11.14.10 Joseph Arthur Interviews
The power of three
Fistful of Mercy puts the 'super' in supergroup
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / November 14, 2010 Boston Globe
The first time Joseph Arthur heard a playback of one of the songs by his new group Fistful of Mercy, he was taken aback.
“I heard the harmonies come back and I felt like, ‘Wow, this is special, this is just beyond the sum of its parts,’ ’’ he says on the phone from Los Angeles.
Considering the parts are the well-regarded singer-songwriter himself, folk-soul rocker Ben Harper, and Dhani Harrison, son of the late George Harrison, and that the trio wrote and recorded its debut, “As I Call You Down,’’ in three days, that assessment was happy surprise.
Especially since Arthur and Harrison were total strangers, meeting for the first time in the studio through mutual friend Harper. The trio play a sold-out show at the Somerville Theatre this Thursday.
“He was actually there first and Ben was late, so me and Dhani were hanging out for the first hour messing around with mandolins and acoustic guitars and I was like ‘I guess we better start trying to write some songs,’ ’’ he recalls with a laugh. “Dhani thought that the songs might be already written, and he was just going to come in and sing on my record or something.’’
Instead the trio started from scratch, writing three songs a day — “Brill Building-style,’’ says Arthur — and searching for a perfect vocal blend. “All three of us have a wide range, all three of us can sing comfortably in falsetto and can go low. And we can all play everything so it just fell into place.’’
“The weird thing about working in a recording studio is it bends time,’’ says Arthur of the compressed schedule. “They say they haven’t invented time travel yet, but they really have. It’s called a recording studio. When I think back on that session it doesn’t seem like three days, it seems like it was a month.’’
The result is a record that exudes a pleasant airiness as the singers roam from bluesy back roads (“Father’s Son’’) to folksy back porches (the title track) to gentle, sun-soaked beach pop (“I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time’’) with a few psychedelic finishing touches. The sound has drawn comparisons to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the Beach Boys, and both groups to which Harrison’s father belonged — the Beatles and the Traveling Wilburys.
Arthur’s heard them all and quotes the late, great comedian Bill Hicks in response. “There was this interview he gave where he said ‘I’m inspired by the idea of Lenny Bruce.’ And I always thought that’s so cool because I understand that. I have a lot of respect for Crosby, Stills and Nash, but I haven’t really explored their music too much, so it’s more like we were inspired by the idea of Crosby, Stills and Nash.’’
The original thinking was that the group would do an acoustic album and put it out on the Internet, but Harrison wanted to put drums on the record and knew just the man for the job.
“We were going to take turns playing drums on some stuff and finally Dhani was like, ‘Maybe I should just call Jim Keltner.’ And we were like, ‘Um, yeah, I guess that would be good,’ ’’ says Arthur with a chuckle of the ability to simply ask the legendary drummer who has played on hundreds of records with everyone from Eric Clapton to Barbra Streisand to the Wilburys to sit in. “Being in the studio with Jim is like a gift from God. Not just because of the way he plays, but hanging out with the guy and listening to his stories, it’s just incredible.’’
In addition to calling old family friend Keltner, Arthur says Harrison was a real driving force in the studio, which is interesting since Fistful of Mercy will be many listeners’ first introduction to him as a musician. “Dhani is fierce, he’s a big leader,’’ says Arthur. Since he and Harper are used to directing their own bands, he says, he’s enjoyed the give-and-take dynamic of the group. “We all take turns driving and that’s what’s great about it.’’
That democracy will extend to their live shows as well, as the trio plans to perform one solo song apiece and a few covers in addition to the album. “That’s the funniest thing about this whole week,’’ says Arthur of band rehearsals. “Getting enough songs to tour on, that’s a problem that neither Ben nor I have had in a long time.’’ He expects that by the time they reach the Somerville Theatre they’ll have a few more originals to debut, since the album only has nine tracks.
Arthur, Harper, and Harrison are so jazzed by the project that fans can expect to hear more from Fistful of Mercy in the future. “We’re all going to release solo stuff maybe in the spring,’’ he says. “But we’re already writing for the next record. It will be interesting to see what it’s like with a lot time. It’s going to be totally different. Hopefully, it makes for something even more powerful.’’
© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.
A Fistful of Mercy and Bursting With Talent
How a surprise supergroup made one of the year’s most critically lauded albums at a breakneck pace.
