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Timo Arthur, Blues Challenge winner, making Springfield home | Community Voices

 Timo Arthur playing guitar
Timo Arthur

Winner of the 2013 Atlanta Blues Challenge, and guitarist for touring blues/roots artists Brandon Santini among others, Timo Arthur has spent the past thirty years working as a professional musician. Arthur currently lives in Springfield after stops around the world. His piano ballad "Sing Me Into Heaven (for Eva Cassidy)" won a Runner Up award in the 2017 Song of the Year contest. Timo visited the NPR Illinois studios to discuss his art on Community Voices.

Randy Eccles: We have another area artist to meet, Timo Arthur. I saw Timo earlier this spring at the One State Conference for the arts in Springfield. Timo was a featured artist there. How did that come about?

Timo Arthur: That came about through Betsy Hapas in the local music community. I've known her for a couple of years now. She's the one that booked me on that.

Randy Eccles: It was great to hear you there. Hopefully, you got some good exposure out of it.

Timo Arthur: Definitely,

Randy Eccles: You're in the area now. Did you start here or how did you get here?

Timo Arthur: I grew up in Connecticut. I've lived in a whole bunch of places, including Vermont, Boston, California, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Barbados, and China. How I got to be in Springfield started when I was living in Atlanta.

I had won the Atlanta Blues Challenge. That put me in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. At the time, Brandon Santini was living in Memphis. He saw me perform at the IBC. After that we got to talking.

He ultimately hired me on in his band. I had to move from Atlanta to Memphis. I was in Memphis for a few years then Brandon moved up to Springfield to be with his girlfriend. About a year or so after that, I moved up here because the tours were leaving out of here. It just made more sense to just be here.

Randy Eccles: What we hear from a lot of artists is Springfield is not a bad place for a base of operations. It's inexpensive to live in central Illinois. You can road trip to wherever you want to go. We want to thank the significant others of the world for bringing artists to Springfield and the Central Illinois area.

Brandon Santini and Timo both can be heard on The X from NPR Illinois. We've been playing both their latest songs for a while. Timo, most of your stuff has been singles so far. Any plans for an album at some point?

Timo Arthur: I hope so. The way the market's been going lately, it seems like singles do better than albums. They make more financial sense at the moment to do those. I would like to put out an album as soon as I can, but for now, I think it's gonna be singles. I'm working on, on a new single. It's a song that I wrote when I was 14 years old, since then I've edited it and tweaked a couple of things.

Randy Eccles: You wrote something at 14? I’m looking forward to that.

You said you lived in China and Barbados. Musically were you doing stuff in those areas?

Timo Arthur: Yes, my father is from Barbados. In the nineties, my father moved back to Barbados and then my mother followed about a year after that. I was living in Vermont at the time. But I decided I'd had enough of the cold, and I decided to join my parents in Barbados.

Four days after I got there, I got this audition for a Calypso band. I had grown up hearing Calypso music all the time, but I never really tried to learn it. My father was working for a newspaper down there as an editor. He talked with the woman who was in charge of the entertainment news there to see if she knew of any bands that could use me.

She got me this audition and my Calypso playing experience was very limited. I did not expect to get in… But I got in. I was with that band for about nine months. Our first concert was at the Barbados National Stadium in front of 20,000 people.

Randy Eccles: That's a great way to break-in.

Do calypso and blues have much in common?

Timo Arthur: Surprisingly, yes. They both incorporate African rhythms more so the early blues. That's one correlation that people would never think of,

Blues and Calypso, though basically different styles, they still have some rhythmic commonalities.

Randy Eccles: Any of the singles you've done so far have a Calypso sound?

Timo Arthur: Um, not yet. When I attended Berkeley College of Music from 96 to 99 in Boston, I wrote a Calypso there all on midi. I played out all the drum parts and all the bass parts and the keyboard parts and the melody and everything on the keyboard. That's the only calypso I've ever written and it's purely instrumental. I didn't write any lyrics to it, and I don't know if that'll ever make it to the airwaves anywhere. I love that music.

Randy Eccles: Berkeley School of Music -- that's quite the place for a musician to get training. How did you like it?

