How much was Arthur Russell worth?
|Net Worth:||$2 Million|
|Date of Birth:||May 21, 1951|
|Country:||United States of America|
Who Is Arthur Russell
Arthur Russell was a New York-based musician, whose twin studies of classical cello and downtown disco resulted in multi-faceted music that, in combining elements of folk, avant-gardism, and pop seems both accessible and difficult at once. Though largely ignored in his day, following his AIDS-related death in 1992, Russell’s output has become increasingly influential over the years.
Born in: 1952, Oskaloosa, Iowa
Died: April 4, 1992, New York City, New York
Key Albums:World of Echo (1986), Another Thought (1994)
Born Charles Arthur Russell in Oskaloosa, Russell began in music learning the piano by ear. Joining the middle-school orchestra, he picked up the cello, the same instrument played by his mother.
In 1970, Russell moved to San Francisco, to formally study at the city’s musical Conservatory. Later, he lived in a Buddhist commune and studied North Indian music at the Ali Akbar College of Music. There, he met beat poet Allen Ginsberg, with whom Russell would collaborate, offering a live musical backing at Ginsberg’s recitations.
In 1973, Russell moved to New York to study composition at the Manhattan School Of Music, and linguistics at the University of Columbia. At this time, Russell’s musical output swayed towards two musical camps: folksong and modern composition. In studying the latter, he came across a young Philip Glass, who was then just gaining a reputation as a titan of minimalism. Glass would later offer, of Russell’s playing: “this was a guy who could sit down with a cello and sing with it in a way that no one on this earth has ever done before, or will do again.”
In 1974, through Glass, Russell met David Byrne, who tried to recruit Russell for his budding project: a band that would come to be named Talking Heads. “When they started out, they were just a trio and they were looking for a fourth member,” Russell said, in a 1987 interview with Melody Maker. “We became friends, but I ended up not joining the band. They were all from art school and into looking severe and cool. I was never into that. I was from music and I had long hair at the time. I think I maybe had a strong influence on one Talking Heads song, ‘I Zimbra’ on Life During Wartime. On that same album there’s a line ‘This ain’t no disco!’ Which, at the time, I took as David saying ‘Disco sucks!’ I took that very personally.”
Hanging out at New York’s underground gay clubs, Russell harbored a growing obsession with disco, making a connection that few at the time had: that its repetitive rhythms echoed both the minimalism of modern composition and Indian ragas.
Going further, Russell saw disco as more liberating than these heavily-structured forms. “Dance music is more improvisatory,” Russell said. “It uses an extendable strucure which on the one hand is recognizable, and on the other, improvisatory.”
From the late ’70s to the late ’80s, Russell was incredibly prolific, but not always in the most public manner. As producer, Russell was a workaholic, but had a streak of perfectionism that caused him to abandon unfinished tracks constantly, or to spend months and months making an infinite array of edits on a single song.
In that way, the budding industry of white-label disco singles catered to his whims; Russell often issuing different versions of the same tracks in small pressings.
Using a ridiculous array of monikers —Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Indian Ocean— Russell presided over a scattershot discography. In that time, he released three ‘proper’ albums: 1982’s Dinosaur L LP 24-24 Music, a collation of meditative disco repetition; 1983’s Tower of Meaning, a wholly orchestral worked pressed only as 320 copies; and 1986’s World of Echo, in which Russell’s varying schools of influence finally collided in an intimate, frail setting. It was that album that finally won Russell acclaim: named in Melody Maker‘s Top 30 Albums of 1986.
“World of Echo isn’t a complete version of echo, it’s a sketch version of echo,” Russell told the English weekly, cryptically, in that 1987 interview. Typically, Russell saw, in what would turn out to be his defining album, only flaws. “I want to do the full version which will have brass bands and orchestras playing outdoors in parks with those band-stands that project echo.”
