Joseph Arthur sits on the couch in his Red Hook apartment, surrounded by the tools that made his unlikely tribute to his friend the late Lou Reed come to life.
His espresso is perched next to the piano that was the centerpiece of the songs on the album "Lou" (Vanguard), which hits stores May 13. The bass he used hangs on the wall above his recording-studio setup and the shelves where his special microphones are kept.
"I've had that bass since I was 16," Arthur says. "It's barely held together. It's a miracle it stays in tune."
The miracle of the 26-year-old bass is only one of the many unlikely occurrences that went into the making of "Lou." Arthur doesn't like calling the album the product of divine intervention, but there was certainly something special going on.
"It wasn't even my idea to do the album," Arthur says. "I didn't think I even wanted to do it. . . . After it was finished, though, I was really proud of it."
The idea for "Lou" actually came from Bill Bentley, Reed's longtime friend and publicist who is now a vice president at Vanguard Records. Bentley had read Arthur's tribute to Reed on the American Songwriter website shortly after Reed died in October at his home in Southampton. Bentley was so moved and impressed by the sentiments that he felt Arthur would be the perfect artist to record a tribute album to Reed.
Through a mutual friend, Bentley called Arthur and told him about his idea. "He didn't really want to do it, but I asked him to pick a song," Bentley says. "He said he would think about it."
Arthur says he was honored by the request, but wasn't sure an album of Reed songs was something he wanted to tackle. "One of the reasons is what we're doing right now," Arthur says, pulling his long legs underneath him, as he sits on the couch. "I didn't want to do interviews about Lou's death. He was a friend, but I'm no expert on him."
Arthur had met Reed on one of the biggest nights of his life, when he auditioned for Peter Gabriel at Manhattan's Fez nightclub in 1996. Gabriel was interested in signing Arthur to his Real World label and brought his friend Reed along to get his opinion.
"I was already nervous," Arthur says. "Meeting Lou Reed on top of that was intimidating the out of me."
However, they both were taken by Arthur's distinctive voice and inventive singer- songwriter style. Gabriel signed Arthur to his label, and Reed eventually became friends with Arthur, a relationship that deepened in recent years when they would go to movies together or watch "Dexter."
It was that relationship that allowed Arthur to write so eloquently about the Freeport native's music, as well as the man he idolized. While Arthur was on tour supporting his album "The Ballad of Boogie Christ," with R.E.M.'s Mike Mills in his band, he thought he would do some original work to honor Reed.
When he returned from the tour, on the same day as Reed's memorial at the Apollo Theater, Arthur began thinking about Bentley's offer again and how he would turn it down. After the memorial, though, Arthur decided he would try to do "Coney Island Baby," which he once told Reed was "the best song ever written."
Arthur recorded it with just a piano, an acoustic guitar and his voice, using several layers of vocals to create a chorus for Reed's anthem about "the glory of love" and the importance of high school football.
"I just really liked the way it turned out," Arthur says.
He decided to do more. After all, there was a snowstorm outside, and he was still kind of decompressing from the tour and trying to make sense of his feelings about Reed's death.
Arthur started to come up with "Brian Eno-like restrictions" for the project. No electrical instruments because "Lou was electric enough."
"You have to approach Lou's music from some place different," Arthur says. "He's covered so many grounds. Acoustic minimalism -- that one, I don't know that he's done so much. And it just seemed to work. It felt right for the mood of the occasion."
Arthur took on one Reed song after another, initially thinking he would stay away from the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's best-known work. "But I was here by myself, so I thought, 'Well, why wouldn't you try them?' and did and thought that it was interesting," he says. "It became kind of an obsessive undertaking, which is how I do a lot of my records. I isolate myself and don't leave."
Putting out the album
After 10 days, Arthur had finished 12 songs that he felt could hang together as an album. He called Bentley to let him know the album was done and got what he thought was a lukewarm response.
In reality, Bentley was worried. He'd asked Arthur to do the album, but his label was, at that point, more interested in a multi-artist tribute record, featuring more recognizable names than Arthur. "I thought, 'Well, now what?' " Bentley says. "I didn't have a commitment from Vanguard for the album. I started to backpedal. I didn't think we were going to put it out."
Arthur says he toyed with the idea of skipping Vanguard entirely and simply offering the album on his website to his fans for free on Christmas, though he quickly realized that a posthumous tribute to Reed didn't exactly scream, "Happy holidays!" He decided to send a copy of the album to Bentley to see what he thought.
"The first time I heard it, I knew -- it was so moving and incredible," Bentley says. "This record has to be."
Bentley played the album for Vanguard Records president Kevin Welk, who gave his approval. "Everything on this record just came together," he says, adding that he told Reed's wife, Laurie Anderson, of the project and she thought it sounded like a good idea and thanked him for working on it.
"There's just this otherworldly way that everything was guided by Lou's spirit," Bentley says. "It had a magical velocity to it."
Arthur says he could never have made "Lou" now. "It would be too overwhelming a task," he says. "Something just happened in that moment. It was a beautiful recording process. I'm just really happy with the way it turned out."
Sa musique intransigeante, dure, profondément humaine a ce don de soulever le cœur, d’émouvoir chacun de nous d’une manière très personnelle. L’occasion de rencontrer une telle personne ne pouvait nous échapper. Nous espérons surtout que vous ressentirez l’intensité d’une telle rencontre, à la suite de laquelle Joseph nous a confié avoir eu droit à l’interview la plus intelligente qu’il n’ait jamais faite. Décidément, nous, on n’oubliera pas.
Ton premier album, Big City Secret, semblait être offert à nous: de toi à nous. Avec Come From Where I'm From, c'est la direction opposée, c'est-à-dire de nous vers toi. Pourquoi est-ce que ta relation avec le public a changé?
Joseph : C'est intéressant, comme question: l'un serait un secret, et l'autre une invitation… Je ne sais pas, à vrai dire, ça vient de l'inconscient. Je n'y ai jamais réellement pensé après la sortie du disque. Peut-être que j'ai évolué, que je n'ai plus peur d'être exposé, je ne sais pas… Ca n'a rien de conscient, dans tous les cas.
Il y a eu une longue pause entre Big City Secret et Vacancy. Peux-tu décrire la manière dont a évolué ta musique, et comment tu la décrirais aujourd'hui?
Joseph : C'est difficile de dire comment elle a évolué…
On peut dire que c'est du folk, mais ce serait un peu restrictif…
Joseph : Oui, c'est vrai, tout le monde dit "Joseph Arthur fait du folk". Je dis "Ouais, OK.", c'est tout. Les gens de ma génération ont entendu tant de styles de musique: du hip-hop à Nirvana à Bob Dylan, en passant par Leonard Cohen… Je crois qu'il n'y a plus de limite claire entre les styles; je me sens donc encore moins d'un style particulier. Je crois que je fais une musique qui est ouverte, et c'est tout. Je pense que les différences entre mes trois albums résident dans le fait que je contrôle de mieux en mieux mon son; je joue la majorité des instruments. Le son m'appartient de plus en plus, j'ai acquis une confiance en moi suffisante pour faire cela.
Est-ce que Vacancy t'a aidé à faire Come To Where I'm From?
Joseph : Oui, dans un sens, mais pas de la manière classique, puisqu'ils ont été écrits au même moment, ainsi qu'un autre album. On avait à peu près 40 chansons, c'est pour cela que ça a pris tant de temps; on n'arrêtait pas d'enregistrer en studio. Donc Vacancy m'a aidé à faire cet album, dans le mesure où ce qui n'appartenait pas à cet album appartenait à l'autre. Je ressens plus ces disques comme un tout qui s'assemble, mais rien de ce dernier album pourrait figurer dans Vacancy ou vice-versa, ça foutrait tout en l'air.
Qu'est-ce que tu attendais de Vacancy? Etait-ce un mini-LP conceptuel?
Joseph : Je pense effectivement qu'il est conceptuel; personne n'a jamais dit qu'il l'était, mais je le vois personnellement comme ça. Il n'y a aucune ambition sur le disque, mais un travail sur la matière. Dans un sens, c'est un album calme, mais si tu vas vers lui, il peut t'offrir beaucoup; il ne viendra pas vers toi. Et il n'y en a eu que 10000 tirés. Je crois que c'est mon album préféré parmi ceux que j'ai faits. C'est aussi une invitation, dans un sens: Big City Secret est un secret et Vacancy une pièce ouverte. Mais cette pièce ressemblerait plus à une chambre de motel, où tu passerais juste une ou eux nuits. En revanche, Come To Where I'm From est une invitation forte. Mais encore une fois, je n'avais pas prévu que ça serait comme ça, ça l'est, c'est tout.
