That's the blissful, tangible place he'd like his music to take him. He's not looking to get rich — wouldn't turn it down, mind you — he just wants to make music his career, his life.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Right now he shares a messy apartment in South Philly with somebody he met on Craigslist and teaches adult education classes in North Philly.
So he's got a ways to go.
But dreaming is one of the things Arcuragi does best, and, besides, he's earned the right to indulge. This 27-year-old folk-rocker with the literate lyrics, the moody acoustic guitar and the voice like a sandy milkshake has released, quite possibly, the best album by a Philadelphia artist this year.
The 11-song, self-titled mission statement came out in March on the Philly-based label High Two. The tracks are long without dragging, sometimes lush but never overblown, catchy but ornate enough to demand repeat listens. It aims to hit you in the same place Nick Drake does, or Sufjan Stevens or Matt Pond.
Something of a word nerd, Arcuragi received a degree in English after two stints at Temple. Along the way he had a play put on by the Young Playwrights Festival and won a poetry contest. He's been in several bands, but it's only in the last five years that he's seriously applied himself to music.
Despite the occasional I-me-we constructions and emotional delivery, the CD is more of a philosophical and intellectual pursuit than a personal one. That's a conscious decision, the songwriter making himself a conduit, rather than a character. While he often gets the singer-songwriter tag — the limiting connotations of which bother him to no end — his lyrics rarely touch on the confessional.
"I don't want the story or the narrative to be: Here's this guy, and the world in terms of this guy," says Arcuragi, leaning forward over his latte. We're sitting in the Starbucks at Broad and Wolf. The idea is "to remove some of yourself," he says. "So it doesn't constrict the flow of whatever it is that flows through you."
He is himself amazed by the art of others, the films of Wes Anderson, the music of Bob Dylan, the sculpture and paintings of Cy Twombly. Some books, like Robert Graves' The White Goddess — which proposes a grand unified theory for mythology, poetry and all religions — are never far from his fingertips.
"You can stand in front of a painting that was painted hundreds of years ago, or listen to a piece of music that was written before recording [was invented] and it fuckin' moves you. It makes you fly. There's got to be something to that, the fact that you can just leave something for other people to find later and it moves them to tears."
"Don't you know Philadelphians don't dance," he quipped. "Put your hands back in your pockets."
Arcuragi has gathered that his music has touched people, in conversations after shows and posts on his Web site. But he's eager to share the credit with his band. There's Janet Kim on guitar, Rick Flom on bass, Deborah Nangle on violin, and a small platoon of others. Peter Wonsowski is his "moodzician," chiming in with some chugging accordion or hovering over everything with a ghostly singing saw.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Unlike the rollicking live show, there are almost no drums on Adam Arcuragi, but it's not something you notice right away. The album's infectious anthem, the fearless epic "1981 (Or Waving At You As We Part At Light Speed Will Look Like I'm Standing Still)," keeps the beat with a mere tambourine.
"People get the impression that I don't like drums, but I love drums," he says. "I really wanted to — and this is going to sound real highfalutin — I really wanted to evoke a phantom drum kit in people's minds."
The way he sees it, we Westerners already hear the drums in their heads. Our instruments and voices are already percussive.
"You listen to old gospel recordings, those don't have fuckin' drums," he notes. "But it's rhythmic. Handclaps and things like that. And just the percussion of someone's voice; a cappella groups, they don't have a drum kit. But some of them are so evocative of rhythm that you can't help but tap your foot."
To him, the human voice is the most effective instrument for pulling a listener in. "It's the sound of your compatriots. It's the sound of your brother and your sister." His second CD, which is just in its planning stages, will likely utilize a large chorus of voices and plenty of drums.
"Look at the Philadelphia music scene right now," he says. "It's phenomenal. It's one of those great moments in time. I mean, everything is cyclical based on time, place and people, as the Sufis say, but sometimes the cycle is just right and everything comes into congruence so that there's a confluence, right? A coming together, so that everything lights on fire."
Still, as much as he envisions Philly 2006 as comparable to the height of the Ming dynasty, or Paris in the 1920s, or Madchester, he wishes for something more unified than competitive, a crosstown camaraderie. "I just wanna get everybody to get tighter and just hug more and high five more, and smile more." Getting them dancing is a good first step.
Arcuragi sings and speaks plainly of spiritual and religious matters. Raised Protestant, he sang at church once or twice a week during his formative years in Bucks County.
"I had a really good conversation with two friends recently," he says. They too had been raised Christian. Prayed at night, went to services. "Then, right around 13 to 16, something really traumatic happened, that not only was painful but also shook our faiths."
For Arcuragi, the faith-shaker was his parents getting divorced. "It wasn't just the fact that my parents had split up, it's that nothing had been what it seemed. It was a house of mirrors," he recalls. "Dad got caught in a hotel room, kind of thing. I mean, he was my Sunday school teacher."
"Now we're sort of this weird subculture of people who don't really know what to believe in terms of their Christian heritage," he says. "You can't really ask anyone about it because the Christians all want to save us. And everybody else bristles at the mention of Jesus. So there's really no good place to go for that. ... Being middle class, it's really hard to go to anybody and say: Hey, this thing that's not very quantitative hurts really bad. I don't need sympathy, I need someone to help."
In "Rsmpa (Respro-Selectively Mechanical Psychoactive Agriculture)" — again with the long, head-scratching song titles — he is an old crocodile waiting for a holy revelation: "Will salvation put its head down to drink, leaving me with dried blood on my smile?"
At times he plays it close to his chest, as in "All the Bells": "I don't want to leave my house like this, crawling on my belly and my hands/ I was so sure your face would be radiant and I think I'd rather understand than stand up straight."
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
But in the haunting "Broken Throat" he pleads simply, repetitively: "Oh don't leave me, god take me home." As the mantra marches on, his voice is joined by others. Hands clap. Feet stomp.
"I've been wanting to call the music death gospel," he says.
And what's the good word?
"We're all gonna fuckin' die."
That's close to what he considers the heart of his songwriting: finding the universal, the truth that applies to everyone, the common ground. After all, our religions might very well have sprung up from the same goddess figure. Or, if you want to kick old school, you can think back to a time when all matter and energy were one, as in pre-Big Bang.
The point, Arcuragi says, is that we're all connected. "The strongest thing you can do is touch someone else's perception [so] they don't just hear it and process it rationally, they feel it," he marvels. "That's the closest we're ever going to get to psychically connecting, and that is awesome."
So while language may not be perfect, it's the best hope we have.
"You don't praise the hammer for the house, you praise the carpenter," he says. "But at the same time, the hammer's really fuckin' neat."