Timo Arthur: I'm glad I went, but I'm also glad I left. It's a great experience and you learn a lot, but for me personally, I was beginning to know too much. It became too mechanical and robotic. I didn't like that I couldn't listen to a piece of music without automatically analyzing it. I didn't want to be that way. I want to enjoy the music and enjoy the mysteriousness of it and not know so much about it.

Randy Eccles: I know folks who've gone to Berkeley, and it's been great experience for them but similar. It can be a little too into the weeds.

The song we've been playing over on The X from NPR Illinois -- I Wish I Thought of That. Sounds awesome. Really enjoy it. Tell us a little bit about it.

Timo Arthur: The title of it just came to me. I'm like, “That would make a great title for a song.” That's not always how I write songs, but sometimes that is how it happens.

That lyrical and melodic hook came to me. I started to develop it. I will make sure that people know that song is purely fictional. The lyrics to that song were not based on my own experiences, it's about a man who regrets cheating on his lady. I did not have that experience, I wanna make that known.

Randy Eccles: You have a great vocal on it.

You also play more than guitar. Tell us about your instrument range.

Timo Arthur: On that song I'm just playing guitar. I'm playing lead and rhythm guitar on that.

I have Jeff Cunningham on bass. Ron James from the Brandon Santini Band on drums, and Robert Lefty Preacher Sampson on organ. That was recorded at Cameron Yates' studio. He unfortunately passed away earlier this year in a car accident. That was very tragic. Cameron had a nice little studio, and he was a super smart, super knowledgeable guy, and we're gonna miss him a lot. A very vital piece of the Springfield music world.

Randy Eccles: When you work with a studio, is that person kicking into a producer role and helping collaborate?

Timo Arthur: Yeah, definitely, Added some of his own ideas to the mix. He’s not credited as a producer or even co-producer, but technically he was.

Randy Eccles: What's it like to be in Springfield after spending time on the West Coast, Barbados, China? Springfield's a little different for you.

Timo Arthur: I think because I've lived in so many places, I'm easily adaptable to each environment. That's helped me to learn that skill. Springfield has been surprisingly good. To be very honest, I wasn't that thrilled about the idea of moving up here, but it just made a lot of sense to be here versus Memphis. So, I came up here and it's grown on me a lot. I’ve really come to enjoy this area and have a respect for it that I never thought I would.

Randy Eccles: Do you have advice for other musicians who might be trying to figure it out?

Timo Arthur: This advice is pretty much blanket for any place that you live. Just get into the local scene and network with different musicians and club owners, music organizations, and radio stations. Just network and work that. Also, practice. Practice your instrument, practice your craft, hone your craft. If you combine all those things, then you won't lose.

Randy Eccles: Tell me a little bit about China. Are they big blues fans?

Timo Arthur: Surprisingly, yes.

When I was living in Boston, I was called to sub for a guitar player at a blues jam in Cambridge. The place is called the, the, it's called the Cantab Lounge. If you're ever in Boston, make sure you go to the Cantab Lounge. It is the coolest, fun little dive bar you can imagine. They have a lot of great R&B and blues music there. They had this blues jam twice a week on Wednesday night. I was subbing for the guy who's normally there every time. He's been the house guitarist for 25 years, but this one night he couldn't make it, so they called me to fill in for him.

I played the first set. When I get down from the stage and go to the bar, there's this drummer that comes up to me and says he likes my playing and he's looking for a guitar player. He proceeds to inform me that the gig is in Shanghai, China, and it leaves in one month.

He needs to know by the next morning if I can do this because the guitar player that they had backed out at the last minute. They were in a big jam because the, the club was faxing over the contracts in the morning. That's why he had to know by the morning if I could do the gig.

If I could move to China in a month. I didn't have any real commitments or any big things going on that couldn't be pushed off or canceled for a while. At first, I was very skeptical of this whole thing because I don't know who this guy is. But the bass player that was on the gig with me that night knew who he was. I'm, “Is this guy okay?” He is like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” What made me decide to go ahead with it was I wanted to help this guy out because if I had told him no, the band would've been in big trouble. He seemed like a cool enough guy and this bass player guy that I love, vouched for him. It was an opportunity to go somewhere I'd never been before. There was something I'd never done. My choices were, go do that or just stick around and do the same thing I've been doing for years. That’s why I decided, let's do it. One month later I went to Shanghai with these guys and was there for three months, playing six nights a week. The following year we got invited back. I stayed a month beyond the contract because I was having such a good time.