En studio, comment as-tu appris à te servir des machines? Tu utilisais des machines dès tes débuts?
Joseph : Il n'y a pas tant de machines sur Come To Where I'm From… je vois plus ce disque comme un disque de musicien, mais avec cette sensibilité aux boucles, sans toutefois utiliser des boucles. Je n'avais jamais utilisé de machines avant de faire la tournée pour Big City Secret.
Tu joues une sorte de musique américaine traditionnelle; comment expliques-tu le fait que tu sois presque inconnu aux Etats-Unis, et que tu aies du succès en Europe?
Joseph : Je ne sais pas. C'est bizarre; surtout pour ce dernier album, que je trouve beaucoup plus américain que les autres albums. Mais ça change quand-même aux Etats-Unis: j'ai l'impression que les Etats-Unis réagissent maintenant comme la France réagissait la dernière fois que je suis venu. Je donne plein d'interviews, je bénéficie de bonnes chroniques, donc on dirait que la vibration a fini par atteindre les Etats-Unis. En plus, c'est le premier album qui soit sorti chez une grande maison de disques aux Etats-Unis, alors qu'en France, mes albums ont été sortis chez Virgin tout de suite.
Quelles sont tes relations avec Neil Young, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen? Tu te considères comme leur fils spirituel?
Joseph : Je ne me suis jamais considéré comme tel, mais je le suis peut-être… Ce sont des grosses influences pour moi, des gens que je respecte beaucoup. Donc je le suis potentiellement. C'est un gros compliment.
Ce nouvel album est beaucoup plus dur, plus sombre; dans quel état d'esprit étais-tu lorsque tu l'as enregistré?
Joseph : J'ai rencontré beaucoup d'états d'esprit différent, puisqu'il a été enregistré sur une période assez longue. Dans l'ensemble, c'était une période assez difficile. J'étais entrain de passer d'un vieil adolescent à un jeune adulte, j'ai 28 ans maintenant. Ca a été la transformation de quelqu'un d'à peine vingt ans à quelqu'un qui va bientôt atteindre la trentaine. Vous avez l'air d'avoir un tout petit peu plus de vingt ans… Frédéric: 23 ans. Stéphane: 21 ans.
Joseph : C'est à la fois une période agréable et une période difficile… Mais c'est avant tout une période où vous êtes plus libre que tout autre période: c'est la période où vous pouvez commencer à vous prendre en mains tout seuls, mais où l'on n'attend pas trop de vous non plus… A 25 ans, ça va encore, 26, c'est tout juste, mais à 27 ans, on se dit qu'il serait peut-être temps d'être plus adulte, et une chose bizarre arrive. C'est difficile à expliquer… Beaucoup de jeunes meurent à 27 ans, parce que l'adolescence doit mourir à cet âge, et certains prennent ça à la lettre. Mais une partie de toi doit mourir, pour qu'une autre puisse prendre sa place. C'est une étrange transformation. Une fois cette transformation passée, tu te sens plus jeune d'un seul coup, alors que quelques mois avant, tu avais l'impression d'être vieux et d'avoir envie de mourir. Je ne sais pas si c'est le cas de tout le monde, mais en tous cas, ça a été le mien. Je crois que ce dernier album parle pas mal de ça…
Quelle est la place de la peinture dans ta vie? C'est une manière complémentaire à la musique de t'exprimer?
Joseph : Je crois que ça va avec ma musique, et mes poèmes… c'est un tout dans mon esprit. Je ne comprends pas pourquoi si peu de gens pratiquent ça… c'est comme s'ils établissaient leur identité grâce à une seule chose… ça me semble être une limitation imposée par eux-mêmes. J'ai l'impression que les gens ont tendance à dire "OK, j'ai écrit une chanson folk, donc je suis un auteur/compositeur/interprète" et à ne penser à rien d'autre, ils s'arrêtent là, et ne se disent jamais qu'ils pourraient éventuellement peindre, pour voir ce que ça apporte. Je ne veux me poser aucune limitation à ce que je dois faire, ou ai droit de faire.
Sur Vacancy, tes dessins ont cet aspect bon marché, cet esprit lo-fi à la différence de ceux des deux autres albums. Tu essaies de faire des dessins qui reflètent la musique du disque?
Joseph : Oui. Il y a moins de couleurs dans Vacancy, que ce soit sur les dessins ou dans ma musique, alors que le dernier est beaucoup plus coloré, plus vivant. Encore une fois, je préfèreVacancy. Je ne le considère pas comme meilleur, mais il me touche beaucoup plus. Come To Where I'm From est selon moi mon meilleur album, mais Vacancy me touche beaucoup plus, que ce soit au niveau de la musique ou des dessins.
Est-ce que tu n'as pas peur de te rendre plus faible en te livrant comme tu le fais? Les gens peuvent te blesser lorsqu'ils savent beaucoup de choses sur toi…
Joseph : Peuvent-ils vraiment blesser? Je ne sais pas, puisque je n'en ai pas encore fait l'expérience. Peut-être que c'est une erreur de le faire, et que je vais un jour me retrouver enfermé dans les toilettes avec un pistolet sur ma tempe. Je crois que ce genre de choses fonctionne avec le paradoxe: plus tu te révèles, plus tu deviens mystérieux, plus tu es exposé, plus tu deviens invincible. Une fois que tu t'es exposé, tu t'en fiches… on est tous pareils, donc lorsque je m'expose, je ne fais pas grand chose de plus qu'un autre… Pour moi, il y a une vitalité vers laquelle je suis tiré; c'est peut-être une bêtise, un rêve fou duquel je me réveillerai un jour en me disant "Oh mon Dieu, qu'est-ce que j'ai fait?". Autant tenter notre chance à chaque occasion, sinon, quel intérêt? On ne vit que 70 ans à peu près…
Tu as eu une vie particulièrement dure. Te sens-tu encore comme un jeune homme aujourd'hui? N'as-tu aucun regret?
Joseph : Je me sens très jeune aujourd'hui. Il y a un an, je me sentais vieux, à tel point que je me demandais si je n'allais pas mourir dans les vingt secondes qui suivaient. Aujourd'hui, c'est tout le contraire. Je sens que je suis au commencement, après la fin.
Dans American Beauty, il y a cette phrase: "Il y a tellement de beauté dans ce monde que ça en est insoutenable". Qu’en penses-tu?
Joseph : Je crois que c'est ce qui m'a tiré vers l'envie de faire des choses, cette énergie. Je comprends tout à fait cette phrase. Il y a une époque où je me sentais vraiment comme une vieille femme seule. J'essaie de capturer des situations dans l'humanité qui me rendent triste et d'écrire dessus.
Comment considères-tu ta vie aujourd'hui? Penses-tu enfin pouvoir être heureux?
Joseph : C'est un moment très agréable, très excitant: je voyage sans arrêt presque partout dans le monde, je fais de la musique; j'ai des avenues entières devant moi pour m'exprimer et créer. C'est une autre sorte de don. Je veux avant tout profiter de ce moment, car je sais que ça ne sera pas toujours comme-ça. Je veux honorer ce moment et être un bon être humain. Je crois réellement que je peux être heureux, à un certain niveau.
Interview Fred & Stéphane Lille, Zenith Arena, 25.03.00
The harder Akron's Joseph Arthur works, the more debt he accumulates.
In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Come to Where I'm From, the new album by Akron-raised singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, is reviewed in conjunction with Elliott Smith's latest effort. The end result: The relatively unknown Arthur gets an A-minus and Academy Award nominee Smith receives a B-minus. It's praise that Arthur, whose gentle, folk-based music shares Smith's quiet intensity, takes with a grain of salt.
"I felt like I was in school or something -- I don't think it's good to put people against each other like that," Arthur says via phone from his home in New York, when asked about scoring so high in the EW ratings. "It's like art as professional wrestling. It doesn't really make sense. It's nice to be on top, but it only means that, next time, you're going to lose. I try not to take it too seriously."
Arthur started playing piano before picking up the bass and joining Frankie Starr's blues band. Arthur says that, with Starr, he played several nights a week in Cleveland and recalls opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan at Nautica. Arthur moved from Akron to Atlanta, and then London, before settling in New York. While he was in Atlanta, a copy of one of his demo tapes made it into the hands of someone connected with Real World Records, the imprint run by Peter Gabriel. Arthur was signed, and Real World put out his first album, 1997's Big City Secrets. A year later, Arthur went into the studio armed with enough material for three more records. Out of those sessions, he delivered last year's Vacancy and Come to Where I'm From, and says he has been concentrating on writing prose and painting lately, rather than songwriting, since he already has another album of material ready to go.
