesis is typically very simple.

“Songwriting comes from an unconscious, primal place and I hone it with my conscious mind,” he explains. “There’s nothing intellectual about it at all. I usually just strum around on chords and sing melodies that come naturally, and the sounds eventually become words. I tend to write really fast and not edit much, preferring to trust the first thoughts that enter my head.”

For Arthur, the big challenge—and a key creative catalyst—is dealing with a record after it’s completed. “That’s when the torture begins,” he says. “I experience this fear that goes, ‘What the hell did I just do?’ And that’s when I start writing the next record and trying to correct anything I feel might be wrong with the last one. So, my creative spirit tends to be reactive. What usually happens, though, is that I end up not fixing anything, so it’s a bit of an illusion.”

Recent times have seen Arthur successfully wean himself from certain elements of the rock and roll lifestyle, and he believes conquering those demons has significantly enhanced his songwriting prowess. “I feel the creative spirit is stronger when you’re in a completely sober state of mind,” he says. “Drugs and alcohol can have an inspiring effect at times, but I tended to burn out very quickly and become a mess. I prefer being sober. I have a lot more clarity, focus, and energy in that state. When you’re straight, you realize that the creativity is coming from within you. The knowledge that it’s not induced by something else lets you align yourself with the creative spirit more consistently. Having said that, I think deranging your senses is a good thing, as well, but you can do that in a lot of other ways, such as fasting and meditating. Life in general has a way of deranging you, too. In some ways, life seems to actually become stranger and more abstract the more sober I am.”

Life on tour also plays an important part in spurring Arthur to action as a songwriter. “I find being on the road in a constant state of motion really helps me,” he says. “Being out of any sort of familiar element brings out the best in my songwriting. When you’re touring, life tends to be in a perpetual state of minor crisis. And because I don’t take any drugs or drink to cope with the chaos, I take comfort in playing guitar and writing songs.” —Anil Prasad

Anil Prasad

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