In the late ’80s, Russell, already an insular and obsessive musician, grew more and more precious about his recordings. Working on what he hoped would be a definitive album of pop-songs —one that he never finished— Russell fastidiously fashioned dozens of different edits, mixes, and takes of different tracks.
Having been infected with HIV, Russell retreated, increasingly, into his work, and rarely left home. Always guarded about making his music publicly available, he essentially closed off his musical output, knowing that any releases this late in his life would be definitive statements of a hoped-for legacy.
Russell died of AIDS-related illness in April of 1992. He left behind thousands upon thousands of recordings, notations, sketchbooks, and lyrics. These would, eventually, grant Russell’s music a life well beyond his own.
In 1994, two years after his death, Russell’s first posthumously-released collection of recordings, Another Thought, was issued. Curated by Philip Glass, the compile —Russell’s first widely-available, pressed-on-CD release— served to introduce Russell to a whole new generation.
In 2004, a confluence of Russell re-releases cemented his reputation as an obscure outsider figure unjustly ignored in his day. That year found a re-issue of World of Echo, the pop-song-centric compilation Calling Out of Context, and the ‘best of’ The World of Arthur Russell all released.
Since then, an ever-increasing array of artists have cited Russell as a key influence; from modern disco-ish outfits like !!!, The Rapture, and Hercules and Love Affair, to sorrowed songsmiths like Jens Lekman, Grizzly Bear, and Owen Pallett.
In 2008, Matt Wolf’s documentary movie Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell and the country compilation Love is Overtaking Me were released, further cementing Arthur Russell’s posthumous reputation as a key figure of cross-genre experimentation.
World of Echo (1986)
Before His Time, Time After Time
Given that Arthur Russell was a prickly perfectionist, it seems strange that the only solo album he released in his way-too-short life —1986’s World of Echo— is a record that sounds far from anyone’s idea of perfection. As disco producer —making music as Loose Joints, Dinosaur, Dinosaur L and Indian Ocean— Russell would make endless iterations of every song; mixes after mixes, searching for that elusive definitive version in what was, usually, a fruitless pursuit. Upon his tragically-young death in 1992, Russell left behind thousands of tapes of unreleased music and unending mixes; having never arrived at the final, finished version of anything in his life, his music will now remain eternally open-ended.
In this context, then, World of Echo makes perfect sense. The album —the only one Russell ever consented to release in two decades of music-making— was Russell’s way of letting go of perfection, of embracing imperfection. The ‘world’ of its title is telling: here, playing God of his own artistic world, the Creator allowed things to be human.
Meaning, the elaborate disco productions —the strings, the divas, the precise percussion— was torn away. In its place were scrapings of cello, mournful singing, some flickering electronics, and plentiful echo, delay, noise, and tape-hiss. It’s a ‘world’ in the most atmospheric sense; the surface noise of the productions create an environment that Russell’s spartan, sad, barely-there songs inhabit.
Long before chillwave turned tape-sheen into a sum artistic statement, Russell used the rich qualities of magnetic tape to startling effect. Russell’s perfectionism was rare for a DIY artist in the ’80s, but emerged as standard practice in the ’10s, when recording software made endless versions possible. Russell was ahead of his time, aesthetically, spiritually, and stylistically; his music making more sense decades later than it ever did in its day.
A Whole World (in His Hands)
When released in 1986, World of Echo was a commercial disaster. Licensed for release in the UK by influential independent Rough Trade, it had a chance at acquiring a cult following in England, but Russell would never tour there. Melody Maker, in a move that now seems visionary, listed the LP amongst their 30 best albums of the year, but no one else seems to have particularly cared.
In the context of ’80s indie, Russell may’ve made no sense, but by the time new technology made home recording a cottage industry in the ’00s, Russell’s intimate, experimental, radical take on personalized pop-music —fashioning his own unique sound from such disparate influences as disco, compositional minimalism, musique concrète, country, punk, and Indian traditional music— seemed wholly contemporary.
