Worlds of echo

“There are a great many interesting things about Arthur Russell, one of which is that he was rediscovered through his music being made available for the first time, in many cases. So he was similarly simultaneously discovered and rediscovered. There’s very little biographical information in terms of him speaking about himself to the press. Consequently, there’s an element that Arthur can be whoever you want him to be, enhanced by the fact that he was adept at so many different forms of music.


“He was a complicated person, of the type who have different versions of themselves. He practised Buddhism, but he was also wildly ambitious. He made avant-garde music, but he also made very warm and accessible music that he hoped would be commercial. I found that going through his archive in great detail just further enhanced the idea that he was an enigma.


“I’ve seen much of his record collection, and he did have things like Tommy James & The Shondells records. And he did like ABBA! But I don’t know how many Beatles or Beach Boys records he had. In the archive, there’s a letter from him aged 16 and he’s writing about John Cage and Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, so he had quite developed tastes for the counterculture. His approach – of not being limited by being a composer or a cellist or a disco producer – obviously hindered him in his lifetime, but it’s actually the approach a lot of people now take. I think one of the reasons for his popularity is that he’s so confident in his ability and he’s unrestricted by the idea of staying in your lane.

“In everything he did, there’s a degree of integrity. In the later period, when he’s making music like ‘Make 1, 2’ or ‘Wild Combination’, they are very catchy, potentially commercial songs. But there’s the same attention to detail that there is in some of his more abstruse compositions. There is a relationship to quality and rigour no matter what sort of musical dialogue he’s engaged in. That is very rare, and is probably one of his defining features.

“Arthur was encouraged by figures like Ginsberg and Philip Glass, but they weren’t facilitators, because I don’t think he’d let people facilitate for him. He was hyper-creative, obviously, but I don’t know how good he was at networking. I don’t think he had the kind of character that could quite get to that point. He only played outside of New York two or three times under his own name, and he could have probably walked to the majority of shows he ever played. So I think it’s very much a nest he built for himself in East 12th Street – a nest bordering on a cocoon. 


“At the point he was diagnosed with HIV in 1986, he’d just released World Of Echo and he had a contract with Rough Trade. Whatever frustrations he’d had, he was probably the best place he’d been in terms of the opportunities ahead. So there is a tragedy that he got sick just as he reached a point where he could have gone on to do whatever he wanted.

“The reason Arthur’s music still sounds so fresh today is partly down to his skill in recording. In most cases, you can’t tell the era in which it was made – could have been made yesterday, it just doesn’t sound like anything else. There’s a sense of escape in a lot of his music: the escape of dancing in a club, but also the escape of hearing a very soft voice and a cello, drawing you back to the womb. Not many people sing like him or sound like him. So I do think there is some sort of genius at work.”

Travels Over Feeling: Arthur Russell, A Life is published by Faber on April 18