“Where are you at right now?” I asked Joseph Arthur last Friday on the phone. Arthur couldn’t hold back his laughter, saying “that’s kind of a hugely mystical question,” before realizing I was asking where he physically actually was at the moment (Brooklyn).
The prolific 45-year-old singer-songwriter-painter-poet had a week off after a slew of shows on the East Coast. The shows were part of a tour celebrating the 15th anniversary of his Redemption’s Son album — which spun arguably his biggest hit “Honey and the Moon”. The tour included a show at the Teragram Ballroom in downtown LA on Tuesday.
We spoke on the phone for 40 minutes — a conversation more than it ever was an interview, which didn’t surprise me. I first met Joe smoking a cigarette outside of one of his shows in San Francisco in 2010. Within 10 minutes of chatting, he put me on the list for his show the next night at the same venue, self-deprecatingly noting, “It’s not like it’s sold out.” It’s the kind of humor that would become commonplace between his heart-tuggingly raw tunes at his shows.
“Honey and the Moon” was my first introduction to his music. I was one of the millions of teens that saw the premiere episode of teen drama The O.C. and that tune caught my attention enough that I went to my home computer later and looked it up by remembering the lyrics (there was no Shazaam at the time, kids).
At the Teragram on Tuesday, it was a sparse crowd that gathered (actress Rosanna Arquette was one of them). It’s not entirely unexpected given the venue and things like the Facebook event page for the show had incorrectly listed Joe playing the album ‘Redemption’s Song’ in full. I looked around and felt confident I was the only one in my twenties — and I’m holding on for dear life to those at 29. It’s been years since he’s had a crossover hit of that level, though his work has remained categorically cinematic. He’s collaborated with some of music’s finest — from Ben Harper to R.E.M. and Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament.
Arthur looked at revisiting Redemption’s Son as “an invitation to dig deeper,” he said. “It’s been interesting. The thing is, when you put out a ton of albums, you sort of zero in on certain songs on certain albums and you can kind of get lazy about really going in deeper and finding maybe the even better gems than the ones you were picking out. So it was interesting to review the album, I was really pleased with it because you put so much energy into these things and by the time they come out, it’s so heavy, the whole investment, it’s real hard to actually assess it and take it in.”
Arthur took the stage Tuesday night wearing a full bodysuit and Rival boxing shoes — at one point he played a song with his face obscured completely by the bodysuit mask. His interest in boxing is one of the things we spoke about. The passion was born out of a crazy idea he had involving becoming a boxer and fighting Mickey Rourke to benefit a charity for dogs (no, really). Though that idea hasn’t come to fruition, the singer has since been in the gym regularly training.
“Boxing is very artful and can have an element of improvisation to it,” Arthur said in explaining certain paralells he sees between the sport and being a musican. “I’m not an expert, this is just my interpretation as a passionate beginner. Carrying over the lessons I’m learning in that, which have been surprisingly really meaningful to me, then apply them to this [Redemption’s Son] project.”
Arthur is not the only musician to find boxing fascinating. The equally prolific Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon) is a die-hard fan who has even named songs after fighters and incorporated it into his songwriting. When insomnia took over her life prior to writing her last album, Jenny Lewis stayed up all night watching boxing and became a fan, attending a number of fights.
The show at the Teragram was textbook Joseph Arthur — alone with his guitar and pedals, two microphones, and a case with a microphone running to it acting as his drum. He played the full record, but not in the order it appears on the tracklist — perhaps a nod to the need for improvisation.
There was a poignant moment when he performed “Dear Lord”, a song having to do with lacking faith. “With this world gone to hell/And my freedom locked away in jail/Lord it’s become so hard to tell/If you’re there at all” — surely something many people can relate to in the current climate.
Redemption’s Son is full of spiritual songs — but Arthur also delves deep into heartbreak, a specialty of his for sure. “September Baby” is one of the best deep cuts from his insanely deep catalog. “Summertime is over, I don’t owe you nothing/When you say you’re leaving, I want you to hold on,” he sang to the crowd with more passion and angst than on the studio recording, prompting a crowd clap-along that took the singer off guard.
With Joseph Arthur, you never know where his artistic mind will lead him next. The brief Redemption’s Son tour wraps up this weekend. He’s been working in the studio on a new project and is also looking forward to getting back in the boxing gym more regularly.
It may not have been a packed house, but it was awesome to see one of my favorite musicians revisit one of the key works of his career before he quickly moves onto the next thing.
Photos by Tim Aarons