"Nowadays, it's hard to get in the studio," Arthur says. "It was hell trying to figure out what songs go where, after the session was over. I just broke it up, put out Vacancies first, which seems to have its own identity. I'm looking at two more years in the penitentiary of the road before I can think about hijacking the studio again, and once I do that, I'm going to record another 40 tunes. This music business is just unfair to a person like me. Back in Dylan's day, he could record an album every nine months. And Hank Williams did that and the Beatles. There's so many records that come out, there's so much crap to fight through, it hardly seems worth it at all. I've been working really hard for like five years, and I've managed to accumulate more debt than you can imagine. If I had done something sensible, like become a garbage man, I would be rich right now. I'd be the Employee of the Month. But instead I decided to be a songwriter, and I'm in debt in New York City. That's the funny thing about it. I think that's why I'm thinking about becoming a history teacher."
Actually, Arthur, who just returned from a tour of Europe with Ben Harper, will be playing residencies at clubs across the country. He performs at the Grog Shop on May 5 with Poem Rocket, DJ Veins, and Ether Net, a Cleveland band which will be celebrating the release of its new album, The Requisite Chemicals. He returns to the Grog Shop on May 19 to play with Rosavelt and is also booked at the club on June 2 with the Plastics Hi-fi. In many ways, playing multiple shows at the same venue is an ideal way to build a buzz -- that is, if Arthur makes it that far.
"I'm absolutely burned out," he says. "The world is a huge place, and to make a record work, it's insane. Sometimes it just appears to be impossible. Even though from the outside things are going well, at the same time, it feels like I'm about ready to give up."
Two battle of the bands competitions will take place this week. First, the fourth annual Jim Beam Rock Band Search comes to the Tower City Hard Rock Café on May 4. These are the regional finals -- the winner will go to Phoenix for the finals on June 1. Acts competing include Galaxie (from Knoxville, Tennessee), Koncrete Kite (from St. Petersburg, Florida), SuperThief (from Cleveland), Symmetry (from Coshocton), and Ten Pound Bag (from Cleveland). Doors open at 8 p.m., and the competition starts at 9 p.m. Admission is free. Call 216-830-7625 for more information. Months ago, the field was wide open, but now the Lucky Strike Band-to-Band Combat has narrowed it to 15 finalists vying for kudos to the tune of 15,000 clams. Anne E. DeChant is Cleveland's finalist, and she will be performing on May 6 at the Phantasy (11802 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood) in a showcase with 19 Wheels (Detroit's winner) and the Excentrics (from Washington, D.C.). The $5 cover not only gets you in, but also gets you a free copy of the CD, featuring a song by each finalist and the chance to vote for the ultimate victor. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call 440-333-7478 for more information.
a smile that explodes leave us alone echo park after the gold rush (neil young cover) don't give up on people there is a light that never goes out (the smiths cover) honey and the moon can't exist all of our hands
It’s Friday the 13th, and Joseph Arthur’s luck is holding out. He’s pedaled his bicycle under threatening skies all the way from his home in Brooklyn’s industrial DUMBO neighborhood to Manhattan’s trendy East Village. Just as he enters a tiny coffeehouse on Avenue A, the skies open up, pouring buckets. This is Arthur’s first interview since he finished his fourth album, the exquisite Our Shadows Will Remain (and this less lucky journalist just totaled her car driving from upstate New York to meet the singer/songwriter). Even if he’d gotten drenched, Arthur says, he wouldn’t have minded, because he loves the freedom his bike gives him. And freedom is what the 32-year-old musician’s life is all about right now.
After eight years with a label that was no longer interested in his work, he’s now found a new home for his gorgeous, dark melodies, dense sonic textures and poetic lyrics. And, even more important to Arthur, he’s freed himself from his demons. “I’m on a quest for personal liberation that I think is a direct result of growing up through a process of paranoia and weirdness in between every record I’ve put out,” he says. “When you’re dealing with a big company, it’s all about numbers, and if you don’t sell a certain amount of records, you’re not gonna get your phone calls returned.” Eventually released from his contract, Arthur signed with the independent Vector, home to Damien Rice and Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson.
On “I Am”—a strident, bass-driven track from Shadows—Arthur sings, “To find out what you really are / You must wake up from this long nap.”
“That’s the goal of my life,” he says. “That’s the way I’ve learned to deal with things—as opposed to overdosing. I’ve gone the other way. I’m a sober person now, and I’m into evolving, realizing myself.” It’s been seven months, in fact, since Arthur—a self-described binge drinker since his teens—has imbibed. And he even managed to stay off booze while recording Shadows in America’s most decadent city, New Orleans.
A professional musician since age 16, Arthur has spent half his life living the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, he was turned on to Smokey Robinson-penned pop songs via his parents’ record collection. “The Four Tops were big in our house, then I got a Kiss record, Hotter than Hell, in my Easter basket one year,” Arthur recalls, breaking into a smile. “My older sister was into Dylan, and I got into Ozzy Osbourne, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. The first record I ever bought was [the Stones’] Tattoo You.” When his aunt passed along an electronic keyboard to 13-year-old Arthur, he started writing his own songs. “I couldn’t play along with my records, so that’s why I started writing my own. The keyboard had a sequencer so I started writing these little electronic music things. I thought I was a genius, and I would play them for my mom. And she’d be like, ‘It sounds like Chinese music,’ and it would crush me. I wanted her to say, ‘That’s the most genius thing I’ve ever heard.’” Arthur picked up bass next, and by the time he was a high school senior, he was playing three sets a night in local blues bars with Frankie Starr and the Chill Factor. “We were hot shit,” says Arthur. “I made 50 bucks a night and started going to school a half-day. Frankie was this genius guitar player. We opened up for Stevie Ray Vaughan twice, and he wrote Frankie a note and said, ‘You’re an inspiration.’”
In 1990 Arthur moved to Atlanta with another combo. There—when not working at a music store or as doorman at a club in the punk/bohemian neighborhood of Little Five Points—he holed up with his four-track and his muse. At the time, Arthur described his sound as equally influenced by Nick Drake and Nirvana. “It was a point of isolation: my band disintegrated, [I] split from my girlfriend of three years,” he wrote about the period in a 1997 article for Musician magazine. “I was separate and fragile, like an egg rolling in awkward circles until it begins to crack … I wrote and recorded 10 songs that month … I was pure focus and drive to get what’s inside out with as little fear as possible.”
That’s when Arthur’s luck changed. A tape of his songs was passed from hand to hand until it somehow reached Peter Gabriel, who called and left a message on Arthur’s answering machine, telling him he liked what he heard. “I must have sat in that room listening to that message for an hour, reading meaning into each word, each pause, and each breath,” Arthur recalled in his Musician essay. The next thing he knew he was in New York, playing a gig at the Fez in front of an audience including Gabriel and his pal Lou Reed, who’d brought his DAT along to record the show.
Looking back now, Arthur sees the night and his subsequent recording contract with Gabriel’s Real World label as “an amazing time, like winning the lottery.” He immediately joined Gabriel’s WOMAD tour and began roving around Europe. “I was literally one week out of working at the music store in Atlanta,” says Arthur, “and I got to go to this thing over there called Recording Week, which is musicians from all over the world getting together. I got to meet and hang out and jam with Joe Strummer. A whole family from India was playing one of my songs with me, and I was recording with Karl Wallinger [of World Party] on bass.”
Arthur’s extraordinary, expressive voice—which can rise to near falsetto heights, then nosedive into a sensual croon—was the perfect instrument for such diverse accompaniment. His debut, Big City Secrets, was produced by Markus Dravs, a German techno musician who’d worked with Brian Eno. Arthur’s melodic songcraft, acoustic guitar and harmonica were propelled along in a sea of beats and sonic exotica (including “string fossil bass”; the berimbau, a bow-like, Brazilian percussion instrument; a cow gong; and a Venetian xylophone). “We had a ‘no-reverb rule’ on that record,” says Arthur, “which is very brave for a first record. There was a lot of fearlessness and experimentation in it. It was an exploration, which I’ve wanted to do with every record since.”
