Musician Arthur Russell has been at the center of a cult that seems to grow exponentially every year since his death in 1992, at the age of 40. As more and more of his music is uncovered and re-released (there have been six posthumous albums and four re-releases compiled from his work so far), he has come to seem like the consummate New York musician, a tireless producer of thousands of songs that are as varied as the city’s landscape: club songs fit for Studio 54, bedroom pop that sounds as intimate and murky as the tiny East Village apartments he lived in, avant-garde compositions that wouldn’t sound out of place next to Philip Glass, and even the kind of country music that only an ex-pat from Iowa like him would create. He died, too, in a way that feels all too representative of the New York of that era: too early, with very little to his name, and from complications due to AIDS. Today, Red Hot (an AIDS organization) and Yep Roc are releasing a compilation of other artists covering Russell’s songs called Master Mix, including contributions from Robyn, Hot Chip, and Blood Orange. We caught up with Blood Orange maven Dev Hynes—who, with his own brand of New York avant-pop, is in many ways Russell’s artistic descendent— to discuss the enduring musical influence of Arthur Russell.
When did you first come to Arthur Russell?
I think I was 19 or 20, and the first thing I heard was Another Thought, the compilation that came out in ’94. But even then, I listened to it but didn’t really know much about it. A few years after that, I kind of fell deep and started obsessing. The fact that he was a cellist really spoke to me, because back then I couldn’t think of cool cellists. And just how it seemed like he was making music in all different ways with all different people, he collaborated with Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg. And so now, the scope of my love for him is so huge because it could be for anything—from his instrumentals to his more straight dance-y songs, or weird edits, or World of Echo stuff—I love all of it, there’s not anything he’s touched that I don’t like.
Do you remember what song of his you loved first?
Probably like most people, “That’s Us/Wild Combination.” But what I listen to from him changes, it’s always expanding. There’s so much stuff—it changes with my mood. I could be in a weird, slightly orchestral improv zone or pop zone and it could always work out. He’s one of the few people that I continually listen to. It’s a small list, people who made music that I view as ultimate music, artists that create ultimate pieces of art. The longest I go without listening to him is two days: it’s him, Michael Jackson, Philip Glass.
And in a way, he’s kind of a split between Michael Jackson and Philip Glass—an artist that encompassed the avant-garde and the pop at the same time.
It’s true. That’s probably why I associate with him so much. It’s the bridge of weird classical, weird pop, and avant-garde. He’s such a breath of fresh air—it’s pop, but from his own lane that he created. And I don’t know if that mix made sense when he was doing it, but now what he does is the norm. For the last five years, pop isn’t something that people feel ashamed of anymore. It used to be that cool kids were ashamed to listen to pop, but now cool kids listen to pop, they like Charli XCX and Beyoncé. But people don’t want it to be fully straightforward pop—and that’s exactly what he was.
So he was ahead of his time?
He’s still ahead! Even the idea of home-recording pop music. People weren’t really doing it till the last ten years. And then there’s his sense of collaboration, and the way names he released music under didn’t really mean anything.
He often used pseudonyms to release music—Dinosaur L, Loose Joints, Felix. Why do you think?
I wonder if just the idea of names can ruin the music-listening experience—just let the music speak for itself, and not really be tied to anything.
He makes so many different kinds of music but something ties them together—what ties the somber country songs to the disco songs to the pop songs?
It’s his sense of melody, and also his earnestness. There’s no part of it that you’re feeling tricked or duped. But his melody is just insane. I love him so much, I wonder if I take it for granted; it’s possible to love things so much you could take how good it is for granted.
How would you describe his sense of melody?
It’s always shifting to the last place you would think it would go, but it completely works and it’s insanely catchy. It’s very chord-y—always moving in such interesting ways. I was listening to the Necessaries, and I’m not sure who wrote what in that band, but there was a keyboard moment, and I instantly knew he was playing the keyboards—just the phrasing. And that never disappears; you can always kind of tell that that was him. And his voice was so interesting.
He’s so New York to so many people—why?
I’ve always seen him as a pretty ideal New Yorker, in part because he’s not from New York. He moved here and kind of worked his way around and fell into fads, becoming obsessed with Paradise Garage and things like that, networking, working with multiple people—I feel like you can hear it in the music. The music feels super New York, even still, because it feels like the energy of streets in the daytime, Alphabet City, East Village, and nighttime, partying and being free. And even when it is more orchestral, like Tower of Meaning, it feels so specifically the New York world of deconstructing your classical upbringing. There are not many artists that in that particular sense who feel New York.
You covered one of his most famous songs, “Is It All Over My Face,” a club track that he released under the moniker Loose Joints—how did you approach such an important one of his songs?
I wanted to put across how much I love the stuff of his that doesn’t get a lot of shine, like the Tower of Meaning music, which I think is so beautiful. I listened to different parts of Tower of Meaning and took down what each note was and re-scored it for saxophone, which is a Love of Life (Orchestra) nod. And the beat got chopped up from another Arthur Russell track. I wanted to keep it simple and I wanted to keep it line with him—it’s just a very fun song, a fun song to sing. It’s a perfect pop club song.
What is it about him that has made his influence grow and grow each year?
He’s the ultimate thing that people want from someone: story, died young, had thousands of tapes of music. People love to discover, and I can’t think about anyone like him in any field. The only example I can think of is Bach, who released few of his many pieces when he was alive, and then just gradually afterwards, people kept discovering stuff. He was just known as a piano teacher when he was alive, and that’s the biggest turn-around of fame musically in history, and Arthur Russell is maybe the second.
What do you think his legacy is?
I don’t know if at the end of his life he felt like he should’ve been more popular or released more music—but for me, just the relentlessness of making music you want to hear. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and tried to do. If I have an idea, I make it. I realize that’s not everyone’s goal, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a different thing—but why would you care if anyone else liked what you made? Arthur Russell made the music he wanted to hear. Of course, he wanted other people to hear it, but first of all, he was making it for himself.