Why I love Arthur Russell

Singer-songwriter Joseph Coward pays tribute to the all-encompassing genius of a pioneering artist

© Rob Greig

Charles Arthur Russell – Arthur to his fans, Charlie to his mum and dad – is the only artist I know of who successfully explored every facet of his musicality. He composed everything from funk to disco, minimalist neo-classical to pop, blurring the lines to create unfettered, freeform works of art that still defy classification.

As a teenager he fled the Midwest for 1960s San Francisco, honing his musicianship in a hippie commune. A rising star, he moved to New York and became director of The Kitchen, the city’s famous music venue and arts space. He rubbed shoulders with Philip Glass and Jonathan Richman. He briefly dated the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who encouraged him to practise his cello every day. (A shy boy, he took to rehearsing in a cupboard so as not to be disturbed.) Then in 1992, aged 40 and at the height of his powers, he died from Aids.

I discovered him by accident, while taking my own first musical steps at a cavernous studio in a freezing converted factory in the north of England. Rummaging through my producer’s mountain of LPs, I had no idea who Arthur Russell was. But I was immediately moved by the purity of his voice and the way his arrangements moved so deftly, with the lightest of touch.

Thanks to Russell’s partner Tom Lee, new recordings are constantly being discovered in the huge archive he left behind. But my favourite will always be ‘Love Is Overtaking Me’, the album I listened to a dozen times that day. Whenever I hear it, it transports me back to that first moment of discovery.

A few months ago I saw a few of Russell’s old collaborators reunite in Islington to play his orchestral work ‘Instrumentals’. It was poignant but incredible and uplifting to hear the music live. Go and hear them play it again in London this week if you still need convincing that this lonely, introverted Iowan was a genius.

Previously: Why I love The Sonics

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