Distributed by indie label Caroline in the U.S. the album didn’t make much of a dent commercially, but garnered a rabid fan base that continued to grow as Arthur toured incessantly. Onstage, Arthur accompanied himself solely with his eye-catching, hand-painted acoustic guitar and recorders with which he taped sound loops and created textured layers. He stayed in touch with his audience via a website to which he contributed drawings and a daily poem called “Notes From the Road.” “It was just a desire to write,” says Arthur. “I don’t know where that comes from. I just realized I should try to write a poem every day to describe my day.”
His next LP, the more stripped-down Come To Where I’m From, was produced by T Bone Burnett. With radio-friendly cuts like the hook-filled acoustic gem “In the Sun” and the pop-rockin’ “Chemical,” Arthur’s sophomore effort was noticed by the critics. “It’s a totally different record from my first one, ’cause we were going for natural performances with no drum machines,” says Arthur. “It was like winning the lottery again, getting to hang with T Bone and [veteran drummers] Jim Keltner and Carla Azar. I just fell in love with those people. It was great chemistry.”
This time, Real World/Virgin released the album in the States, but when Arthur wanted to start his next project, Virgin backed off. But his overactive muse couldn’t wait for corporate support, so he jumped into recording regardless. Arthur ended up with Redemption’s Son, plus another two albums’ worth of songs, which were released over the course of four EPs called Junkyard Heart, 1-4 (available on his website and at performances). “I make three or four records a year, but I’ve only been able to get ’em out every two or three years,” says Arthur.
Eventually issued by Real World/Universal, Redemption’s Son received even wider acclaim, landing on several critics’ best-of-2002 lists. The delicious “Honey and the Moon” received frequent airplay on high-profile stations like Santa Monica’s KCRW and New York’s WFUV. Though Redemption’s Son is filled with buoyant melodies, lyrically, its mood is despondent. “I think aliens abducted me / I don’t wanna go outside,” Arthur sings on “I Would Rather Hide,” a number that would make Brian Wilson proud.
Meanwhile, Arthur says, “I got totally wasted for a while in New Orleans, then I went to L.A. and was going further that way, and I called up my friends in New Orleans and said, ‘I’m coming back and I have to straighten out and you have to help me.’” Staying sober, Arthur returned to his previous co-producer, Napolitano, and his French Quarter apartment/studio to make a more streamlined fourth album. “I started working on my new record and it became obvious that Universal wasn’t gonna sign me up again,” says Arthur. “They finally let me go, but it was a struggle.”
His travails made their way onto the masterful Our Shadows Will Remain.
“The record is largely about finding out where I’m at now,” says Arthur. “There was a lot of addiction and a lot of pain, and a lot of the songs are about that. When your life isn’t working out, you dig deeper into what’s going to satisfy you. If you become disillusioned, you start to get to the heart of the matter.”
With the album partially done, Arthur headed back to New York, crashing at drummer Greg Wiz’s Brooklyn apartment. There, he met the musicians who helped him complete Shadow. In addition to Wiz, they included vocalist Julia Darling, who adds her tender soprano to Arthur’s baritone on the transcendent “A Smile That Explodes.” Andrew Sherman wrote the song’s gorgeous string arrangements, and he and engineer Ken Rich secured the services of the Prague Symphony Orchestra by flying to Czechoslovakia on their own dime. “The way the record got made was pretty amazing,” says Arthur. “I couldn’t afford to send them over there, but they just went on their own. People were real generous with their support, and it came out sounding really expensive—though it was done on the cheap.”
Though Arthur says he’s in debt up to his eyeballs, it helped when the soundtrack producer for blockbuster Shrek 2 came calling, asking him to write “a strange love song” for the movie’s opening. The result was the fetching, “You’re So True.” “At first, I kinda felt weird about it,” admits Arthur, “like, ‘Is this selling out?’ But then I realized it was a great creative exercise because I was willfully trying to write something lighthearted, which was going against the identity I have of myself. I really like that song. Because I wrote from another place, it was actually liberating.”
These days, as Arthur pedals down New York’s mean streets, he literally and figuratively wears rose-colored glasses—rather than the black-lensed specs he used to sport. He’s earned the right to see things differently now and to accept his good fortune. “I can be really down and go to my guitar and write something, and it can elevate the situation,” Arthur says. “That’s such a wonderful gift. In and of itself, that’s enough.”
As Prince stood with his arms raised triumphantly in the Superbowl halftime rain looking like a Little Richard Oompa-Loompa, I realized heck, this little dude still manages to win me over every time.
Whether its baggin’ Apollonia and an EARLY 90’s Kim Bassinger, or rippin’, lickin’ or humpin’ that ensignia/guitar of his, Prince has always been at the top of his or any other game. Music needs more lunatics like Prince. Prince can do no wrong.
The guy is the black Bowie, just when you think he has strutted too far over into the “maybe-I-have-a-penis-maybe-I don’t-fraggle-rock-on-ice-unitard-assless chaps” stage, he reminds you that he has more originality in his nail polish stained pinkie than the entire mascared mob of today’s angst ridden wannabes combined.
How incredible would it be if he played Bonnaroo, Cochella, or Newport Jazz. Hell, he’d blow the doors off Telluride Bluegrass if given the nod.
While the Police playing Fenway this summer will be a highlight, if Prince played Fenway they might paint the Green Monster purple. This is why I asked Sweettalk’s Chief Film Critic and self depreciating megalomaniac,
Joseph Arthur to review Purple Rain: Take it away Joe....
Purple Rain as seen by me
“I’m not a woman
I’m not a man
I am something that you never understand”
Prince sings at the end of purple rain which could just as easily been called super tranny
When was the last time you’ve seen it?
Its basically Prince riding a fancy purple bike wearing high heels with a telecaster strapped to his back
One time he runs down Morris Day who is drunk and trying to make off with his girl Apalonia who incidently has enormous breasts
Cerise kept calling him a tranny as we watched and shrieked with glee everytime he did anything femmy which was almost every scene
This movie brings the pain tho when his father who might or might not be played by laurence fishburne keeps beating his mom until finally he shoots himself in the head after which Prince has the nightmare vision of himself hanging from the rafter in the basement by a rope he then proceeds to shatter all the cans of tomatoes and perservatives with a giant stick. Like a tranny james dean in the eighties at the end he sings “baby I’m a star” and if you break it down the journey of purple rain is all about his journey into stardom the explosion of which is blown up out of his parents misery and comes into full bloom only after his father trys to bloww his own head off. I” never meant to cause you any trouble I never meant to cause you any pain”
Prince suffers thru the entire picture and one still can’t help but wonder how he dances so well in such high heels
The other thing about prince that one might suspect even beyond his genius songcraft(cuz let’s face it kids where has that gotten me lol) as the reason he is a mega star is because his smile is stuff of legend so cute sinister twisted and shattered with girl teeth and pussy lips he even has vagina hair on his lip. Everyone loves prince. Super tranny he should be my vice president
Its crazy that his dad didn’t die from the self inflicted gun shot wound to the head and near the end befor he busts out his greatest masterpiece which I’m not kidding sounds like a joe cocker song. Purple rain. His dad a self inflicted gun shot wound and a bandage around his head his woman, princes mom, who incidentally looks about the same age as prince but that could be because his chest is so hairy (possibly should have waxed it; I like it but just saying might have made him look younger, anyhoo) she is bowing over the man like mary
Prince is jesus
I can’t help it everybody
You see what you are in everyone
You all are jesus
Just like prince
Just like me
There is that seen backstage where prince shows us his talent for ventriliquism Wendy and lisa want him to take their song seriously (which turns out to be the music for purple rain) he answers with a puppet which could be taken as a sign that he is still under the control of his dysfunctional family He answers with a high voice withot moving his lips and looking into the mirror at himself and the puppet He is alienated Alone and afraid His masterpiece is blooming underneath And it is the spirit of collaboration which will finally take him home
Singer-songwriter and Reed friend goes unplugged on upcoming album 'Lou'
This past winter, singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur found himself holed up in his home studio, missing the tour he'd just finished and dreading the final tribute concert at the Apollo for his friend Lou Reed, who'd died in October. "I went almost without wanting to," he writes. "I was tired of mourning him and it felt like I was done, but in truth, the real mourning was only just beginning."
Arthur's words come from the liner notes to his new collection, Lou, a tribute album featuring his interpretation of 12 Reed tracks. Now you can take a listen to Arthur's version of arguably the most classic Reed cut, "Walk on The Wild Side": It's a bit odd at first hearing the track without its signature bass slide and Reed's spry acoustic strumming, but by turning the track into a heaving piano ballad, Arthur gives it a fitting sense of nostalgia for Reed's younger, wilder years.