By then, listeners were more forgiving of Russell’s eccentricities; and of the ‘unfinished’ nature of World of Echo. Tunes once considered too alien to be pop-songs, years on, seem that way; hushed meditations set to slippery, sub-aqueous sonics, sung with gentle passion, and delivering melody, verse, and chorus enough to sing along. Another Thought, the posthumously-released 1994 record, was a more forceful, coherent set of songs, but World of Echo, is, once it lures you in, every bit as effecting.
Even if “Soon-To-Be Innocent Fun/Let’s See” is two songs strung together into nine-and-a-half minutes of spare cello and barely-there heft, there’s still refrains, evocative playing, tangible emotion. “Hiding Your Present from You” is built on flickering, crackling electronics, but its rhythmically sound and melodically sweet. “Lucky Cloud” may be discordant and uneasy, but it’s still a profoundly-sweet ballad, laid bare.
The album, on first spin, may scan like a collection of half-finished sketches: the wobbly fidelity leading to the feeling that these are demos, songs in mid-construction, with all their component parts soon to be added. But the more time you spend in this World the more its logic makes sense, and the more it feels not incomplete, but whole.
Another Thought (1994)
When Another Thought was released in 1994, two years after the death of New Yorker cellist, experimentalist, and disco evangelist Arthur Russell, it couldnt’ve been more of out place, out of time. In the prevailing ‘alterna-rock’ climate, Russell’s compositions —eerie pop-songs dowsing cello and voice in echo, neverending tape-collages that turned disco rhythms into shrines to transcendental repetitions— didn’t jibe with the sarcastic, nihilist spirit of the era. The only place for Russell was in the serious realm of modern composition: this set released on a Philip Glass-helmed classical imprint.
The grand thing about the passage of art history is the way time affords reinterpretations and re-evaluations of works. If Russell was largely ignored when alive and at work in the mid-’80s, and if Another Thought pretty much sunk without a trace when issued in 1994, this can be —and, indeed, has been— addressed by future generations. This record is, for an artist as scattershot, self-sabotaging, and discographically convoluted as Russell, as close as you can get to his masterwork.
Musically, Another Thought essentially stands at the centerpoint of Russell’s turning world; somewhere between the half-dreamt haze of the lonesome cellist, the fearless explorer out to redefine musical boundaries, and the hedonist disco nerd ready to dance all night.
Into the Intimate
Far removed from the exuberant, sexually-driven disco anthems he made as Dinosaur L, Another Thought peers into an insular space both intensely intimate and strangely reserved. Rightly acclaimed as a master of using the studio as an instrument, Russell creates a sound-world that, to the human ear, is wholly evocative: his circular turns of echo and delay creating a sense of motion, his words —mic’d so every syllable’s spat saliva is audible— pressed, somehow, right against the listener.
Russell’s voice is, at once, both mundane and magical: flat yet evocative, bathed in a delay that as much amplifies Russell’s technical shortcomings as it does hide them, singing these words as successions of sound more than lyrical poetry. But, there’s no denying the simple, aching, utterly human elements of his vocals.
Whilst Russell mostly repeats phrases until their phonetic parts become blurred mantras, even these are loaded with an intensity of meaning; it impossible not to notice that this set’s title is alive both in its opening, minimalist gambit “Another Thought,” and in its glorious, classic pop-song “A Little Lost” (where Russell, romantically, croons “‘Cause I’m so busy, so busy/Thinking about kissing you/Now I want to do that/Without entertaining another thought”). Russell sings often of kissing, more often uses water as a lyrical symbol, and each stands for the same thing: offering both romantic potential and the escape from self.
Heading for Nothing
Yet, the emotional tenor of this achingly-emotional set isn’t set by Russell’s voice, but by his cello. Wringing an array of sounds —staccato, rhythmic, cantabile, fiddle-like, harshly distorted— from the instrument whose tone and timbre most closely resemble the human voice, Russell’s playing on Another Thought is the sound of someone radically rewriting all the parameters of musical correctness imposed by classical study.
