There was a lot of commotion coming down the phone line from Joseph Arthur’s New York home. Considering the Renaissance rocker’s penchant for multi-tasking, he could have been testing equipment for the impending tour, or assembling a visual-art installation, or …
“I’m in the middle of a Star Trek marathon,” Arthur said. “So in other words, I’m doing nothing of any real importance. Except for relaxing.”
He certainly earns the occasional breather from his juggling act. Anyone who has seen Arthur’s solo concerts knows his creativity stays in perpetual motion on stage: whether it’s a bruised confessional or a discordant soul’s roar, whether it’s delivered in a tattered baritone or spectral falsetto, a song that starts with a beat tapped on the body of his guitar can snake in any number of directions, thanks to judiciously deployed pedals and effects.
His painter’s portfolio usually grows by the end of a show, with Arthur creating on-the-spot artwork during the performance. Add the stream-of-consciousness poetry flowing through his social media accounts, consider the unyielding pace at which new releases arrive, and there doesn’t seem to be an end to Arthur’s art.
If there was a starting point to the Akron, Ohio native’s recognition in North America, we have bragging rights. Arthur was the first U.S. signing to Peter Gabriel’s globally minded Real World label, but recalls that “my first album (1997’s Big City Secrets) was really only well received in Montreal, out of all of North America. I was only well received in France originally, and it had travelled to Montreal from there.
“There does still seem to be a magic vibe for me in Montreal, if only by memory of coming to a foreign place and being so warmly received when I first visited. That can last a lifetime, an impression like that.”
Rare praise from Lou Reed can also leave an indelible mark. Perhaps the underground auteur heard a kindred spirit in Arthur’s urban cool, straight-talking affection and search for high meaning in low places.
Arthur counted Reed as more than just a supporter, and after his friend died in October 2013, he paid tribute on the unadorned album Lou. You don’t honour the inimitable through imitation, so Arthur deconstructed 12 of Reed’s songs, from the consecrated (Walk on the Wild Side) to the overlooked (Sword of Damocles), rebuilding them with stark instrumentation in a stark setting — “I spent roughly three days recording it during the winter, snowed in by myself.” A fan of both artists would hear as much celebration as sadness in the memorial.
“These couple years later, isn’t it just growing — how wonderful it really was, what he did? How important he really was? Isn’t that dawning on you more?”
Another recent tribute to Reed was more lacerating. After biographer Howard Sounes garnered attention for presenting the icon as more monstrous than the cantankerous firebrand of legend in Notes From the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed, Arthur posted a passionate, furious defence in October.
“I couldn’t not do it. In hindsight, I wish I had put one less ‘f— you’ in there … but I don’t regret standing up for my friend, who’s not here to speak for himself. And he wasn’t a monster. At all.”
Arthur was in town when Reed gave his final Montreal performance: the notorious avant-garde improv summit with Laurie Anderson and John Zorn at the 2010 jazz fest. While the trio persevered amid catcalls from those who came for the classics at Place des Arts, Arthur was in the middle of a 10-night residency at the cosy multidisciplinary artists’ nest O Patro Vys. The series unfolded like a single marathon concert, with the singer combing through his catalogue and rediscovering lost gems.
“Peter Wark talked me into doing that,” Arthur said of his Montreal-based manager. “He’s a weird one. But it’s a great memory. Sometimes you’ve got to just do something for the adventure. You know, I’m going to India over Christmas; I’m playing this new festival. There’s probably going to be 300 people there. It’s not for money — I’m just going for the adventure of it.”
A similar why-not spirit inspired Arthur’s latest release, Days of Surrender. Fuelled by the same lo-fi innocence that informed his earliest work, it was initially available only on a USB stick, packaged with an art print. If you’ve still got your old boombox, you’re in luck: the album was subsequently issued on cassette.
“I had this album and then this other solo album pretty much done for a while, and I was getting frustrated. We seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern. And this didn’t seem like a commercial album,” Arthur said. “It seemed like an intimate, personal album that I made on my own in my bedroom — which was pretty much what I did. But I liked it. I liked it a lot. And I just wanted my fans to be able to have access to it. That might sound ironic, since it’s out on cassette.”