After cutting a version of "Coney Island Baby," Arthur set about recording the rest of Lou completely by himself, going by just one rule: no drums and no electricity. "The only way I know to give new life to something as rich with life as Lou's songs and recordings is to go about them in a completely different way," he writes. Arthur, who self-produced the album, kept the process as simple as possible, not trying to out-do the originals ("Impossible," he notes), but just discovering something new within them.
"It's odd dancing around death, odder still if the death you are dancing around is that of a legend," Arthur writes in the liner notes. "You just never know what's appropriate and what's not, what to share and what to keep inside. There is no blueprint. I loved Lou and we were friends. The last thing I would want to do is turn his life into an opportunity, but at the same time, what better way to honor the man and his music than to celebrate it and sing it and record it?"
Lou is set for release on May 13th, and marks Arthur's first record for Vanguard Records.
Every day is a busy day for Joseph Arthur. The songwriter has been going strong with consistent releases since his demo hit the hands of Peter Gabriel in the late ‘90s, sometimes releasing three recordings a year. And that’s not counting his projects, Fistful of Mercy and RNDM, or his life as a successful painter, which is also integrated into his live shows, or his recently announced podcast. Lately, he’s been promoting a concept album, which quickly turned into a series, called The Ballad of Boogie Christ that he’s now touring behind with R.E.M.’s Mike Mills as his bassist and receiving some of the best reviews of his career.
Paste: So you’re in an album trilogy thing, right? Arthur: Yeah, it’s a series. It’s a thing. The third one is called Boogie Rises. It’s a hip hopera.
Paste: Is it? Arthur: It’s going to be a hip hopera.
Paste: So The Ballad of Boogie Christ is the whole thing. Arthur: I mastered 35 songs for it. I’ve been working on it for a long time, and it just built up.
Paste: How do you keep an album cohesive when you’re working on it for that long? Because for a lot of albums, you write a set of songs in a certain amount of time and a theme emerges. But you’re trying to hold something together over five years with lots of breaks. Arthur: Yeah, because this was sort of centered around a character concept. I had all of these songs that kind of fit into this idea of this character that was kind of enlightened and kind of insane, and when I base it off of a character I could write songs that were sort of autobiographical and go “oh, that could be about Boogie’s childhood” or “that could be about his high school years or his drug-addled past, or this could be loss of faith.” You start formulating the story in your mind, and then it almost takes on the form of a novel, and then it becomes endless and you write lots of chapters for it.
Paste: So this is like your version of R. Kelly’s Trapped In the Closet? Arthur: It is! It’s my Trapped In the Closet. I take that as an enormous compliment.
Paste: Well, his new one is called Black Panties, and you’ve got Black Flowers… Arthur: Yeah. Well, I think Boogie Rises is a hip hopera; that’s in the same realm.
Paste: A little Shaft in there with the wah-wah. Arthur: You think I’m kidding. There’s actually too much wah. It’s almost every song has wah guitar. I’m not kidding. Like with Redemption City, I kind of started to almost try to rap. I’m going there. It’s a leap of faith. And here’s the other thing with a trilogy. The third part of a trilogy is always really bad. Godfather III, for instance.
Paste: Godfather III was bad, but then you’ve got Return of the Jedi. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusaade is the best one. Arthur: What? Really? I don’t know about that. Must be an age thing. I remember the first one being the best one, but you were probably just at that sweet spot age wise…
Paste: It had Sean Connery. Arthur: Anyway, I figure it’s my get out of jail free card. I can throw out an experimental one, and if it sucks I can say “Hey, it’s the third of a trilogy. What do you expect?” But I think it’s great. My friends tell me it’s really great.
Paste: Your mom thinks it’s swell. Arthur: My mom loves it and is encouraging me to put it out. Actually she hasn’t heard it yet. I’m afraid for them to hear it.
Paste: I find it interesting that the character isn’t the embodiment of Christ, but he’s kind of a Christ figure. Arthur: Well, he’s wrestling with the idea that he might be Christ. Like, that’s in his head. He thinks he might be Christ sometimes. And then he’s not sure. Then he’s pretty sure he’s just a human. And then he think’s he’s Christ again.
Paste: It’s been an interesting couple months for religion. The Pope was just named Time’s Man of the Year… Arthur: Somebody posted a picture of the Pope on my Facebook and said “this will be you in 40 years.” I didn’t know if they meant that I look like him or if I was going to be a pope that was a man of the year.
Paste: Are you looking to become the pope? This is where you and the fictional Boogie Christ become one. Arthur: Right. What if I turn into the pope? I already got the hat.
Paste: This pope’s been good though, right? He’s been out helping the poor and everything. Arthur: He’s the real embodiment. It’s good. We need that.
Paste: I was just reading this Neil Gaiman book about the apocalypse, and then you bring out The Ballad of Boogie Christ and I start thinking about how a lot of us perceive religion in different parts of our life. When you’re a teen is when you really start to question it. It’s all about the challenge. And then later in life is when some people make amends or just give in or whatever it is, but what I find about this album is that it’s like a grownup version of that teen era where it’s like, let’s reimagine what this could be. Arthur: Right. It’s funny that you bring up age with it because I think of it as like, coming from my mid-thirties, because I’m 42 now, I feel like the seed of it came from things I was going through in my mid-thirties. I think that’s a hard time in a man’s life. You’ve got to assert yourself, and there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s a strange developmental time. Everybody’s life is their own personal journey so I don’t know if other people’s is like that, but I do see certain other people going through stuff that verges on megalomania and they’re in their mid-thirties, and I’m just like, wow, I wonder if that’s a thing?
Paste: When you’re writing something like this, it’s a concept that just happens to have the Christ word in it, and I don’t know where you are spiritually, but did you find that there was any intersecting about how you really felt about religion and what was coming on in this? Arthur: I think there is some philosophical thing in it, but I mean personally I don’t like anything that is exclusive or that’s like “this is the way it is and if you don’t believe this, you’re out.” I think most spiritual communities fall prey to that. From Alcoholics Anonymous to Christianity, most of them fall into the thing of “this is the right way.” And I guess by their nature they have to fall into that.
Paste: Because they’re a business? Arthur: I don’t know. I think to have an in-group you have to think you have the answer in some way, and I don’t really believe there is any one way. But I definitely believe this is a mystical journey we’re on and there’s obviously creative intelligence behind all of this. I think it’s interesting how some people separate creationism and evolution or Darwinism. The fact that we can see the evolution or the creation over time doesn’t mean that it’s still not creation. Or like, science doesn’t do away with religion because science is like a blueprint of the creation that we’re seeing. It doesn’t mean that it’s not creation. I don’t think they should be at odds with each other at all.
Paste: Does Boogie deal with it? Arthur: I think he does in that the character is going through all of these questions and like “I need the saint of music, I need the saint of love,” stuff like that in the “Saint of Impossible Causes” or “I Used To Know How To Walk On Water.” Things like that. So it’s framed in religion, but it’s more about a spiritual journey than any sort of specific religious ideology.
Paste: And you put yourself in a few of those songs, like little parts of you. You name check two home cities for you, Akron and Cleveland. At this point in your life, you’ve not lived in Ohio for a long time. Can you go back there, as in like “you can never go home”? Because your lifestyle has lead you around the world. You’ve been in New York forever now. Arthur: For 20 years now. New York is my home.
Paste: So when you’re writing about Akron or Cleveland, is it from the outsider’s point-of-view now? Arthur: No, it’s interesting, I don’t know if it’s because Akron is a special place to me. My folks still live in my childhood home, so I get to go visit them. I still feel very much at home there. Akron specifically I feel is a magical place. We started this tour in Akron. The place we played is called Tangier. It’s like the fancy place where we used to go for special occasions with family. On the way to the bathroom there’s a wall of old autographed showbiz photographs with like Charro and Ike Turner and the guy who played Tattoo on Fantasy Island with the owner of the restaurant. I remember being there as a kid and always checking out the photos and dreaming that one day I’d be on the wall. When I played there, I said something from the stage that I didn’t care about being in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but I needed to be on the wall of Tangier’s and they put me on. So I made it! So, I do feel at home in Ohio.
Paste: There’s something about those little moments, like you never have to go there but once your home base starts championing you, there’s a sense of pride. You couldn’t care less about your past before but still feel like you have to impress them. Why do we have that? What do we have to prove? Arthur: Yeah, it doesn’t make sense.