By Brian McManus Posted Nov. 16, 2010
When singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur booked time in Carriage House studio in the Silverlake neighborhood of Los Angeles with acclaimed slide-guitarist, friend of 15 years and sometimes-collaborator Ben Harper, he didn’t know exactly what to expect. They hadn’t written anything yet, but figured they’d plunk something down in the studio, have a little fun and, by the time it was done, he’d have a tiny side-project to add to his own burgeoning career.
Something like that.
What he got instead was a full-fledged band, new friends, a U.S. and European tour and a critically lauded album. Add to that promotional appearances on Conan’s new TBS show (which included Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello sitting in) and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (where the Roots backed them up), and being joined onstage by the likes of Eddie Vedder and, whoa, can you say “HAPPY FUCKING SURPRISES”?
“It’s wild. It’s funny how some things manifest so quickly—come up with a band, a name, an idea—and to suddenly see T-shirts with the name on it, tour. It’s amazing,” Arthur says over the phone, en route to the San Francisco airport to catch a flight to L.A..
The band is Fistful of Mercy—a name Arthur came up with by altering the title of Sergio Leone spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. The album they recorded on the fly is As I Call You Down—a swaggering groove of an eclectic record that’s been described by critics as pop, folk, soul and many points in between. Perhaps the only common word you’ll see in reviews of the band and album is “supergroup.” Oh yeah, did we mention Dhani Harrison is in this thing too?
It started like this: Arthur, more than decade into a prolific solo career, had booked two shows in January at the famed Troubadour in L.A. He wanted to make the nights different from one another, and asked longtime friend and two-time-Grammy-winner Harper to join him onstage one of the nights. Harper joined him for both, and the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the crowd made the two turn the conversation about booking studio time and getting something going—one they’d had many times over the years—into reality.
In the meantime, Harper met Harrison—both avid skateboarders—at a skate park, where the two spent quite a lot of time. Harrison used to ditch school, smoke weed and listen to Ben Harper records when he was 17. He knew who Harper was. It wasn’t until the two talked music that Harper figured out he was talking to the son of Beatle George Harrison. He told his new friend about the Carriage House session he and Arthur had coming up, invited him to join.
The result was three massive double-days in studio, where the newly formed trio made fast friends and wrote and recorded nine songs.
Sounds impossibly hard.
“After making so many records as a solo artist it kinda takes the pressure off in a way,” says Arthur of the daunting task. “That was one aspect of it being a fast process that I think helped us, because it kept our egos out of it. We had an agenda of trying to get at least the framework of the album together in those three days and we had kind of an impossible workload, so it enabled us to come at each other in a way that made us come together as one.”
Part of the “fast process” that didn’t help, Arthur says, is that people keep referring to it, as though the speed at which it all went down and the special circumstances that helped create it didn’t allow them to write a cohesive record, and instead sounds like, as one commenter on No Depression said, just “three guys having a really good time.”
“I just disagree with that,” Arthur says. “I know the three-day album thing keeps going around, but it was a process. The initial spark of it was three days, but we worked on it a good couple months after that in fits and spurts. But the ‘three-day’ thing is working against us in that way, and that’s come up. I think we made a really complete record. I really believe that. I think those songs, there’s some looseness there, but in a way that I think is beneficial to the album. I think these songs will survive the test of time. They’ll be around for 30 years from now. They’ll still hold up.”
Those songs run the gamut of style. Lead track “In Vain Or True,” has a quiet, Beatles-esque quality. “Father’s Son”—the song they’ve been performing on their many television appearances—is a meaty, cocksure campfire bruiser brimming with swagger and a gospel edge, punctuated with handclaps and a foot-stomping Baptist revival feel. The album’s title track is all three-part harmony—a trait beautifully strewn across the entire album—and deep lament.
Originally, Arthur and Harper just thought the album would be a sparse acoustic album. Harrison had other ideas about what it could be, and recruited legendary drummer Jim Keltner—who’s performed with the likes of George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell and the Rolling Stones—to play on the record. That changed it mightily.
“He made it a lot better,” says Arthur of Keltner. “Jim came in, and the moment he started playing it was obvious that that was the way forward. I’d call it acoustic soul music. The thing about that record that I think is going to give it the energy to survive is we were discovering the process while we were making it. We didn’t discover the process to make the record—the record is the sound of us discovering the process . In that way, we’ll never be able to duplicate the record.
