Singer/songwriter/artist Joseph Arthur left his hometown of Akron four days after his high school graduation ceremony.
But the Firestone High School alum, who has lived in Brooklyn for more than a decade and toured much of the Western world, wasn’t in a rush to leave behind Akron and still considers his hometown “magical.”
Arthur has been busy touring behind his 11th album, The Ballad of Boogie Christ, Act 1, part of a trilogy of albums that Arthur got crowd-funded through the PledgeMusic site. The albums will be released on his Lonely Astronaut Records and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records. Act 2 will be released on Black Friday and Act 3 is scheduled for early 2014. It was Gabriel who discovered and released Arthur’s 1997 debut Big City Secret.
Arthur and his current sidemen, former R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills and drummer Bill Dobrow, will perform a homecoming concert on Wednesday at Tangier, another place Arthur considers to be just a little bit “magical.”
Through his many releases and near constant touring Arthur has maintained a dedicated fan base, but his profile has been raised this year with appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman and a debut this summer on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Arthur has also released a new book of poetry called I Miss the Zoo & Other Poetry Selections.
I caught up with him a few days after he returned from a five-week tour of Europe and a few Canadian dates and a few short days before he hit the road again in the U.S.
Q: So, the first show of the next American leg of your tour starts in your hometown on Thanksgiving eve. Is that a happy coincidence or strategic tour routing?
A: My booking agent did that and I think he was trying to be nice, I didn’t ask him, I think he was just doing a cool thing. But my folks just went to India … so they’re upset because they’re not even going to be there. It’s weird. But oh well. Tangier! The legendary Tangier.
Q: Have you played there before?
A: Yeah, I have played there once before. It’s sort of like my Madison Square Garden (laughs heartily).
Q: I’m not from here, but walking down the hall of photos [at Tangier], it always struck me as kind of an odd assortment of famous folk coming through Akron. It’s got a kind of a weird, kitschy and cool vibe with Lola Falana next to Pat Paulsen and Robert Goulet next to Tina Turner.
A: It’s beyond that for me because I am from there and that was the place where my family [went to celebrate special occasions]. Tangier, that was the magical fancy place and it looks like it from the outside and when you’re a kid if you don’t know anything else, it’s sort of the mountaintop. I studied all of those [photos] and yeah it’s kitschy, cool and kinda weird. I think it’s become more kitschy over the years. Back in the day that was just for real as hell. … I remember when Tina Turner played there. I think my parents went to it, I remember peeking my head into the music place.
Q: Ex-R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills is in your band. He certainly doesn’t need the work.
A: I opened up for them during the Around the Sun period … They’re really nice, down-to-earth people and really open, so I just stayed friends with them. I’d see Mike once in a while … he’d always say after I [came] off stage, “Hey, if you ever need a bass player to go on the road …” and I always thought he was just saying that to be nice and that was cool. But I needed a bass player for this run and thought I’ll call Mike and see, I just threw it out there. I didn’t really think he’d do it and he came back asking serious questions about it and then he said yes. I was like holy [moly], he’s actually going to do it.
Q: Explain “The Ballad of Boogie Christ.”
A: I just thought you could try to tell a story based around a character, almost like [The Who’s] Tommy, but a character that’s going through some kind of spiritual journey. Maybe it’s enlightenment, maybe it’s insanity. So there’s songs like [Act 1’s] King of Cleveland that are kind of like his high school years. It’s loosely autobiographical but also fictional. I Miss the Zoo is the drug addled past. I wanted to tell a story but not necessarily a linear narrative just sort of a feeling across the album about this character and certain things he gets into.
Q: Semi-autobiographical brings us to arguably “Act 2’s” dark centerpiece, “Akron Skies,” a song about an abusive father. Sure doesn’t seem magical.
A: That’s a song that’s been around for a while that I haven’t put out because of that reason, but it felt like a strong song and … it really resonated with people. … I sent it to my folks and said, “Hey, what do you guys think if I put this out. Is it going to bum you guys out?” And they’re so supportive and so cool. My mom said it’s beautiful and my dad said it’s cool and our relationship is so strong. If they had a problem with it I wouldn’t have put it out.
Q: You left Akron while still a teenager and you’ve traveled the world, but is Akron still home?
A: My home is Brooklyn, N.Y., that’s where I’ve been for a lot of years and that’s my home. But I still have a strong feeling about Akron as home. My folks are still there. They still live in the same house. I’m definitely still a Browns fan, unfortunately. I still think it would be interesting to end up there. I love going there. I feel like it’s magical. I feel I could see myself moving back one day and finding some cool space downtown and setting up a gallery or a studio and just kind of going nuts, in a good way.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3758.