The following year, it was a four-month contract and I stayed two months after. I was having such a good time that I didn't want to come back. Highly recommended.

Randy Eccles: What you hope for, as an artist, is that you get to tour and see the world while still making ends meet. I hope everyone gets a good opportunity like that.

You won the Atlanta Blues Challenge? How was that?

 Eccles and Arthur together
Randy Eccles
Randy Eccles and Timo Arthur

Timo Arthur: Every year various blues societies all over the world have a local blues challenge. I recently moved to Atlanta. I had come back from Shanghai my second time, and I was living in Charlotte, North Carolina at the time, but I decided I didn't like Charlotte that much, I didn't want to stay there and Atlanta's only a four-hour drive.

Plus, my brother lives in Atlanta, so I could stay there and have a place to jump off from. I get in with the Atlanta blues scene and I enter the Atlanta Blues Challenge. In my time in Atlanta, I met this wonderful bass player named Tamara Nikolai. She's solid as a rock and we hit it off. We started playing together. I would go over to her and her husband's house and we'd jam. We were asked if we would enter the Atlanta Blues Challenge. We were, I don't know if we want to do that. Eventually we said, “You know what? Screw it. Let's go for it and see what happens.” Then we ended up winning. That was a lot of fun. That brought us to the Memphis International Blues Challenge held every January by the Blues Foundation.

Randy Eccles: Memphis got you to Brandon. A domino effect, right? All your decisions worked out great. What an adventure.

Besides, I Wish I Thought of That. What other singles do you enjoy?

Timo Arthur: From my own catalog, from 2017, I put out a piano ballad that I wrote. Called Sing Me Into Heaven (for Eva Cassidy). For those who don't know who Eva Cassidy was, she was an amazing singer who sadly passed away in 1996 at the young age of thirty-three from cancer. She has one of the most angelic, purest voices you can imagine.

It would make me weep listening to her sing, to her music. It was just that beautiful. So, I wrote a song in tribute to her -- Sing Me into Heaven. The meaning behind it is when my time comes to leave this world, I wish and pray to be welcomed into heaven by Eva Cassidy's voice singing to me. To me that would just be the ultimate best.

I was able to get Eva Cassidy's brother, Daniel Cassidy, to play violin on this track. He lives in Iceland. Once I recorded my parts on piano and voice, I sent him the tracks and he added the string parts from Iceland and then emailed them back to me. I went back to the studio where I recorded it, and we mixed it all together. That's on Spotify too.

Randy Eccles: It's amazing what can be done remotely now. That's a great example. Your music's available on Spotify and the other services?

Timo Arthur: Yes. Spotify, Apple platforms, all that, all that stuff.

Randy Eccles: You also play with Brandon Santini. Is there a favorite song you have with Brandon?

Timo Arthur: One of my favorite songs to play with him is Don't Come Around Here. Not to be confused with the Tom Petty song. It's a totally different thing. It's a really rocking -- pardon my French -- kick ass song. That's definitely one of my favorites. I don't have any solo in that song, but it's still the driving rocking tune.

Randy Eccles: Timo Arthur, we're happy to have you in Springfield and get to hear you. When are you playing in Springfield again? What's your website if everybody wants to check in?

Timo Arthur: It's http://timoarthur.net

Randy Eccles: If you want to find out what shows are coming up?

Timo Arthur: Just hit that. I know we have some shows coming up.

Randy Eccles: Timo Arthur, thank you so much for joining us on Community Voices. Any last thought you'd like to leave us?

Timo Arthur: I just want to say thank you, Randy, for having me and just God blessed to the whole Springfield community. Hope to be back here soon.

Randy Eccles: Thanks for joining us on Community Voices.

Get to know your neighbors with Community Voices weekdays at noon and Saturdays at 5 p.m. Also,listen toThe X from NPR Illinois at 91.9 HD3 or streaming from nprillinois.org for local music, including Timo Arthur.

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Randy Eccles is thrilled to be talking with community members and joining them in becoming informed citizenry. Please reach out at randy.eccles@nprillinois.org.
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