“It’s mainly like three people coming from an unconscious place and working together, just an acceptance and a celebration of this process that we discovered together.”
In other words, they caught lightning in a bottle—a special moment recorded on tape, shared with one another, and now with everyone.
Joseph Arthur: A go-it-alone artist tries a trio
By A.D. Amorosi
For The Inquirer
Whether as a painter or a musical artist, avant-pop songwriter and singer Joseph Arthur has long seemed like an island unto himself, a solitary man with zero connection to other name performers, certainly not one you'd consider as playing well with others.
"I understand why you'd think that, but I'm pretty open to collaboration, especially as I get older," Arthur says. "Not that long ago, I saw an interview with Brian Eno where he talked about the unpredictability of people adding to the mix. I'm not a mastermind like that, but I do appreciate that sort of chaos. I'm more of an action-painter type; not really too considerate of stuff beforehand, just go in, do it."
Welcome, then, to the action of Fistful of Mercy and their quickly recorded debut, As I Call You Down, easily one of pop's most unpredictable collaborations, if for no other reason than that the trio of Arthur, Ben Harper, and Dhani Harrison hadn't played together previously. Heck, Harrison and Arthur had never met before winding up in a studio together.
The story goes that Harper and Arthur had long been buds with an open-ended notion of working together someday. Someday came when Arthur was in Los Angeles in February for a multidate run, with a few days of studio time to boot. "I called Ben, asked if he was open, and he said yes, but would I mind if he brought Dhani," says Arthur. Everyone knows who wordy soul-rocker Harper is, but Dhani - son of George Harrison - has few credits beyond playing guitar with Matthew Sweet and Wu-Tang Clan. But after a few songs - Arthur's own "Fistful of Mercy" to start - everyone got where Harrison was coming from. "I didn't know much about Dhani before we got together," says Arthur, "but I was very impressed by how he handled himself, and I love the way the three of us sound."
Arthur claims that most of the album's quirkiest, catchiest numbers, such as "I Don't Want to Waste Your Time," were conversations among the trio: "We didn't know if it was going to work. All we knew was that we booked three days in a studio." He compares that kind of weird and awkward pressure to a blind date: "It could be tedious or embarrassing, or it could be great. In our case, it worked. The first time we played 'Waste Your Time' back and heard our voices together, we were pretty impressed."
Is the not-so-solitary Arthur impressed enough to do another Fistful album? Yes. After he releases one of two new albums he's working on ("like in spring 2011"), he, Harper, and Harrison will record songs they're currently writing on the road. "You know, this might be cheesy," he says, "but the song 'With Whom You Belong' was about us coming together for the good."
Fistful of Mercy Waste No Time With Recording, Tour
Posted on Nov 19th 2010 12:00PM by Linda Laban
It's been quite an autumn for Fistful of Mercy, the group comprising Joseph Arthur, Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison. They released their debut album, 'As I Call You Down,' in October and, after wrapping their sold-out US tour this weekend, will head over to London to begin a European trek in December. It's especially impressive considering that the band formed only a few months ago after old friends Harper and Arthur got together last winter.
"I was on a solo tour going through L.A. and I had two nights at the Troubadour," Arthur tells Spinner. "I was trying to figure out how I was going to make them different. I thought, 'I wonder if Ben wants to come and sit in.'" Harper obliged and when Arthur had a week in L.A. to spare, they extended their collaboration. "We thought we should try and get in the studio and record something, see what happens. We booked three days in the studio, got busy and tried to make a record."
To make things even more special, Harper contacted Harrison, whom he knew only from sharing the same L.A. skate park.
"The first day in the studio, Ben was late and we said hello. We'd never met each other [before]," Arthur says of meeting Harrison. "But we just started playing around and started writing. We wrote and recorded three songs in the first day."
Arthur admits that for a moment or two, meeting the son of a Beatle was a little awkward. "It's a lot like going out on date," he says. "Me and Dhani, we went to different schools to learn the same things. We are similar characters. We got on really well pretty quickly."
Besides musical compatibility, Arthur says the thing that helped the band gel was the time limitation. "We only had three days," he says. "We had this task at hand. The first song we wrote together was 'I Don't Want to Waste Your Time,' which I think is a theme for the record."