The musician known as ARTHUR makes songs with a tender whimsy that can make them seem like broadcasts from outer space. Over the phone from Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where the 23-year-old artist is currently quarantined with his family, he says he’s most interested in the songs that feel like they “came from somewhere else.” On his debut, last year’s Woof Woof, ARTHUR crafted lonely pop tracks that sprung to life in ecstatic bursts. Now, with Hair of the Dog, released last week on Honeymoon, ARTHUR’s nimble pop production makes for a refreshing sort of introspection.
“Through music or sports or video games or art — that’s the only way you can give godliness to someone whose young and doesn’t have that much control over their life,” ARTHUR tells me over the phone. We discussed the ongoing pandemic, video games, religion, and what it was like releasing an album in the middle of a worldwide lockdown.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Delaware County Pennsylvania where I grew up. I kinda just had to get out of Dodge. Me and my girlfriend broke up a few months ago and I was living by myself and just couldn’t do it. So I packed my things up and came to my parent’s house. There’s this little shack attached to our garage and that’s been my little video game and recording studio right now.
What’s it like going through a breakup in the middle of a global pandemic?
It was months ago. But it’s just lonely living in a house where you used to live with someone else and you can’t go outside so you’re kinda forced to just look at all this craziness.
What’s it been like wrapping up the record during this time?
It feels like the first thing I ever made, which apparently is something Biggie said about finishing albums. But yeah, wrapping it up just felt good. Almost like sending your kid off to college. Like watching someone grow up from a baby into an adult very quickly.
There’s a great deal of sampling on the record, how do samples fit into your creative process?
When I write music I don’t get inspired by other songs, but sometimes certain songs just are what they are. Like one song I sample is a Christian song that played a lot when I was a kid and I think played at my brother’s funeral. It’s just kind of an emotional “hello, goodbye” song. And another sample is this Italo Disco song that me and my best friend found on accident one time and it kind of became our theme song. Sampling is something I’m not hugely into, but I try to use it as sort like a nod to certain songs that are significant in some way.
How’d you get into making music?
My dad and my brothers and my sisters had all been playing music when I was a kid. Especially my dad, and he would always try and get me to play music and I hated it. I would cry when they would try to get me to play. But then I got older, and there was this spring concert for school, I asked my brother to borrow his bass, just to like pretend to play for this show. But he ended up giving it to me later, and I just started playing. And then my dad’s also a big computer guy so I always had access to a computer I could mess around on, and that became the only way I could record music. When I was twelve or thirteen. I recorded thousands of songs. Sometimes I like to still listen to them because they were so innocent.
There’s an earnestness to your music even now. When you’re writing lyrics do you think about it at all?
Writing lyrics is something that actually is surprisingly easy for me. It happens in like twenty minutes. I try to use the words as an instrument — I guess a lot of people do. For me, the words are as if I just busted out a different instrument and started playing. They’re always just there for me. Like a clicking noise in my head — they usually fit in pretty easily. I can just feel the lyrics without having to think about them. I’ll just listen to the song a few times and like, take a walk or something. What I used to do would be to go to a bar or something and listen to the song with headphones in and write the lyrics. It’s nice to write words around people without talking to them. Just as an ambient background, people talking or laughing or being sad. Because sometimes writing in a quiet space is actually louder than being out and around people.
A song I think of is “I Don’t Want to Talk to You,” and now I have to wonder. You just came up with the lyrics on the fly?
That song was in a period where me and my ex were going through breaking up or getting back together, or something. And with this song I just wanted to feel some sort of strength in myself that didn’t exist. After I had the first few lyrics: You fall short / I’m not sure / Are you pretending. The rest sort of just came together. There’s something medieval about that song in my head. Like I wanted to be a king or something.
What song from the album resonates the most for you?
“No Tengo” is my favorite song that I’ve written. It feels like something that came from another universe or something, for me. I like the songs that came about the fastest. Like the ones that I can look back on and not think about having had to toil away at it or anything. Almost as if they just came from somewhere else. A lot of the songs came together like that. Really quickly. A lot of the songs got finished in like a two-week period, which is fun. It was like a little music bender.
All of the songs are kind of short, too, which is something you see more in hip-hop nowadays. Was that an intentional decision?
Yeah, I started doing that when I was like 16 or 17. I think because my friend Brian — who’s dead now — he had this band called Blue Smiley and I was really into them. He wrote all these short songs and I loved it. I think I inadvertently just took that because I love pop songs that are really short. I don’t want to sit there and listen to something over and over again. It’s almost better to leave something to be desired. It’s like having a bite of a really good piece of cake and knowing that it’s there and knowing how good it is but not eating the whole thing because it’ll make you feel sick. You don’t need the whole cake. You just need a piece.
Is there a narrative to Hair of the Dog
Yeah, it’s hard to put into words. It feels accurate to where it was and why it was. It speaks to a certain time. Like memories. Like a book on a shelf. I can’t even really describe it yet because it doesn’t all come together for me until I see how it lives in the world. Kind of going back to that child analogy. Like I have to see what it means to other people.
Where do you find inspiration?
Probably through nerdy stuff like video games and anime. But even then, I don’t watch anime or play video games that much. I get inspiration from life. Just from being. I’m sitting outside in the rain and that feels good to me. Inspiration mostly just comes from inside of me. I watched all the Alien movies with my sister the other day and that was really inspiring to me. I like whimsical stuff. Stuff that doesn’t remind me of being an American. I don’t like thinking of cars and stuff like that. Unfamiliar things inspire me.
What was growing up like?
Pretty weird. This is probably the longest I’ve been back home in a while. I’ve had stints where I was here for like a month. But it’s cool because my parent’s house is in the woods. Growing up here, everything outside where I lived was whatever. It kind of sucked. Like, I went to Catholic school and it was okay except there were a lot of really conservative people. I think the best parts of growing up were the things I curated for myself. Like playing video games with my sister for hours a day, or running around in the woods, and playing with my dog. Being in nature is really good for my brain.
Are you close with your family
Probably closer as I get older. Now, especially. There are like 10 people quarantined here, including, like, my sister’s kids. So it’s funny as an adult being here seeing both ends of it. Remembering what it was like to be a kid here. But, yeah, we’re all very close. It can be bad sometimes because we’re all so similar so we can bicker about things. But there’s really no drama. Mostly just have fun and joke around. We drink a lot of coffee. A lot of coffee.
And you’re diabetic, which makes things right now a bit more serious, right?
Yeah, when you’re diabetic, your immune system is just weaker than others. I think a lot of my family has autoimmune disorders. It’s part of the reason I wanted to get out of the city in quarantine, if I had gotten sick I’d have been alone. But I was also afraid that when I came back I’d give it to my family. But luckily everything has been good.
Was it emotional at all coming back home?
Not that much makes me feel emotional anymore. It just feels magic. I feel like I have this weird sort of clairvoyance now. Everything feels sort of circular. Like, I don’t really get surprised or confused. Maybe I do get confused, I like being confused. I think the things I don’t understand are what God is. It’s the stuff I’m meant to just appreciate.
Does religion play a role in your life?
No. I definitely appreciate it. My mom’s very Christian. I really appreciate it but I don’t align with any specific religion. For me, I like to see godliness is looking up at the rain or seeing foxes out in nature or something. I’m willing to be surprised but I don’t think of any use in putting a name to it.
Hair of the Dog is available now via Honeymoon