ONE OF AMERICA'S MOST INNOVATIVE SONGWRITERS, JOSEPH ARTHUR RETURNS WITH OUR SHADOWS WILL REMAIN
Shades of brilliance: Joseph Arthur remains standing.For followers of Joseph Arthur wondering about The Question, here is The Answer: It was the friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.
The question, of course, is how fate managed to cast a lucky horseshoe in the direction of the Akron native back in 1996, when Peter Gabriel became so enchanted by an Arthur demo that he sent the young songwriter a plane ticket to London and inked him to Gabriel's Real World Records, home to the adventurous and diverse musical dialects of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Poppa Wemba, The Terem Quartet and others. In terms of the Real World artist roster, Arthur stood as Gabriel's first—at least in Western pop culture—mainstream signing.
While the pal who placed the tape in Gabriel's palms remains nameless, Arthur concedes, during a recent drive to a Denver gig through the Colorado Rockies, that his temporary relocation from Atlanta to London and the Real World environment yielded a life-altering creative epiphany.
"Getting hooked up with Peter and then being around London when a lot of electronic music like trip-hop and drum-and-bass was happening opened my mind to the validity of electronic music," Arthur explains. "I was over in London during the whole Britpop/Oasis/Massive Attack movement, when music was undergoing some kind of renaissance. I had come from Ohio to Atlanta and been immersed in more of a punk-rock philosophy to some degree."
Arthur's revelation was felt immediately in the looped terrain of Big City Secrets, a record produced by Brian Eno apprentice Markus Dravs that straddled the organic and exotic in its introduction of its author's melancholic lyrical charm.
Themes of suffering and isolation also dominate Arthur's fourth full-length album (there have also been a handful of EPs) and latest opus, the recently retailed Our Shadows Will Remain on the Vector label. Its electronic aesthetic continues the aural thread of Arthur's last two other acclaimed CDs—2000's Come To Where I'm From and 2002's Redemption's Son—while songs such as "Stumble and Pain" and "Puppets" examine the messy emotional residue left by us carbon life forms.
"I guess my music comes out of shadows in a way," notes Arthur in connection with the album's title. "It comes out of struggle—the inspiration and motivation to make something, to redeem whatever pain you're going through. I find if I make some music or make something, I feel the agony wasn't wasted.
"But I guess, to some degree, pain and isolation are necessary for making a record. In some ways, there's a certain amount of trauma necessary for the production of art, even if it is hopeful art. I also think there's a certain amount of sanity necessary for it, too. It's a mixed bag."
However, Arthur says he doesn't want to dwell on the misery.
"I want to be happy and I think everybody does. To me, more of an important goal than making a good record is to find some sort of peace of mind."
"At the same time, I think I'm still a few records away from that, so I'm not worried about it. I think life is a struggle—in a good way—but I don't think the struggle's really going anywhere. Maybe you can become enlightened, and then you're not struggling anymore. But then if that happens, I don't think you're worried about making good records. At that point, you're probably saving souls or something."
Arthur seems to be happiest when living the life of a troubadour.
"Touring is so all-encompassing that it's a great way to live—it just keeps you in the moment all the time," the Brooklyn-based Arthur asserts. "It also really inspires me: I always write songs when I'm on the road—just motion and being off-balance a little bit helps.
"My whole adult life has been built on this foundation—making records and going out and touring them and writing more music on the road and playing shows. I think that's a really good way to spend my time. I don't really know how long I'll do it for, but I still keep writing songs that I like."
Arthur has also developed quite the reputation for his mesmerizing solo performances, his hand-painted Lowden acoustic guitar and a plethora of pedals, delays and Lexicon Jam Man boxes and the spark of spontaneity providing his only accompaniment.
"I like the openness in performance—I really don't like working off set lists and thinking about what I'm going to do before," he explains. "I really like being in the moment. So when I'm performing solo, it can be a whole lot less organized and [more] open."
Compact portability offers a few advantages, such as the recent North American tour opening for alt-rock icons R.E.M., a stint that Arthur will repeat in Europe once the ball in Times Square drops on 2005.
"They were very generous," says Arthur, who played to the biggest crowds of his career. "[R.E.M. singer] Michael Stipe introduced me every night, so that really helped open the audience's minds and gave me a chance to play for them. R.E.M. also let me join them on stage for the last three shows, and that was a lot of fun, too, because they're one of my favorite bands. I performed 'Permanent Vacation' with them, which is the first song they wrote—it's not on any record."
For his upcoming date at the Bowery Ballroom, Arthur will share the stage with opener Joan Wasser, aka Police Woman, whom he describes as "an incredible violinist."
"She's cool to perform with because she is so good that I can go in any direction without letting her know where I'm going to go beforehand."
And destination of any sort is the last thing Arthur seems concerned about—even creatively.
"I'm never really afraid that it's going to dry up," says Arthur, who will drop an EP of six new songs called And The Thieves Are Gone on Vector Records next week.
"It's not really a fear of mine. I've never really had writer's block. There are definitely times when I don't feel inspired, when I don't mess around with anything and just hang out with my girlfriend, go to movies and get fat. Then some demon will be around the corner prodding me along back into it."