Arthur Russell was born by the sleepy cornfields of Oskaloosa, Iowa in 1951, where he studied both the cello and piano. He moved to New York age 22 (via a few years spent at a San Francisco Buddhist commune) and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music, at which time he began collaborating with his peers on an array of underground disco records. He released his only solo record World of Echo in 1986 to critical acclaim but commercial failure and died in musical obscurity aged just 40. His restless quest for musical perfection resulted in him leaving over a thousand tape recordings in various stages of completion. He also might be the most fascinating musician you’ve never heard.
Though he is certainly getting his dues now, Arthur Russell is still a figure who lurks largely in the underground, and it’s often easier to fall into his world (or worlds) through the advocacy of his name from more commercially established artists.
Dev Hynes, Sufjan Stevens and Hot Chip are all fans who contributed to an AIDS awareness album comprised of covers of Russell’s work, Frank Ocean featured him in his Apple Music BLONDED radio broadcasts, and perhaps his widest exposure to date comes due to Kanye West, who sampled him on the track 30 Hours from his 2016 record The Life of Pablo.
It was a sample of This is How We Walk on the Moon that first perked my ears up, and after tracing it back to Russell I was instantly enamoured by the full track, its peculiar use of tribal drums, rhythmic cello, and Arthur’s low, ethereal voice sounded like nothing I had ever heard.
This is How We Walk On The Moon isn’t explicitly avant-garde, you can hum the tune and sing along to the words, and much of what Russell did make was pop – his early disco work was made with the same intentions as mainstream disco; to dance to. But whilst Arthur would disdain at the snobbery towards pop and disco music, his disregard of genre and outsider inclination would both set him free artistically and deny him any real mainstream success. Rarely aggressive or arresting, his records don’t provoke or attack, rather they wash over like waves, more concerned with texture and atmosphere than narrative, as though they’ve been scoured from the bottom of the ocean. His fondness to sing in polysyllabic noises, hums and moans and mumbles, was never really going to put him on Top of the Pops, though his mix of cryptic imagery and sudden, blunt and honest emotion often results in moments where his words break through the echoing soundscapes and hit you like a ton of bricks.
“It takes my whole time / I’m on another thought now / My eyes searching the real face / Of an angel”
Perhaps equally as limiting to his success as his eclecticism and idiosyncratic musical style was his quest for perfection. Russell would tirelessly toy with and revise his work, resulting in there being numerous variations of his songs, contained usually in cassette tapes left scattered around his apartment in New York’s East Village, where he would remain until his death. It is there he would create early underground disco records under pseudonyms such as Loose Joints and Dinosaur L, curate proto-punk minimalist performances at hipster venue The Kitchen, and craft his otherworldly solo album World of Echo, his perfectionist qualities leading this to be the only one he would live to see released.
Though praised by some critics, the record was largely a commercial failure and struggled to find a wider audience, not wholly inconceivable considering the music; made up of unusual textures and tones, it’s a collection of kaleidoscopic tonal shifts built on skeletal, fractured melodies, pining vocals and void-like echo. In recent times it has been looked at much more affectionately, the 2000s saw it reissued by Audika and Rough Trade records and in 2013 FACT magazine named it their number one album of the 1980s.
Arthur died aged only 40, from an AIDS related illness in 1992, leaving the final chapter of his life a desperately sad one, developing throat cancer that hindered his singing ability, as well as cancerous lesions in his eye and dementia. His devoted long term partner Tom Lee remembers him leaving the house without his headphones, something previously thought impossible, as told in the excellent BBC Radio Four documentary Arthur Russell: Vanished into Music, which takes its name from a poignant quote from Kyle Gann writing for The Village Voice:
“His (Arthur’s) recent performances had been so infrequent due to illness, his songs were so personal, that it seems as though he simply vanished into his music.”
Choosing where to begin with Arthur Russell is no easy task, the man’s music spans and often defies genre, so I have chosen eight tracks to try as an entry point into the work of the one of the most interesting yet under-appreciated composers of the 20th century.
1: Dinosaur – Kiss Me Again – 1978
An underground disco hit, thirteen minutes of dancefloor ecstasy featuring Myriam Valle on vocals and David Byrne of Talking Heads on guitar. It’s worth the run time for the array of colourful musical ideas that flow throughout, and the drum break from the nine minute mark sees Byrne’s shuddering guitar push towards a manic ending, making it a must listen for anyone with an interest in classic dance music. The somewhat sparser B-side version is worth checking out also – Kiss Me Again? More like Play it again! Sorry.
2: Loose Joints – Tell You Today – 1983
Loose Joints, an ensemble group of musicians and non-musicians formed by Russell, released three superb singles in the early 80s; the dark and minimal Pop Your Funk, the dancefloor strut of Is It All Over My Face? and the cheerful Tell You Today, which is made up of giddy piano runs, chirpy whistles and rousing Latin percussion.
3: Arthur Russell – Being It – 1986
Being It could be mistaken as something from The Jesus and Mary Chain in its shoegaze-like blur. Taken from his radical solo debut World of Echo, it’s a beautifully hazy combination of distorted cello, scratching and quivering like an overdriven guitar, and Russell’s infinite mumble echoing out into the ether.
4: Arthur Russell – A Little Lost – 1994
One of Russell’s sweetest and most easily accessible solo compositions, which sees him encapsulate heart fluttering infatuation in three and half minutes through his warm voice, cello and lovesick lyrics “’Cause I’m so busy, so busy / Thinking about kissing you / Now I want to do that / Without entertaining another thought”. As heard in Aziz Ansari’s hip Netflix show Master of None.
5: Arthur Russell – This is How We Walk on The Moon – 1994
Russell’s finest pop moment: a bouncy, playful song and nothing short of confirmation that Phillip Glass was right when he spoke of Arthur as a potential pop star. A few variations of this track exist, though the one taken from 1994’s Another Thought is essential listening and the album needs to hit streaming services asap.
6: Arthur Russell – That’s Us / Wild Combination – 2004
Russell’s fragile voice over some soft, plodding synths begin what might be his finest tune, namechecked by Foals frontman Yannis Phillipakis as one of his favourite songs of all time. It soon bounces into a beautiful dance ballad, with cryptic lyrics evoking a pure, dreamlike love “It’s a wild combination / It’s a wild, it’s a loving you baby / It’s a talk in the dark, it’s a walk in the morning”.
7: Arthur Russell – Love is Overtaking Me – 2008
And now for something completely different. His music often sounds as though it was created in a vacuum at the bottom of the ocean or in the vastness of space, but here Russell sounds completely rooted in Americana. Taking the role of singer-songwriter sees an acoustic guitar in place of his usual cello, and his youthful Iowa cornfields in place of the hedonistic dance clubs and trendy art spaces of New York City.
8: Arthur Russell – Barefoot in New York – 2019
Even the most recent Russell releases are continuing to expose how genre-dismissive he was. On Barefoot in New York from 2019’s Iowa Dream, he rambles in a stream of consciousness style over an array of jazz horns and hip-hop drums; relentless and busy, it’s New York in a nutshell, evocative of his time in the East Village and his delivery sounds in homage to his close relationship with beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
A selection of Arthur Russell’s music is available to listen to and purchase here.
Words by Ryan Bell
Photos – Arthur Russell record sleeves
19th February 2020