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Joseph Arthur is in the middle of a long series of phone interviews from the U.K., where he's currently recording. Out of hundreds of variations on the same questions, what's the one thing he doesn't want to be asked?
"Oh. Ahhhh . . . 'How did Peter Gabriel get your demo tape?'" he finally answers in a slow, drawn-out baritone.
You can't fault Arthur, who once wrote a poem titled "Interview Nightmare," about not wanting to tell the Gabriel story again. It doesn't take long, really: Ohio-born Joseph Arthur, a young and very talented songwriter, had moved around, played local venues and done some recording before landing in Atlanta in the mid-'90s. While there, a variety of personal and artistic projects he'd put his energy into went south, all at once. In the middle of everything crumbling around him, he made a solo four-track demo tape of new songs: dark, brooding material he created in a room in his small apartment, sleeping bags tacked up over the windows to shut out the world.
Eventually he came out of his funk a bit, got a job selling guitars at a music store and began passing his tape around to friends and record labels. One evening, he returned to his place, stowed his bike in the bathroom as he always did, and found a message on his answering machine. It was Peter Gabriel, calling to tell Joseph Arthur that he wrote great songs, and that he'd call back.
It's a fantastic story, of course, but it's been told enough; and at any rate, Joseph Arthur isn't and never was Gabriel's protégé. His latest album, Come to Where I'm From, is a remarkable record, and every bit his own. An arresting mix of lyrical frankness and noisy but nuanced production from Arthur, T-Bone Burnett and Rick Will, Come to Where I'm From is equal parts raw emotion and sophisticated sound manipulation -- think Daniel Johnston's or Lou Barlow's home recordings with a touch of Latin Playboys and you're getting close (Tchad Blake of the Playboys, in fact, mixed three of the songs on Come to Where I'm From), but not all the way there .
Joseph Arthur, you see, is a seriously inventive person. Touring solo, he uses digital recording equipment to create backing tracks by beating on his guitar, breathing into mikes, playing simple rhythms and strumming basic chords, looping them, layering them one by one, and playing and singing over his self-created-on-the-spot rhythm samples. Then, one by one, he removes the layers he's built, allowing the audience to watch him disassemble the song right in front of them. It's a process he began during a previous tour, and one which informed the sound of Come to Where I'm From: "That album was influenced by the live performances because I knew I could do it, experiment that way. I followed more my own instincts on this one." The resultant sound is both intimate and raucous, somehow recalling noisy outings like Tom Waits' Bone Machine and quiet DIY efforts like Lou Barlow's Another Collection of Home Recordings simultaneously.
In addition to writing and performing music, Joseph Arthur is an accomplished visual artist who creates the art for his album covers and packaging. In fact, he's already been nominated for a Grammy, though you might not remember; it was for Best Recording Package, for 1999's Vacancy EP (he lost to Asleep at the Wheel's Ride With Bob).
He's also a chronic road journalist and poet in the vein of Patti Smith (and yes, the comparison is carefully made). Joseph Arthur, in short, is an artist with a lot of creative outlets, and as Kris Kristofferson once said of John Prine, he might be so good we'll have to break his thumbs.
All this energy notwithstanding, Arthur's take on what he does is decidedly egalitarian: "Well," he says quietly, and pauses. "What are the limitations? Don't you decide what the limitations are? Some people decide, 'Well, I want to be a musician,' so they do that. And some people say to me, 'I can't sing.' And I say, 'Man, you can. . . . I mean, someone else might have a prettier voice or whatever, I don't know what your voice would sound like . . . but you can play to your strengths.' Decisions are a limitation as well. I'm up for freedom. I like people who take chances."
Taking chances isn't always appreciated in a culture that assumes that individual talent expresses itself in only one medium, and here we have to go beyond musical comparisons to get the full measure of Arthur's reach. Henry Miller had to go to France, and Paul Bowles to Africa, to find out what they were capable of; and Patti Smith and Antonin Artaud received only belated recognition for their visual art. Arthur knows, even if he doesn't boast the ego to claim it for himself, the tradition he's working in: "All those names, man. I like them all." In Arthur's extensive body of work, only part of which is musical, there are echoes of Frank Zappa's vision of a lifetime's artistic output as a single project unfolding over time, in a number of different media.