Arthur Russell ‘Calling Out of Context’
Arthur Russell was born into a farm in the charmingly titled Oskalooska in Iowa in 1951. He didn’t harbour much love for working in the fields but from a young age he showed a tremendous feeling for music and as a child and adolescent studied cello and piano. The innate melancholia at the heart of much of his work was something he felt from the start. He was a lonely child and a fish out of water in Iowa. His homosexuality was a source of isolation in a place he considered several planets removed from the centre of civilisation.
He moved to San Francisco at the age of 18 and his world expanded exponentially. He lived in a Buddhist commune and studied North Indian Classsical music at the Ali Akbar College of Music and western composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
He relocated to New York in 1973 to further his studies, and expand his burgeoning world through a chance encounter he became music director at The Kitchen, an avant-garde downtown performance space. His own musical experimentation at this time was centred largely around a band called The Flying Hearts. It wasn’t until he paid a visit to Nicky Siano’s disco club in Soho in 1976 that the mirrorball dropped and a whole new world of dance music exploded.
It precipitated a brand-new modus operandi on Russell’s part. He began working solo at a furious pace, often turning over several songs in a single day. New technology enabled him to be his own orchestra with primitive drum machines replacing the need for a drummer. For a multi-instrumentalist it was like reaching Shangri-La.
His ability to imbue each of his songs with a personality of its own turn them into something else. Some work better than others but they all have character in abundance. His collaboration with Jennifer Warnes, That’s Us/The Wild Combination, is a richly nuanced classic.
The charts never listed an Arthur Russell song. While he reached for the skies and brought back the stardust, they remained a poorer place.