Given that he titled his latest album The Ballad of Boogie Christ, you'd think singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur had a religious upbringing. But that's simply not the case.
"I had no religion at all," says Akron-born Arthur via phone from his New York home. "I would go to Akron Jewish summer camp, and I'm not Jewish. I don't really know where all that stuff comes from. I'm on a spiritual journey and the album is about that kind of thing. The figure of Christ looms large in our culture and it's our mythology. When you're on that journey, it's hard to not equate yourself on those terms and relate yourself to those sorts of figures. It's about that on some level."
The title track evokes Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" as Arthur talks more than he sings and imagines that if Christ were to come back today, he would be the kind of guy who would eat pizza and love hip-hop. "Christ would be rockin'/Christ would be free," he sings. Woozy horns and backing vocals give the song a soulful vibe. His lack of religious upbringing aside, Arthur says he's not simply trying to be irreverent and flippant about the man many consider to be the Messiah.
"The Boogie Christ song is trying to humanize Christ and make him one of your bros," he says. "In a way, that brings more responsibility to it. If you can relate to that kind of figure of enlightenment, it puts more responsibility on you to rise to the occasion. If Christ is this untouchable concept, it takes the responsibility away. You can say you're only human."
The album is actually the first part of a trilogy. Act 2 arrives at the end of this month and Act 3, which Arthur says will be more stripped down and folky, is due out early next year. The songs started out as poems that Arthur then turned into songs, a process he says he doesn't always use when making albums.
"Normally, I would write from jamming on guitar and chord progressions and phonetic sounds," he says. "I would write these songs from word first. These seem to have more lyrical depth and imagery. It's just easier to fit music around words rather than the other way around. I always wonder how Dylan or Leonard Cohen did it. It seemed like they went word first as well. I just started writing songs word first. I had a lot of poems, and they seemed to fit into this theme."
The album represents yet another triumphant moment for Arthur. The guy made quite an impression with his 2000 full-length debut Come to Where I'm From. One of the year's best-reviewed albums, it ended up on a number of Top 10 lists. Arthur continued to release albums at a rapid pace throughout the 2000s and The Ballad of Boogie Christ marks his return to Real World, the label run by former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, a guy who's been vocal about how much he likes Arthur's music. Having Gabriel as a fan certainly provides a good dose of credibility
Ironically enough, the Real World execs didn't flinch when Arthur told them he had three albums worth of material.
"In the past, I wanted to put out double records with Real World but couldn't," he says. "Normally, record companies will rein you into a more sane approach or an approach that more people can get with. A double record used to equal nobody wants that. They seemed to have more negative connotations in the recent past. It used to be rolling your eyes if somebody put out a double record. People don't do that as much. It's ironic since we're living in a singles age. Maybe that's why. No one is listening to records anyway so it doesn't matter."
For the tour, Arthur will front a trio that'll include former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, a longtime friend who always offered to go on the road with Arthur.
"It's like the coolest thing ever," Arthur says of having Mills in his band. "I've been lucky enough to be friends with the R.E.M. family ever since I opened for them during the Around the Sun days. Peter Buck used to see me in Seattle and I still play Peter Buck's festival in Mexico. I see Michael [Stipe] in New York City quite a bit. Those guys all hang together. Every time I play and Mike Mills is around, he tells me that if I need a bassist I should call him. I thought he was always just saying that and that was cool and nice. But I needed a bassist. I said, 'Fuck it. I'll call Mike Mills. Why not?' I wrote him and he came back with a list of serious questions. I was just throwing it out there. I didn't think he'd say yes."
Given that Boogie Christ proved to be such an epic recording, you'd think Arthur would be worried about what he'll do for an encore. But he isn't concerned about a possible letdown once the third act comes out next year.
"I'm super not worried about that," he says. "I have something up my sleeve. I'm working again with [producer] Tchad Blake. He mixed [2002's] Redemption's Son. He's been mixing this record and it's so strong in a way that Boogie Christ isn't. It's not trying to step up to Boogie Christ. It's more going back to a more modern sound and an approach like I did on my earlier records. It's also a concept record. I think if I didn't have that going on, I would be freaked out."