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Peter Broderick Sings Arthur Russell

Peter Broderick had never heard of Arthur Russell before people started coming up to him after shows and saying how much his voice reminded them of the American wunderkind, who passed away in 1992. While the comparison made the Oregon-raised singer, composer and former touring member of Danish band Efterklang curious, he only ended up hearing Russell by accident.

“I never chased him up,” says Broderick down the line from Galway, Ireland, which he now calls home with folk musician Brigid Mae Power since the pair married in 2016. “But I was at a friend’s house, and they put this record on which turned out to be by Arthur Russell, and I loved it, and ended up going down this rabbit hole discovering all this amazing work.”

This weekend sees Broderick team up with an ensemble of Scotland-based musicians who join him for what promises to be be a very special Celtic Connections show of of Russell’s songs. It is the latest outing for a set that was the round-the-houses result of an invitation by Broderick’s former bandmate in Efterklang, Rasmus Stolberg, to play a set of Russell covers at Stolberg’s new festival in Denmark. This in turn led to other invitations, while a record, Peter Broderick and Friends Play Arthur Russell, was released last year.

By this time, Broderick had been contacted by Russell’s long-term partner Tom Lee, who gave Broderick access to Russell’s vast archive of unreleased recordings with a view to restoring them. The album was recorded in Maine, where most of Russell’s surviving family live. It is also where Broderick was born. Russell’s niece, Rachel Henry, sings on two tracks on the record, while his nephew, Beau Lisy, plays percussion on three. A painting by Lee adorns the record’s cover.

For those familiar with Russell’s work, listening to Broderick’s record is a curiously uplifting delight. Where the originals possessed a fragile insularity, Broderick’s versions seem to open the songs out somehow. Their over-riding beauty is still intact, but Broderick’s fresh textures make them sound as if they’ve come blinking into the light ready for a warm embrace. This is as evident on the two never before heard songs that appear on the album as it is on more familiar material such as Wild Combination, the quietly euphoric piece that gave Matt Wolf’s moving documentary film portrait of Russell its title a decade ago. 

“Arthur seemed a very insular kind of guy,” says Broderick. ‘He was a bit of a mystery, and lived in his own world. I can totally relate to that, but when I’m playing his songs there’s a pure joy about it. I don’t have any insecurity about them being good songs. I love them, and so many people cherish them, so there’s a real sense of ecstatic joy about them, which probably didn’t come across in the same way in his own recordings.

“I remember when I first heard them, and thinking the music felt very free. It swooped around, and the scope of it seemed so big, even though it was just guitar, voice and cello. Going through the archive, it feels a part of me now.”

Musical similarities between Broderick and Russell can be heard most clearly on the album on Losing My Taste for the Nightlife. Of the two previously unheard songs, Words of Love and You Are My Love, which top and tail the record, Broderick says that when he heard Russell’s recordings, “They blew me away. When Tom Lee first reached out and very kindly said he was happy to see me play Arthur’s songs, he ended up playing me all these songs that hadn’t been released. To discover all of these beautiful songs was amazing, and then to have Rachel sing on one of them, I feel so honoured to have met Arthur’s family and have their blessing in this way.”

Despite the mix of shyness and candour in his songs, a creative restlessness also pours through Russell’s work. Having initially studied cello and piano, in the early 1970s he moved to San Francisco. Here he joined a Buddhist commune, studied North Indian classical music and composition, and hooked up with poet Allen Ginsberg, whose readings he accompanied on cello. Moving to New York, Russell studies electronic music and linguistics and composed his own work.

On meeting composer Rhys Chatham, Russell became immersed in the city’s avant-garde world, and took over from Chatham as music director of arts lab The Kitchen at a time when the pop and art undergrounds were crossing over in a way that would provide platforms for key players in the No Wave scene. Russell moved instinctively between experimenting with left-field minimalism and instrumental pieces, the song-based material explored by Broderick and extended disco pieces which are today regarded as underground club classics.

Broderick’s own output is similarly eclectic. Both his parents were what he calls “folksy musicians,” and with his brother and sister also musicians, he was surrounded by instruments. After starting violin aged seven, Broderick branched out, learning mandolin, banjo and musical saw. Prior to Efterklang, he played on recordings by the likes of actress/singer Zooey Deschanel, and toured as part of of Oregon singer Ritchie Young’s Loch Lomond project.

Broderick went on to release Dociles, an album of solo piano music, followed by the piano and string based Float. Since then, over the last decade there have been orchestral concept albums, collaborations with Dutch electronicist Machinefabriek and releases on the Bella Union and Erased Tapes labels as well as self-released CDr runs.

For his Celtic Connections show, Broderick will be backed by a band that includes composer Kim Moore, who records as WOLF, on viola, keyboards and vocals. C Duncan’s drummer Liam Chapman will also appear alongside guitarist Andrew Cowan from Yous and Admiral Fallow bassist Joe Rattray, plus pedal steel player Conor Smith and saxophonist James Steele. With Broderick only meeting his Glasgow band-mates once he flies in, their individual contributions promise to add yet another layer to songs which might include ones not featured on the album.

“There are already a lot more songs I know how to play now that didn’t make it onto the record,” says Broderick, “and I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up doing something else with them.”

More invitations to play Russell’s work keep coming in, including a show at a festival in Portugal.

“I’m willing to follow this wherever it goes,” Broderick says. “I cherish these songs, and whenever I’ve played them people love it, because they’ve never has a chance to see them played live. I’ve said from the beginning that I’ve no intention of becoming a tribute act, but all these things keep happening, so let’s see where that goes. I don’t feel like I’m steering the ship, but maybe Arthur’s steering it.”

Broderick’s last statement goes some way to understanding the belated appeal of Russell’s canon.

“Arthur was so prolific,’ says Broderick, “and he left so much music behind that people have never heard, so there’s so much mystery there as well. Because he’s not around anymore, people get to discover the story and to put it together themselves. People like that, but in the end it all goes back to the work. Arthur may not have been that well known during his lifetime, but he left behind a goldmine.”

Peter Broderick Sings Arthur Russell forms part of Celtic Connections at The Blue Arrow, Glasgow on Saturday January 26. Peter Broderick and Friends Play Arthur Russell is available now.

The Herald, January 24th 2019


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