Paste: 2013 also had a few dark spots in it. You lost a couple friends. Chrissy Amphlett, the lead singer of the Divinyls, and then Lou Reed. Arthur: Lou was a big friend of mine…
Paste: He also seemed like a guiding light for you. Arthur: I think he was like a mentor to me. I loved him. Just a good friend really. Someone who I looked up to and have a huge amount of respect for.
Paste: When you’ve got someone that big in the scope of whatever art you’re a part of, you have someone that important to music and to you as a musician, it’s like a double-level relationship you have with this guy. Arthur: It confuses the relationship. I mean, I understood more what he meant to me when he passed, and I think that’s just the nature of what we’re dealing with as human beings. Yeah, it was a rough way to have closure. I think that’s the way death is though. It’s the nature of it. It’s impossible.
Paste: So what happens now? You have this cool trilogy of a record going on and this unique concept. Movie? Play? What do we have next in the saga of Boogie Christ after this? Arthur: I’d like to do some kind of theatrical thing. I’ve thought about it as a one-man show. I read somewhere that David Bowie always thought of his Ziggy Stardust type albums as films and I’ve definitely thought of Boogie Christ like that. I wanted it to come out where I had a play around it, but it just got overwhelming.
Paste: Didn’t “I Miss The Zoo” come out in two different versions [an older version on his previous album, Redemption City]? Arthur: It felt like an important part of the Boogie Christ album. I was thinking of it as a type of novel and fleshing out the character, and that gave it backstory. So like, this is someone who used to be a drug addict or something like that. It gave it more weight to the character. And there were two others I thought were important. One was “Travel As Equals” and that one felt like an enlightened perspective, so I wanted to show that the character had achieved some sort of enlightenment. And the other was “Yer Only Job,” which didn’t actually make it onto Boogie. But that show Boogie spun off and created Redemption City, which was the sort of spoken word electronic record.
Paste: So in a way, those records are related. Arthur: They’re like brother and sister. Like, in the play, Boogie Christ would live in Redemption City.
Paste: You could do that with any of your songs if you wanted to, if you were going to do the big musical. Like, which one of my old songs… Arthur: Yeah, “In the Sun” would fit in really well.
Paste: That’s a nice marketing bit. Let’s get the biggest hit and make sure it’s in the set. Arthur: And let’s get it on Broadway! This is the way to make money in the music business in 2014.
Joseph Arthur's Van Repossessed in New York
Songwriter Working with Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski's Lawyer of Choice
Joseph Arthur, one of Paste‘s Greatest Living Songwriters, had his white 2003 Dodge Ram repossessed last week after leaving it at a Brooklyn garage for a repair. After the repair, the vehicle was moved from the shop to a nearby street and was later towed for unpaid parking tickets. After Arthur contacted the city of New York, representatives were unable to provide buyer information on the basis of a confidentiality agreement.
“The shop agreed to pay for [the towing fee], which was cool,” Arthur said. “But [my manager] didn’t really understand the severity of it, I guess. I went to Mexico, I was assuming I’d come home and it would be in my driveway. But I got a call the next day saying it had been sold.”
The vehicle held musical equipment, paintings and clothes. Some of the art included canvases and a set of tarot cards that Arthur was completing.
“I think the paintings were the worst to lose,” Arthur says. “You can’t replace those. Most musicians will say they have a kinship to their van. It has 90,000 miles on it, the shop said it could probably go for another 100,000. We’re hoping we can get it back and find the owner.”
In the meantime, Arthur has teamed up with Ron Kuby—you might know him better as the lawyer Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski’ requests by name in The Big Lebowski after he’s picked up in Malibu.
“The funny thing is, I didn’t know this, I’m not a movie memorizer guy,” Arthur said about the partnership. “But my friend got me and Ron Kuby together. He’s an interesting guy.”
Any information on Arthur’s belongings can be reported to Carla Parisi (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Peter Wark (email@example.com).
Longtime do-it-yourself singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur ditches one solo gig as he launches another: an indie record label.
JOSEPH ARTHUR'S band is setting up at the Troubadour for the night's show, but their leader isn't in the room. Try out back, one of the musicians says.
In the alley behind the club, Arthur stands in the sunlight working intently on a bright red jacket spread out on the hood of a pickup truck, applying abstract shapes to the fabric with an artist's crayon.
"Purple makes it make sense, man," says Arthur, eyeing his work.
The man standing next to him looks over and nods. Angelbert Metoyer, an on-the-rise figure on the national art scene and a friend of Arthur's, is sharing the truck's hood and working on his own piece, a drawing packed with Miro-like organic shapes and fanciful figures.
Welcome to Joseph Arthur's traveling art and music circus, a sort of bohemian road show where this visual work is incorporated into the freshly minted music played by Arthur and his band.
There's a fertile, freewheeling feel about this enterprise. The Troubadour show will include songs that the band wrote the night before, and the following day they'll go into a studio in Arcadia and record them and others for an album that will come out in April, an unconventionally short six months after Arthur's latest release, "Nuclear Daydream."
A collection of plangent ballads and emotion-drenched rock songs that crossbreeds Neil Young with the Velvet Underground, "Daydream" is one of the best-reviewed albums of the year, and it figures to resurface prominently as the year-end best-of lists appear.
Such acclaim isn't new for the Akron, Ohio, native, who's been a consummate cult hero for most of this decade. But with "Nuclear Daydream" and in its aftermath, Arthur has shaken up his whole creative world, becoming a high-profile case study of an artist responding to the challenges and opportunities afforded by the decline of the old-line music industry.
After years with large independent labels and major-affiliated companies, Arthur started his own label, Lonely Astronaut Records, to release "Nuclear Daydream." That move could be the reason that he has suffered a drop in sales with his most accessible album, from his customary cult-hero range of 30,000 to 50,000 to a meager 12,000 since its release in September.
But Arthur feels more than compensated by the new freedom it affords him.
"We're playing our new songs as we write them, and then we bootleg ourselves and sell copies of the show that night," says the singer, sitting in the Troubadour's empty bar, now wearing his freshly decorated red jacket. "So most of our new songs have already been released now.
"I would just rather be open than afraid of what that means," he says. "I like a sense of openness to everything. I think people are finding out that counterintuitive thinking along those lines is actually more the way to go. Like people letting their records be streamed for free. It's counterintuitive to logic that that would help record sales, but I guess it does."
It remains to be seen whether it will boost Arthur's, but at the moment he's most excited about being liberated from the pressure to make a commercial breakthrough.
"That's why I'm not afraid anymore," says Arthur. "The source of frustration for that breakthrough was the fear that I wouldn't be able to do this anymore. That was sort of the mode of thinking back then: You get a record deal, and in order to maintain a record deal you have to do such and such; if you don't do that you're gonna get dropped and then what, you have to go find a minimum-wage job again?
"So that breeds all kind of crazy fear," he says. "Now, I just trust that I'll basically always get to sing for my supper on some level."
Help from friends
THE sounds of Arthur's band warming up in the showroom occasionally blast into the adjacent bar as he talks, a reminder of a musical change that's proving as revolutionary for him as his new business model. This is the first time in his career that he's toured and written with other musicians, and the experience has him all charged up.
"It's interesting that after doing this for so many years really on my own, kind of extremely alone, there's this collection of people around me that's like — I've got incredible people around me right now," he says, "and I just feel like I'm having the time of my life
"I don't know what's happened in my mind or what. I've broken through in my soul…. I trust whatever's happening as what's supposed to happen with this whole band that's formed around me. I feel like everything's just beginning."
When Arthur says "extremely alone," he's talking about the solo performance method that he used for years, in which he electronically layered, distorted and enhanced his voice and guitar to create rich, atmospheric arrangements onstage. That technique became identified with Arthur and contributed to his high standing among aficionados of art-rock-inclined singer-songwriters.
But it was his evocative, wide-ranging songwriting and richly textured music that originally gave him a career foothold and earned the admiration of such elders as Peter Gabriel (who signed him to his Real World label and released his first records in the late '90s) and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who recorded Arthur's aching ballad "In the Sun," in several versions with different singers, for Stipe's Hurricane Katrina benefit EP.
"Joe is one of those rare writer-performers where you get the sense, whatever your belief, that something greater is being channeled through his music and voice," says Stipe. "Like Patti Smith, Grant Lee Phillips, Thom Yorke, Joe trances, and the voice, the meaning, becomes bigger than him, bigger than a few pop chords or words strung together. It touches something very deep and universal."
Or as David Letterman put it after the singer's transporting performance of the falsetto anthem "Slide Away" on his "Late Show" program recently: "I want to go with those people. I would like to be with those people. I think they're probably doing things that I'm not."
