Photo courtesy of Red Hot Organization
I turned to Arthur Russell’s music on a hunch. It was the year I graduated college, a potent moment of transformation for me, the year whatever fantasies I held about adult life were eradicated. I moved home, downsizing from an apartment rented with student loans to the same rectangular box I grew up in. The pink walls of faded, curling wallpaper were no longer me, although I wasn’t sure what was.
I was deeply interested in music from the New York of the late 70s and early 80s—mutant disco and no wave and eclectic interpretations of post-punk—and Arthur Russell was as foundational to understanding that period of time as anything else. But his music also transcended the time. He was singular. “This is How We Walk on the Moon” became an immediate favorite, the soundtrack to long walks home in the city and the changing of the underground train to the aboveground landscape of the Chicago skyline. The song was poppy and infectious but also starkly minimalist, and I played it on repeat, never wanting to let it go.
In Russell’s music, I hear the moments when we become acquainted with ourselves and our thoughts. It’s the music of our jumbled, confused insides, whether we know it exists or not.
My life is unlike Russell’s; most people’s lives are probably significantly different than that of the cellist and electronic artist, who drifted through the downtown rock, classical, and disco scenes of 70s and 80s New York with quiet genius and who died a terrible AIDS-related death in 1992. But the vulnerability of questioning and yearning that weaves its way through each of his songs, whether upbeat or downtempo, translates across age and race and gender. It is why, even in 2014, so many people continue to connect to his music.
Last month, Red Hot Organization, a non-profit dedicated to fighting AIDS through popular culture, released Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell through the label Yep Roc. The album features a number of covers from musicians such as Blood Orange, Jose Gonzales, and Robyn. It is lovely and all-encompassing, with attention paid not just to Russell’s most popular and charismatic tracks but to the entire breadth of his discography.
Russell never settled on one genre of music, and many of both his fans and the artists on this compilation have relationships to disparate parts of his work. He made winsome country and hypersexual disco and delicate art pop. But within each of Russell’s songs are points of lyrical, emotional, and vocal connection. A slow country twang can sound just as affecting as a lonely dance floor cry or a solo sojourn stripped seemingly right out of Russell’s bedroom.
“You don’t feel like somebody is trying to get you,” Sam Amidon, who is on the album covering “Lucky Cloud,” told me, referring to Russell. “They’re not yelling at you, trying to get you to listen to them. They’re just doing their own thing and it draws you in.”
Despite his obscurity then (and even now), Russell greatly touched the way we consume and understand popular culture. In his tracks, we hear a depth of creativity, a measure of silence, and the sound of aloneness. His music has a singular personhood that is recognizable in artists today. Regardless of what genre it falls under, Russell’s music is quietly revolutionary. So much art is consumed and created for the potential public. And although I don’t know for certain, I imagine Arthur created to create. His was a vision that spoke from and for the heart first.
Consider “Just a Blip,” (covered on the compilation by Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre) a track that is pulled from the inward, awkward, uncomfortable thoughts we have about ourselves when we’re alone, the kind of thoughts that, for many of us, happen more often than we’d like to admit. In music form, with each note a joyous surprise, as if the song can and should end at any moment, we get this song. For any other musician, it would be a track created and discarded. For Russell, it is a song that survives. For the listener, it’s a song so vulnerable that it wraps itself around from uncomfortably piercing to essential.
I found and still find myself drawn to Russell’s music for that very vulnerability. He is unique not only in how he taps into vulnerability but also in recognizing how falling into that vulnerability is sometimes necessary. His is not music of strength, at least not outright. Weakness permeates in the minimalist production— the isolating drum machines, the wallow of the cello— as well as in the vocals, at once folksy and sorrowful and true.
Yet with that apparent weakness, one can hear strength in its creation. Creation takes strength and courage. That Russell did not find greater acclaim in his too short life is only a minor footnote to his work. He created still, knowing the frustrations and limitations of doing so. Most of us who have ever harbored any sort of dream can’t often say the same. In creating works that toe the line of complete and incomplete, Arthur highlighted the act of creation.
“Were these unfinished tracks?” Red Hot’s Paul Heck, who helped put the compilation together, asked me, rhetorically. “Were they stuff that he would have done differently?” Jose Gonzales, who covered “This is How We Walk on the Moon” for the album, made a similar point, telling me “I felt a lot of connection to his music with the way I work with demos. Whenever I’m working on music and I have half-finished songs, that’s the way they come out many times: with more pauses and silence, more eclectic in general than the end result.” Russell is an artist’s artist, one who understands the complexity of the thinking mind and speaks to it in a way that only a creator can. Arthur Russell’s music is for thinking. It is about the act of thinking.
On “Time Away,” a sort of ditty that is easy to sing along to, possibly even requires it, Russell repeats the phrase “I just can’t be sure anymore” throughout the track. “I’m taking time, away to dream. I’m taking time out,” he continues. How many times have we felt that, understood that, or needed that? With “A Little Lost,” which is covered by Sufjan Stevens on the compilation, Russell sings “Now it’s harder. I’m not on my turf. It’s me and ... me and those big old waves.” It’s a track that captures the next steps, a new beginning, and the loss of what we once knew before, whether it be a lover or a setting. James Blake, an artist whose own haunting and weird music bears a connection to Russell, once said Russell was, “the definition of avant garde meets pop; someone who can make such personal thoughts seem so attractive to other people.”
Part of how this happens in Russell’s music is through his use of silence. In each song—even the upbeat disco—there are breaks, moments of pause, the absence of a groove or a note or a beat, that feel pulled directly out of him. “Let’s Go Swimming,” for example, is full of drums and drumbeats and synthy goodness, yet each break feels calculated, not organic. The silence is purposeful, and it speaks to his mission. For what is silence—in our art, in our speech—but a way to better articulate that which builds from within us? I don’t think I could have related so deeply to Arthur’s music without that struggle within myself.
I am a journalist, though I like to think of myself first as an essayist. And each essay I write is for myself, even if they are shared with others. Art does that to us. Feelings, confusions, and frustrations need to go somewhere. Inside of us, they plague the mind and rot the body. They can be greater than us, if we let them, or they can fuel us, move us. We expel what’s inside because we need to. Arthur Russell’s music reminds us of this, helps us make sense of that feeling. It comes as no surprise that his work continues to resonate decades later. The artistic struggle, largely individualistic and always nuanced in its frustrations and edits, transcends generations. So too does life. It’s full of starts and stops, of silences and pain-staking thoughts, of shifting ideas and tentative undertakings that end up, as Gonzales described Russell’s music, “slightly weird.” And as long as there are creative minds working, there will be Arthur Russell’s music to frame their process.
Britt Julious is a writer living in Chicago. Follow Britt Julious on Twitter.