Arthur's Theme

Multitalented artist Joseph Arthur finds reward in more than just song

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.

The pride of Akron -- Joseph Arthur: "Decisions are a limitation. I'm up for freedom. I like people who take chances."
Anton Corbijn
The pride of Akron -- Joseph Arthur: "Decisions are a limitation. I'm up for freedom. I like people who take chances."

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.

Which is how a young tunesmith and former guitar hawker from Akron became the first non-world music artist to be signed to Gabriel's Real World label.

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.

"I agree with that, definitely," says Arthur. "I think because I'm coming at it sort of through the back door, putting the art on the album covers and not, like, doing gallery shows, it's easier for people to accept. That resistance [to artists working in multiple media] isn't just in the States; I find it, too, in England. But really, I haven't had too many problems with it. People seem to accept it." People very likely accept it because they have no choice; Arthur's talents are simply too great to dismiss. But along with his technical skill comes a disarming openness that grows more evident with repeated listenings.

In an interview with National Public Radio in 1997, the year of his first release (Big City Secrets), he referred to his music as the sound of "somebody struggling to heal over experimental folk-rock with an identity crisis." At first blush, that disarming description might apply to any dozen slowcore/emo performers; but in the few years since Big City Secrets, Arthur's lyrics have gotten as unpredictable and rewarding as anything in Paul Westerberg's glory era. From the new album's "History": "You're your mama's shit eatin' grin and your daddy's double chin/You're the first pair of shoes you ever went to school in/And you're the kid pretending she's in prison/Behind the bars of a jungle gym." Or, from "Ashes Everywhere": "I can't deal with what you have done/Reincarnate I wonder who I might become . . ./I don't have nothing, now I want me some/First some of you, then some of everyone."

Like J. Mascis, another semiconfessional songwriter whose voice his slightly resembles, Arthur has been criticized for simply undergoing therapy aloud. But he isn't merely howling, or opening a vein and letting it drip onto DAT; what lifts Arthur's work above simple catharsis is both the skill with which he executes it and the articulate, dynamic project that his art has become.

Take his Web site, for example (www.lanset.com/kthalken). "When I first started looking around, I was sort of surprised at how uninvolved people are with the medium. The woman who started the Web site is very content-oriented. And it seemed strange that so many [band-related] Web sites were just another advertising arm. I think of what's going on with our Web site as part of the whole artistic project."

Arthur's pride in the content of the Web site is tough to dispute. To take only the most obvious example, it actually forces the visitor to hunt for links to buy his music (hint: It takes at least two clicks and a lot of scrolling). Assuming that in a hype-saturated business anyone who wants to find Come to Where I'm From via Amazon.com or Tower Online can do so pretty easily, Arthur's Web site forgoes the hyperventilating what-the-critics-are-saying copy found on 99 percent of band sites in favor of (get this) actual substance; visitors can look at Arthur's artwork, track touring information, read full biographies of his collaborators and access sound and video files without having to wait for a thousand gigabytes' worth of Flash or Quicktime files to load. He regularly posts entries from his tour journals, including poems and straight prose ("Instant publication," he says, tongue firmly in cheek, "whether it's good or not"). The primary colors are black and olive, the primary page content is straight text, and the site is absolutely filled to bursting with material.

And lest you think his site is entirely self-contained, be advised that you, yourself personally, can post reviews of his albums and anecdotes from his concerts. Judging from the quality of the posts currently available, however, you'd better have at least a few synapses firing. There are scant posts along the lines of "New Joe album Roxxx!" or "the Toronto show was AWESOME!!!" The overall quality of the public entries on Arthur's Web site, particularly the show anecdotes, is exceptionally high -- not just for inclusion on a Web site but as examples of the language; and not all the reviews are without reservation ("Sometimes he can be a mealy-mouth," says one otherwise positive post, apropos of Arthur's vocals). This kind of interactivity, in a business filled to the teeth with fluff PR campaigns masquerading as official Internet sites, borders on the revolutionary.

It also gives a good impression of what Joseph Arthur's fan base is like. As one listener, also named Joe, offers of Come to Where I'm From, "I still feel like I have a cool secret that no one knows about." The secret is out, undeniably; but there's no getting around the fact that the relationship Arthur is creating with his listeners is symbiotic and distinctive, particularly given the very personal nature of his writing. Is he worried, then, about the possibility of fans connecting too closely, wallowing in his suffering vicariously?

"I've thought a lot about that," he says, "especially in terms of the songs about despair. But I think when I've been really down, I've looked for that, that kind of connection. You know, people go into therapy or meetings, and they say, 'I'm really fucked up, and this is what fucked me up.' And other people say to them, 'Yeah, I'm really fucked up, too,' and it helps, the connection. It makes them feel better."

There's that word again. But if we're to take therapy as a metaphor, is there an end to it? Will we ever come through the other side, healed up?

"Maybe . . . but then other things happen. Getting validation doesn't take away the feeling. I'm still working through it. Someone else can tell you, 'I feel the same way,' and it helps, it's nice, but it doesn't negate it. I don't have any answers for that."

Nonetheless, Arthur's the one writing these deeply personal songs. Does it feel dangerous for him to do so?

"I don't know," he says, and laughs a very open laugh. "Maybe I'll regret it."

Joseph Arthur is scheduled to perform an early set on Friday, June 14, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.

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