INTERVIEW : 1997-11-27 Heart full of soul, Peter Gabriel discovery Joseph Arthur plays modest (by Cindy MCGlynn)

Akron, Ohio, native Joseph Arthur is the first to admit that the learning curve is steep when you find yourself going from working retail and playing yer guitar in the bars of Atlanta, Georgia, to having Peter Gabriel call you, fly you to England, record you (also doing some backup vocals himself, along with Brian Eno...) and sign you as the first white rock boy to his Real World label.

"It's kind of like if you're a poor person and you win the lottery," Arthur explains. "And you get a couple of million dollars and you blow it because of your personality -- you're not really a millionaire, but you just have a million dollars. But it doesn't matter, you're going to lose it because that's not how you are."

Joseph Arthur is hard on himself. I remind him that the learning curve was his analogy and presumably, he's been, um, up it. Which would mean, he should be developing the mindset of a millionaire, if we are to follow his other analogy. Not quite, he says, but suffice it to say, he's learning to be a little less self-conscious and edging toward acceptance of his talent, if not his success.

"I've grown a lot into it. I feel more like who I really am rather than having to put on an act of who I am. I guess always there's a little bit of an act, but less of an act. God, I really think too much, I think."

Maybe. But hey, it's gonna take a heady sort of guy to write the edgy, raw, lyrics with which Arthur caught the ears of Gabriel. Arthur's voice roughs out smart urban poems that search and wander and that one critic described as being so isolated and lonely they're "almost homeless." Couple his lyrics with the hard, moody arrangements squared by sharp drum patterns and flavored with harmonica and vibraphones and you've got something of what sets Arthur apart from the singer-songwriter pack.

What is interesting is that Arthur himself says there isn't nearly enough heart and soul on his Real World debut, Big City Secrets, which should only make the rest of us wonder from what superhuman well of emotion he'll draw for subsequent works. "I don't think it gives enough of what I can do... or, I don't think it's enough me, really. I guess I'm disappointed in that aspect, but maybe I'm just over-analytical about it."

According to what I read, and certainly according to what I hear, the heart and soul are what people are raving about. "Really? See that's the thing, I can beat myself up over absolutely everything. I tend to. Like, I buy a pair of shoes and beat myself up the whole way home. So for something like making a record, because it's so significant in my little universe, I'm bound to just kick my ass about it over and over again. Fuck, I've gotta give myself a break."

Indeed, one gets to wondering whether Arthur's life really does ache as much as the ones on his record. He told me it wasn't that bad... any more. "I used to just be like an open wound. I could cross the street and sort of see sadness in the cars stopping at the red light. And now I think there's moments where, maybe I've lightened up a bit or just gotten a bit more used to it. I'm becoming a little bit more callous as I get older and it's kind of worrying. But I am emotional, you know. I cry and stuff. And hey, I do go and see movies and stuff and have a sense of humor," he promises. "You just wouldn't know it from my music."

And hey, he's enthusiastic too. Ask him about Peter Gabriel, though, and the floodgates of praise open.

"I've got him on a bit of a pedestal, and obviously if you've got someone on a pedestal, you think they deserve to be on a pedestal. I mean, I know he's a human being with human failings and all that other shit, but he's really ultra, ultra-cool."

So great is Arthur's enthusiasm for Gabriel, it actually spills over, for one delightful moment, into appreciation for his own success. "He did one of my songs on the Princess Diana tribute album, It's called 'In The Sun' and I wrote it and he does such an amazing job," Arthur says. "Pretty good, huh!"