A cut like “This is How We Walk on the Moon” showcases Russell’s playing. Though there’s a quiet drum-machine oscillating in the far distance, a gentle bongo slap in the left speaker, and Russell’s delay-draped voice resounding God-like above the mix, it’s the stark cello line that conveys all musical elements —rhythm, melody, timbre, syncopation— from just four strings.
His cello is never more alive than on this record’s true stand-out, “Losing My Taste for the Nightlife,” where it pings back-and-forth, from one ‘side’ of the mix to the other, in a series of half-suggested melodies and implied rhythms, full of bow-on-string scrapes and disorienting changes-in-distance. Sounding sadder than he does nearly anywhere else in his discography, Russell, in the song’s second-half, takes to repeating its title; every utterance finding more of the youth, more of the life, draining out of the singer.
If the passing of time has allowed us to see Another Thought for the rich, rewarding listen it is, it almost seems symbolic that its most poignant moment is a lament for just that. Time, for an artist so concerned with his legacy, was always the ultimate enemy.
Love is Overtaking Me (2008)
Moving Up Country
With every subsequent posthumous collection pulled from the archives of obsessive producer Arthur Russell, the fallen angel of disco-as-art/brittle cello hymnals, moves closer to a place in the grand musical canon. If a hallmark of all rock’n’roll saints is having their personal collections stripmined for anything half-releasable (Jimi Hendrix Blues anyone?), then Russell is on his way.
Of course, given Russell was renowned for endlessly working on dozens of different mixes of any single song, perhaps it should be no surprise that the recent rise in Russellophilia suggests a future time in which the pop-cultural landscape is swamped with excavations of his manifold dabblings. Love is Overtaking Me, thankfully, doesn’t signal that time.
Concurrently released with the DVD edition of Matt Wolf’s motion-picture documentary Wild Combination, this latest posthumous collection was loving collated by Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, from the archives tended to by Russell’s ‘widow’ Tom Lee. It stitches together —from a variety of different Russell helmed projects: The Flying Hearts, The Sailboats, Turbo Sporty, Bright & Early— a series of songs steeped in country and folksong tradition.
If Russell has found fame for the insularity of his studies in hypnotic minimalism and dancefloor repetition, Love is Overtaking Me offers something completely unexpected: Russell as traditional songwriter, Russell as crowdpleasing entertainer, Russell as peddler of Americana.
The Singing Works Just Fine for Me
Though inextricably linked with New York and its queer scene, Russell grew up amidst Iowa cornfields, and it certainly wouldn’t be trite to suggest that the countrified licks that populate this disc are drawn from childhood influence. “What It’s Like” starts with the half-spoken lines “In Iowa/in the tall grass/there’s a couple,” and, musically, it seems indebted to church organ and pulpit sermons.
Drawing from such land and tradition, Russell employs, across the set, sweeps of pedal steel, rich piano chords, brassy horns, and other hallmarks of slightly-country ’70s singer-songwriterism. But there’s also a tendency towards incongruously twee keytone (see: “Habit of You” and “Hey! How Does Everybody Know?”), and, in the middle of the record, there’s “Eli,” two minutes of strangulated lamentation and discordant cello that turns out to be an ode to a homeless dog.
This record isn’t loaded with the avant-gardism of Russell’s better-known works, but there’s always elements testing the boundaries of ‘straight’ songwriting: his take on the traditional “Goodbye Old Paint,” for one, featuring North Indian influence (tabla and sitar drone) colliding with orchestral atonalism.
What resounds most clearly, throughout, is Russell’s singing. Far from the mumbled, delay-bathed loner of World of Echo, here Russell sounds like an acclaimed singer-songwriter in training; his voice landing halfway between John Martyn and James Taylor. For an artist whose bow already seemed plentifully stringed, this newly-unearthed side of Russell only adds to the complexity of his unique legacy.