When I think about Arthur Ashin, who makes music as Autre Ne Veut, I think of a line Richard Hell sang: “It’s such a gamble when you get a face.” It’s a gamble when you get all of it. When you get a brain, an upbringing, a ratio of hormones, a shape. Arthur landed a very nice face. I think it’s probably so nice that he sometimes can’t lie low the way he sometimes wants to. I think Arthur’s songs are a way for him to hide in plain sight.
Autre Ne Veut
Arthur talks openly about the anxiety he wades through. He’s very up front with himself about how what he’s feeling relates to what’s actually happening. “I can’t tell if I don’t like going to parties because I’m not into them, or I’ve become not into parties because I get social anxiety from them,” he said on the set of one of his music videos, sober, a situation we decided needed to be remedied asap. “If I know that 25% of the people at any given party are people I know, then that’s enough. And I can kind of beeline to different people. Because I do like being social, I just don’t like being overwhelmed by arbitrary strangers.” But he was standing on a street in Soho, moments after we’d dealt with that Dean & Deluca over there, and he had a camera in his face, and he was maintaining. He must, if he wants to continue making his living off music. We all do things we don’t want to do, all the time.
In my conversations with Arthur, things always get meta fast. We are interested in similar things, but from opposite sides. I am interested in what happens between us in various interview and conversational situations, I wring my hands over the manipulations inherent in them and I don’t trust more than four people in this whole world. He is interested in his own performances, the little white lies we all tell to just get on with our day. He is not interested in romanticizing his job, he does not believe in genius and he has called me out more than once for flabby reasoning, for saying “everybody,” when I mean the 15 people with whom I most closely associate. A while ago he determined through questioning that his knowledge of Bobby Brown’s catalog exceeds my own, and I was ashamed.
We can talk about it all we want, but Arthur and I struggle to be clear to each other.
He should be tough. He did the work of making an album, and now here I am, trying to equal that effort, except that’s not possible, it’s not my album and I’ve known him for like a month and he’s not the only musician whose art I have to reckon with today. The trade between musician and media is not fair. We can talk about it all we want, but Arthur and I struggle to be clear to each other. He makes songs that operate in sight of and fuck with a style of music I hold near and dear to my heart and also one that I think is a source of comfort for pretty much everybody: R&B. He is not disrespectful to the tradition, though, otherwise we would have a problem.
Sometimes when he disrupts his songs’ chronology I laugh — I used the word “levity” to describe it once and then we had a weeks-long misunderstanding. He thought I wanted the relief he allows into his songs, in places, which usually sounds a little like the late-‘90s, but I find the way he gives voice to unease helpful. I don’t want to make myself any more uncomfortable than I already am, but I feel solidarity with people who experience outside as a gauntlet. So I listen. And I hear, often in the same songs, within the groove that bears down, the lifting of the burden that will soon come. That walking in your own front door after a long time away feeling. One time, I was worried about somebody. And I was a wreck, trying to find him and find out if he was alive or locked up or what. And after I was told he was OK, I laid down on my bed and this car went by blasting “This Woman's Work,” the Maxwell cover. It stopped at the stoplight right outside my house. And I thought then that I knew what R&B was for, and that it would never go anywhere, because bad, bad things will always happen and we’re always going to need it.
“I used to love music so much,” says Arthur. “I don’t love music in the same way I used to. And it’s sad — I don’t like it any less. Obviously I’ve invested my entire life in doing music. But it’s so much harder to find something that feels impossible. Like the first time I heard that Lauryn Hill record. Or Doolittle. I was like, what is this?!” The thrill is gone for Arthur, as it is for most people our age. But he makes me sit up straighter, intellectually. His songs don’t cut you slack. There are dimples of joy in them, reminiscent of what happens when we start to step back from the interview thing and are again just acquaintances who talk in shorthand: “Have you guys fucked with The Mind of Mannie Fresh?”
Last March, in Brooklyn, Arthur Ashin was rushing. He had one week left before he was due in studio to record his next album. You and I would call the work that he was doing then songwriting. He calls it content gathering. He is not interested in romanticizing his job. He doesn't really want anybody to hear the voice memos where he put down the very first glimmers of the last song he wrote for the album, but he spoke with me anyway, because he's trying to hide less, in the spirit of his album's title, Age of Transparency. This is the story of how "Cold Winds" was made.
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