Joseph Arthur Comes Clean
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.”