Arthur, 35, can have that intoxicating, Pied Piper effect, with his old-school rock-dandy charisma and, this day anyway, a loopy enthusiasm that borders on euphoria. His music might be shadowy and atmospheric, but he's all puppy-dog eagerness as he snacks on some trail mix and regards this new combustion in his life and career.
In a group made up of guitarist Jennifer Turner (who used to back Natalie Merchant and had her own band, Furslide), bassist Sibyl Buck, keyboardist Kraig Jarret Johnson (from the Jayhawks and Golden Smog) and drummer Greg Wieczorek, rock's definitive solitary man has found a community and a collaborative laboratory, as well as partners in an exhilarating if exhausting road adventure marked by impromptu turns. They pulled his friend Metoyer onto the tour bus when they passed through the artist's hometown of Houston, so abruptly that he didn't even have a chance to pack a change of clothes. They booked the Troubadour show at the last minute when they came back to Los Angeles to appear on Craig Ferguson's late-night CBS show.
Material from the Arcadia recording sessions will be released as "Abwoon Part One (Let's Just Be)," scheduled to come out April 17, with a second CD coming out later in the year.
"I like that, two records a year. I think that's creatively very active," the Brooklyn resident says. "You're not releasing every single thing you come up with. I think you can have a nice quality there, and I think it's a pace that people can keep up with, those that want to, and those that don't can check in every other record or every three records."
Wherever this new road leads, Arthur is ready for the ride. There's his side career as a visual artist (he self-published a book of his work and had a gallery show in London) and a new passion to help war-orphaned children in Uganda, where he traveled this year.
And although he jokes that he'll "write the hits that never become hits," his low commercial yield has actually struck the ideal balance.
"It's been an amount that's made me feel like it wasn't enough, which kept me hungry, which is really vital for an artist, to be hungry and to stay where everything's a necessity," he says. "And I've been in that place since I started releasing records professionally….
"I feel incredibly fortunate that I've had a career that's been so long and so submerged. It's been a perfect ground for me to evolve as an artist in a way I could never have conceived of when I made my first record."
Joseph Arthur at Heath Street Baptist Church in London on 11 October 2013 (Imelda Michalczyk)
Discovered by Peter Gabriel in the 1990s, Joseph Arthur’s musical pilgrimage since has seen him release ten albums, form ‘supergroups’ with high profile musicians, have his work covered by virtual household names such as Michael Stipe (REM) and Chris Martin (Coldplay) and be nominated for a Grammy. On a rainy night in north London, Joseph played a special, intimate show in an unusual church setting. Between soundcheck and showtime, Joseph took a break to talk with me about his latest album ‘The Ballad of Boogie Christ’, muse on the material dangers of creativity and let me in on some secrets about his next adventure in recording.
The new album ‘The Ballad Of Boogie Christ’ is divided into two ‘acts’. Why did you decided to present the album this way?
I mastered 35 songs for it and I was going to make it three acts and then I got it down to two acts. I went on a bike ride and I listened to the whole thing – it was a long bike ride. I liked it a lot and was proud of it – but I was kind of exhausted by it. The next day I went on a bike ride and did the same thing. ‘All The Old Heroes’ used to start Act Two and I got to that track and then I stopped and was like: that’s it, that’s the end of the album. I made it a single album, like it was Act One. I made it a concise album and I thought it really worked. I put it out in America and people loved it and it was getting lots of really hot praise. Then I knew Real World Records wanted to put out both acts. I thought that’s cool when they first said it. Then I started trying to talk them out of it. I was, like: I really think I’ve made a concise record – people think I’m nuts anyway, if we put this two thing out, people are going to just think I’m off my mind again or whatever! (Laughs.) Please let’s just keep it concise! They said no, we really want to make this. It was such a reversal – the record company trying to talk me into keeping a double album! It’s usually exactly the opposite of that. I’m really happy with the whole thing now.
I was never going to abandon Act Two or Act Three it was gonna just be like I’ll put that out later, it’ll be another record. But I don’t think I’ll put out Act Three next because I have this other record I’m working on that I’m really into right now. So, I think I’ll move on from Boogie Christ for a minute and come back to it later.
Can you tell me anything else about this next record that you want to do before you go back to record Act Three?
I haven’t really talked about it with anybody. Tchad Blake is working on it with me – he mixed Redemption’s Son and Come To Where I’m From. He does The Black Keys and has mixed everyone, he’s an amazing mixer. It’s a lot more back to my earlier records where it’s more modern, future songwriter with programming and real drums and those layers mingling together. Kind of like what I was getting after Redemption’s Son and Our Shadows Will Remain but almost taking it even further. All the songs were written on piano and none of the songs I’ve ever played live. So, it’s all completely brand new stuff. It’s another concept album too, but I’ll hold onto the title for now.
Has your approach to song writing changed over all the albums that you’ve made?
Yeah. Well, this album specifically, ‘Boogie Christ’, was words first almost entirely. I do that from time to time – write words first – but it would be like one or two amongst songs written from melodic content. Then creating words out of phonetic sounds, which the unconscious seems to find meaning in anyway. It’s cool, but it’s a little bit more of a laboured process. I write poetry but I also write rhyming poetry and the rhyming poetry I always think of like song lyrics, so I just decided to use those. But the whole thing got born out of a poem about a Boogie Christ. I thought that was such an uncommon, absurd title and funny and weird. So, I decided to spin the whole thing off of that – fit everything into the theme of this character that’s either megalomaniacal, or maybe he’s enlightened, maybe he’s insane, maybe he’s a little bit all that. Then thinking what would make a Christ figure and fitting all the songs into that context. Like ‘I Used To Know How To Walk On Water’ and ‘Saints Of Impossible Causes’ and then going in deeper, things like ‘I Miss The Zoo’. I was trying to flesh out the character. There’s a drunk pastor – ‘King Of Cleveland’ – OK, he was in Cleveland in high school, you know, thinking of it in terms of a character which is obviously loosely based on myself and my own story. But I took liberties and didn’t think it needed to be me.
You’ve used Christian imagery but it sounds like it’s more generalised human and spiritual themes and ideas you’re using – do you follow a Christian or any religious practise yourself?
I don’t. I don’t really have any clue and I wouldn’t tell anybody else what to believe. I definitely pray. Sorta. I believe in a creative intelligence. The older I get the less I know what that is. I think there is something you can definitely call god amongst us. I’m comfortable with that. But the minute somebody tries to tell somebody else exactly what that is, I think they’re out of line. They can suggest, they can recommend but when people start demanding that this is what it is and what you think is wrong, you lose me at that moment.
Was the selection of the church as tonight’s venue linked into the album’s themes?
No. But whoever booked it, it was a good idea. It’s the second time I’ve played a church in London.
When you’re playing a church venue, does that impact on the performance – the layout and the sense of reverence?
It does, yes! I think of life as a spiritual journey. I think of music and art in general as a spiritual practise, but also my livelihood and also just fun and my passion. I’m in love with it. I’m very lucky. So, yeah, I pick up on that energy. People come here with reverence, they come here to pray and I believe in the power of prayer. I believe in the power of intention. People put a lot of intention into a space like this and that resonates in the space. So, I think as an artist you can pick up on that and feed off of it and feed into it and give to it and take from it. So, it’s interesting.
Going back to songwriting – do you wait until you have inspiration or do you turn songwriting into a craft where you sit down and do it every day?
Songwriting I never try to make myself do. Other things I try to push myself to do, but not songwriting because I’m always backed up and I always kind of want it to pause. I try to talk myself out of it! (Laughs.) But it happens in waves. The album that I was talking about that I’ve been working on with Tchad Blake, I think I recorded the bulk of it in five days. I mean, there was no hurry for it – I could be spending months on it. I mean, Chad’s working on it, and we’re sending things back and forth – the process is going. But the lion’s share of it was recorded in my own little studio. It kind of hits you like a fever in a way. I think I had to go out of town for a while and it galvanised me into action. I spent five days just on my own doing all-nighters and I lost my bike. You can lose material possessions if you go completely into your unconscious – weird stuff will happen because you’re conjuring stuff. I lost my bike in New York City just making an album! You know, how can you explain that, it just wasn’t in my apartment any more? I live alone. I have no idea where it is and I wasn’t doing drugs or anything. I loved that bike, I’ve lost that bike..and it was due to making this record. It was just weird – I was getting ready to go see Glen Campbell play his last show at Carnegie Hall and I ride my bike everywhere, even if I’m going to Carnegie Hall – I live in Brooklyn – so I’m a major bike rider. I love it. And it wasn’t in my place. I was totally dumbfounded, I had to take a cab, I was bummed out. Anyway, I’m trying to illustrate that there’s danger in creativity, you lose your bike! (Laughs)
With your art is it a similar case that ideas just appear and you paint or is there a focused discipline with that?