It’s also now out as a download, and if a well-off patron wants a CD copy, there’s precisely one available — as part of a bundle with Arthur’s old tour van, now for the bargain of US$6,650. “Can you put in your article we’ve cut the price in half? This is unprecedented.”
If that’s still too extravagant, fans won’t have to wait long for Arthur’s next CD. The second album by RNDM, his free-spirited collaboration with Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and crazed drummer Richard Stuverud, will be released in March. The string-accented title track, Ghost Riding, telegraphs a swift progression from the 2012 debut’s rough-and-ready power-trio setup.
“I’m super excited about it. We gave ourselves a lot of time, and we explored. The first record, which I love, we threw together in around a week. That was like a first date. This record’s like a relationship. It opened up.”
As that 2010 residency proved, even the familiar setting of solo performances continues providing Arthur with new terrain to discover.
“Right now I’m increasingly in love with playing guitar,” he said. “It’s definitely fuelling me a lot, seeing how far I can take it. Before, I think my playing was held back by some strange, self-imposed limitation. I mean, that’s what a life in creativity is: unfolding of self-imposed limitations.”
Considering the scope of his prolific output, the idea of Arthur putting any restrictions on his creativity seems startling.
“Dude, we’re all crippled with self-imposed limitations,” he said with a hearty laugh. “I think if we weren’t, we’d be super-beings. We’d all be hovering around, blowing things up with our fingers.
“But maybe I’ve just been watching too many episodes of Star Trek.”
AT A GLANCE
Joseph Arthur performs Thursday, Dec. 3 at 9 p.m. at Club Soda, 1225 St-Laurent Blvd., with Kensico. Tickets cost $18, $20 at the door. Call 514-286-1010 or visit clubsoda.ca.
A free vernissage for an exhibition of Arthur’s paintings is held Thursday, Dec. 3 at 6 p.m. at O Patro Vys, 356 Mont-Royal Ave. E.; the exhibition will continue throughout December.
This is one of the paintings that will be on display at O Patro Vys in an exhibition of Joseph Arthur’s work, opening on Dec. 3. JOSEPH ARTHUR
Montreal-based manager Peter Wark stokes Joseph Arthur’s fire
Peter Wark’s first venture into Joseph Arthur’s music was similar to that of many prospective fans: a blind jump into a deep pool.
“This is back in the Napster days — you couldn’t just go on Spotify,” said Arthur’s Montreal-based manager, who was advised to check out his future client by a mutual friend. “I found a couple tunes from his debut record. … He had the song Haunted Eyes, which I just loved. This stream-of-consciousness feel, these kind of dark lyrics — it was right up my alley.”
As a New York scenester making inroads in the music business, Wark travelled in the same circles as Arthur. They remained in touch after Wark moved to Montreal in the mid-2000s and worked under impresario Donald Tarlton’s wing.
“I did some homework on his releases and his career up here. … At the time in Canada, he just wasn’t selling what I knew he could.”
Wark convinced Arthur to let Tarlton-affiliated Indica Records put out his next album, the ramshackle Let’s Just Be — “which was a pretty challenging record.” It became Arthur’s bestselling release in Canada at the time, he says, and “things snowballed from there.”
Now working on his own, Wark also manages bohemian queen Rickie Lee Jones, southern garage-rockers the Whigs (whose drummer, Julian Dorio, was playing with Eagles of Death Metal at the time of the Paris attacks), singer-songwriter Jonah Tolchin and Montreal lifers the Nils (“there should be a movie that reflects the pain and heartache and hardships that this band’s gone through”).
Even without the rest of his roster, though, Wark would stay on his toes thanks to Arthur’s work ethic. “He’s an established artist, but he’s still got the fire in him, man. He has not once given up or gotten lazy and taken six months off — he always tours, he’s always making a record.”
There’s more to managing Arthur than keeping pace with the treadmill, as proved by the unconventional release of his new album, Days of Surrender — first on a USB drive packaged with an art print, then on a cassette with no accompanying download code.
“It wasn’t the ‘f— you’ that some fans thought it was — it was just playing with the music business,” Wark said. “And you sell 100 art prints at $100 and you sell 250 cassette tapes at $10, it’s the equivalent of a record advance from a label. And we accomplished that.”