by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.
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. 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.
“I usually just strum around on chords and sing melodies that come naturally,” he explains. “The sounds eventually sound like words and all of sudden they become words. It feels sort of trancelike and there’s nothing intellectual about it at all. It couldn’t be more primal. It doesn’t tend to be a torturous process. Songwriting comes from an unconscious place and I hone it with my conscious mind. I tend to write really fast and not edit much of it. I prefer to trust the first thought that enters my head. It really is a mysterious thing to experience.”
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 a certain 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 I end up not fixing anything and end up making something different. So, it’s a bit of an illusion. I typically discover two albums later that there was nothing really wrong with the last record and go ‘You know what? That was actually pretty good.’”
Recent times have seen Arthur successfully wean himself away from elements of the rock and roll lifestyle. 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 a certain 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 more easily 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 like fasting and meditating. Life in general just 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.”