Yeah, the other thing I was trying to say is I set a goal and started writing towards that goal – I wanted to make this album concept and I was writing a lot of songs and they just came it was like a flood. And then I wanted to finish it and then there was all this work that I had to do and I just wanted to get it done. And the same thing with painting. I have an art show in Paris and one in Marseille. I’m selling paintings on the road. I’ve been painting like crazy. I made three paintings today just in the ride over. Once you start spinning it off, that’s what you want to do.
I see you have a canvas on stage. Will you be painting tonight during the show?
Probably I’ll paint tonight, yeah.
Do you have an idea of what you’re going to do or is it whatever occurs to you?
Well I just have like a style and I kind of always do that. I’d like to try to change my style but it’s hard to. It’s like writing your signature or something.
Are you going to be doing any more work with your ‘supergroup’ projects?
I hope that both of those projects continue. Jeff (Ament of Pearl Jam) texted me today he’s like: can we go on tour with Pearl Jam? I definitely know that we’re going to make another record. We actually have kind of started it – we have some songs recorded. I’m sure we’ll do something again. And Fistful of Mercy recently recorded a new track and then made plans to make another record – then everybody went away on tour and we didn’t do it. But I hope we do it.
Joseph Arthur at Heath Street Baptist Church in London on 11 October 2013 (Imelda Michalczyk)
For this album you used Pledge Music to raise funds. I understand you have quite an optimistic view of how changes to the record industry affect artists – can you speak a bit about this?
I mean, it is impossible to have a career in music nowadays, but before I had a record deal in the mid-90s, that was also impossible. It was a different version of impossible. That impossible looked like this: you could make a demo cassette, which you could give to ten of your friends. The end. That’s the end of your reach for your music. Unless you get this magical record deal, which was like lightening striking. So, that was not possible then either. I got so lucky during that time. I was working minimum wage jobs and I was giving out demo tapes to my friends around Atlanta. My story is somewhat famous and it’s absurd – I gave my tape to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to a friend, who gave it to Peter Gabriel. You can’t make that up! And that’s exactly how it happened. I signed a record deal soon after and I was making records at Real World recording studios and I got a record advance and I thought I was rich. I bought a fancy sweater and pretty soon I didn’t have any money any more. I don’t know how that happened. (Laughs.) I put out a record now and people receive it and I’m lucky. But it’s all relative. For Lady Gaga this would be like a cause for suicide. Compared to her, nobody’s heard my record. Compared to somebody who’s struggling in a kitchen somewhere, it’s huge. So, it’s very relative, you know?
I’m optimistic because I feel like there’s avenues for people now. You can kind of complete the circle is what I’m trying to say. I can put my record out, somebody who’s working in a kitchen somewhere can put their record out on the internet. And yeah, ok, maybe it’s not going to go huge, maybe you’re not going to be able to quit your job, but there’s this completion that happens. And also, it’s out there. You can always fantasise that in a hundred years, after you’re dead, people will discover it and everyone will love you. I mean, that’s how I get by. (Laughs.) But also, about the Pledge Music campaign – I had it cued up with them a few times and my prided kicked in. But I noticed that more and more artists who have fanbases even bigger than mine were doing it, so I started going: well they’re doing it, they’re bigger than I am, so I guess I can do it. The other thing is I realised it was an avenue for promoting the fact that you have a release coming up, which was the real turn for me. I’m an independent artist with an independent label – not only will it give me funds but I’d promote the fact that I have a record out. At that point it becomes obvious to do it – you’re silly not to, I think. The other thing is you’re not just begging for money, you’re selling stuff and it’s great that fans pledge, I’m really grateful for that. They also are getting a record or they’re getting a book they’re getting something for their contribution. And it’s a lot of work. I think until somehow you can make money from music again in a real way, that’s going to be how it is.
And lastly, what music are you listening to at the moment?
Kendrick Lamar‘s new record, Jay Z’s new record, Kanye West’s new record. I’ve been listening to a lot of hip hop. I was going to a the gym a lot before this tour, so you listen to hip hop music. I go through stages where I wished I’d just made hip hop music and I still go through those phases. (Laughs) I was listening to some NWA and Public Enemy, some old school stuff like that. I also listened to Miles Davis on this tour because I can read and listen to that.
As showtime draws near, I leave Joseph to get ready in the church’s blessed backstage area. He seems to be enjoying this tour and hinted he many be back to play more European shows in the spring. Amen to that.
‘The Ballad Of Boogie Christ’ is available on Real World Records.
"I had toured so long solo that I hadn't really played with human beings in a long time," says Joseph Arthur, now on the road with the Lonely Astronauts. From left are Greg Wieczorek, Jen Turner, Arthur, Kraig Jarret Johnson and Sibyl Buck.
Raised in Akron and now based in New York City, alt-troubadour Joseph Arthur is having a productive year. He just put out an album, "Temporary People," with his Lonely Astronauts band, preceded by four solo EPs. The multi-talented Arthur, 37, spoke to us by phone from a Montreal art gallery, where an exhibit of his paintings opened last week.
Q: Were you concerned about throwing too much music at people?
A: Yes, a little bit. But I feel like the way I planned it out, it would in the end be . . . um . . . what's the word?
A: There you go. . . . Just because the EPs are so different from the record in a way -- the record being a band record and having a different sound and a more cohesive sort of sound, and the EPs being more experimental solo type stuff.
People don't have to listen to all of it. They can just pick and choose.
Q: Have you cleared the decks, or do you still have a lot of unreleased music?
A: There's a lot more.
Q: The curse of the prolific!
A: Yeah, definitely. There's a certain urge to get it out, just to sort of be free of it, to kind of move on and move past it.
At a point, you feel almost like you're holding back your evolution by holding on to things, you know?
Q: You've done a lot of solo gigs, with only your effects pedals for company. With the band, how challenging was it to fall back into playing with other human beings again?
A: It was a great relief to me to find a real chemistry.
I had toured so long solo that I hadn't really played with human beings in a long time. So it felt great.
Q: I like the album title. In a spiritual sense, we're all temporary people, right?
A: Yeah, exactly. I like that interpretation. . . . It has the depth to it, and then it has the other connotation to it, like hanging out with people that aren't going be around or don't really matter to you -- and people that do really matter to you.
The album is kind of about survival. And it's about struggle, vulnerability and overcoming pain through reaching toward spirit.
Q: What's your plan for 2009? Six EPs and a double album?
A: No, I will not be doing that.
We might put the EPs in a box set, do something special. Then I have a solo album near completion. And the band is working on another record, too. So I might put out a couple records next year.
I kind of feel like it's the late '60s or early '70s for me . . . and you're allowed to put out two records a year, or you're supposed to.
Joseph Arthur's black and white and baby blue spiritual nerve Photo: Danny Clinch
Artist-singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur gets it all down on paper in Wig
"My art is spiritual nerve," Joseph Arthur writes in a manifesto for Wig, his upcoming exhibition at Galerie Pangée. The manifesto satisfies two goals: It allows Arthur to poetically explain what the show’s about as well as what the show entails.
From a van en route to York, Pennsylvania, Arthur clarifies both, plainly saying that "the idea of [Wig] is 40 wigs and a kiddie pool.
"I guess it’s just about life and death really, and the specific technique of painting that I kind of have developed over the last few years, and in particular, the last year or so," he continues. "A lot of times people will say [my painting] looks like hair to them, and that always bugs me, like I said in the manifesto. So I started thinking about hair and ‘Why does it bug me?’ and I realized that what I think I’m painting is really alive, and hair is dead."
Singer/songwriter Arthur is no stranger to the visual arts. Completely self-taught, he started painting over 15 years ago, and often conflates music making and painting. Nominated for a Grammy for Best Recording Package for his work on the 1999 EPVacancy, Arthur will occasionally paint while playing solo acoustic shows, as he did at O Patro Vys during the release of 2007′s Let’s Just Be.
"We haven’t been on the road in a while so I’ve just basically been painting a lot," says Arthur, on the production of Wig’s works, "so most of everything I’m showing is pretty new, you know, and it’s all on paper. Everything works on paper apart from the wig sculpture I plan to make, but I haven’t made that yet."