Engulfing the world’s glumness
Joseph Arthur: idiosyncratic sounds and imagery
The current No. One, that infuriating ballad about the eternally ‘Beautiful’ bullshit, is so saccharinely nauseating we could name, at least, a dozen more exciting acts or singer-songwriters. But, they all are way above the lowest common denominator the contemporary music industry is hell-bent of flogging. That’s the mainstream to you, McPerson.
Now, Joseph Arthur has been around for a while and ‘Our Shadows Will Remain’ is his fourth album. When the record was released in the US late last year, publications naming it in their Best Of 2004 lists included, The Wall St. Journal, The New York Post and Entertainment Weekly. While touring his new record, Joseph opened for REM, Wilco, and most recently, Coldplay. “Michael Stipe was generous enough to introduce me every night”, he says. “With that foot in the door, all I had to do was deliver.”
And he does it, on record and live. Joseph Arthur was born in Akron, Ohio, the tyre-capital of the US - and home to Devo, Chrissie Hynde, Greg Dulli, Guided By Voices - but became a song-writing obsessive in Atlanta, Georgia, before settling in New York, where he still lives. In a 1997 self-penned article for Musician magazine, he recalled how his career was propelled forward in a circumstance which had seemed miraculous.
Circa 1996, Joe told Musician’s readers, he was still a guitar salesman working for the minimum wage at Clark’s Music in Atlanta. Frustrated, broke, musing on a life of crime, he returned home one day to find a message on his answa-phone that would change everything. The calm, quintessentially English voice he heard belonged to Peter Gabriel, who’d received a copy of Joseph’s demo and was smitten. “I must have sat in the room listening to that message for an hour”, Joseph wrote, “reading meaning into each word, each pause, and each breath”.
The surreal and the hyper-real merged when Gabriel brought his buddy Lou Reed to see Arthur playing a showcase gig in New York after which they all dined alongside Dolly Parton. Soon, Joseph would become the first pop-rock artist to sign to Gabriel’s RealWord label, releasing ‘Big City Secrets’ in 1996, the 7-song EP ‘Vacancy’ in 1999, ‘Come To Where I’m From’ in 2000 and ‘Redemption’s Son’ in 2002.
In 1999, ‘Vacancy’’s vibrant sleeve design - a collaborative effort by Joseph and pal Zachary Larner - was Grammy nominated for ‘Best Recording Package’. Pleasing, then, that on the sleeve for ‘Our Shadows Will Remain’ - a stunning 36-page booklet depicting Joseph’s excellent paintings - Zachary Larner is again credited as art director and designer.
Mr Arthur visited London recently for a show and we faced him for a discussion on… everything.
It is brave of you to be playing here whilst the Americans are keeping away from the harm’s way?
“Well, what can you do but continue to live your own life; we’ve had it on 9/11 and it was a real tragedy. I wasn’t there at the time but in England making a record. What can you do, it is real shame and it looks like this is more terrifying than 9/11. You can’t almost conceive the devastation, the scope of pain… It’s the real shame that humanity is behaving this way and it is hell-bound on destroying itself.”
“I can’t help it but all these things influence me and it will inspire me to write some darker songs… I’ve not written any songs yet to reflect the bombing but I’ve written poems, essays… I keep a journal and reflect on the vacuum in people, they are vulnerable and they need an outlet and if they haven’t got it, it can turn destructive.”
Your album came out in the US a while back; according to your biography you write daily and I wonder how many songs have you got stockpiled already?
“Quite a few, for sure and I’m waiting to record them but the question is not anymore when to record but how to find the right people to distribute music. This a great time for releasing music but it is also one of the most difficult. It is a weird thing and crazy time. I like it but not on the business level. I’m the lucky one who has a record out but there are so many talented people out there who’ll never be released. But that is a universal thing happening with people such as Iggy Pop who’s been struggling all his life to have music released. If you are challenging the industry, you can expect a long and lonely road ahead of you.”
“I started out in a blues band, playing bass, during my school days. I didn’t think of writing songs until I was in my 20s and living in Atlanta. I also lived in New Orleans and all this has informed and inspired my music. ”
Beck is often cited when your music is described but it looks like you were inspired more by David Byrne and Talking Heads, as well as some more traditional songwriters?
“Yeah, Beck is cool but not really one of my influences. Byrne, a little bit, but I’ve been more inspired by David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground… ”
Your demo tape found its way to Peter Gabriel, who signed you up, and you ended up having a dinner with him, Lou Reed and Dolly Parton!?
“Well, Peter Gabriel got my tape from a friend-of-a-friend and he came to see me play in New York. He brought Lou Reed to see me and we ended up at a dinner; Dolly Parton was sitting in the next booth and it was really surreal. I’m surrounded with all these legends despite not having released anything! And, it was interesting what Gabriel said, that he originally offered Dolly to sing ‘Don‘t Give Up’…” [Kate Bush teamed up with PG for the 1986 hit eventually.]
“My contract with the label expired and I’m sorry not to be with them anymore but I wasn’t really an artist for their WorldMusic roster. It may have been a good idea but it didn’t work out.”
The title of your album can be taken both ways; which way are you inclined yourself?
“Looking at the state of the world right now, I‘d have to say - the negativity prevails. But, usually, it is the other way around… I like the title because it is ambiguous and once you make a record, it is up to people to interpret it. It is not in my control anymore and it belongs to people who buy and listen to it.”
So, heed the man’s advice and go get yourself a great album that can move you in more profound ways than you can imagine.