Joseph Arthur is a traditionalist. His story is classic Hollywood -- he was plucked from coffee-house obscurity by Peter Gabriel, who said he was going to make him a star. His albums convey the sort of intimacy that has fans initiating pillow talk with their stereos. In grand folkie tradition, he's an advocate of the cozy residency gig, like the biweekly stint he begins Monday at Ted's. He wants to make records with former tour mates Gomez, like Dylan and the Band used to do in the '70s. And he thinks big: he originally wanted his second album, Come to Where I'm From (Virgin/EMI), to be a double, before Gabriel convinced him otherwise. He doesn't have cable, and don't get him started on the Internet.
Joseph Arthur hates traditions. For him, any folk-music education must include N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton and Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. He doesn't have the patience to sit through any double album -- "not even The Wall." He never goes anywhere without a sampler. Onstage, he subjects his confessional serenades to major sonic surgery, dissecting them with piercing atonal drones and spontaneously created arrhythmic beats. And he really wishes he had HBO so he could watch The Sopranos. Will the real Joseph Arthur please stand up? The funny thing is, on Come to Where I'm From, they both rise to the occasion.
"I'm reacting to the fact that popular music today is overwhelmingly programmed and perfect," Arthur relates at Holy Joe's before his March Canadian Music Week appearance. "That makes for a more powerful sound, but it's starting to make everything sound safe and generic. You don't ever feel that something could actually fall apart, or that there's a humanity behind it. You don't feel that slightly broken quality that makes my favourite records great, like the first Velvet Underground record.
"I've learned a lot since I toured the first record, Big City Secrets, and developed a live show from that. And I'm still developing -- I'm a late bloomer. With Big City Secrets I got a lot of people who'd be like, 'I like you live so much better than your record,' and at first it was upsetting. If you're a fan of somebody live and they're delivering their heart and soul to you, it's going to be more powerful than a record. That's just a photograph of that time, and you've got to accept it and appreciate it for what it is. But, hopefully, whatever energy people are reacting to live, I'm coming closer to capturing."
He's not quite there yet -- Arthur's on-disc delivery is too heart-on-his-sleeve honest to conjure his mesmerizing onstage mystique -- but compared to the overproduced Big City Secrets, Come to Where I'm From presents a far more definitive picture of where Arthur's coming from -- specifically, Akron, Ohio. Arthur left his hometown years ago, but its air of industrial decay and Midwest rusticity is deeply embedded in T-Bone Burnett's stark production. Arthur, however, points to a more pertinent regional influence: small-town boredom.
"Me and my friends would take acid and listen to Bauhaus and the Cure and go downtown, which was like a ghost town," he reminisces. "It's weird to see a city like that. We'd put gasoline on tennis balls and light them on fire and kick them. And we'd listen to hip-hop all the time. I wanted to be a black rap artist so badly it hurt."
So you feel some sort of affinity with Fred Durst?
"Yeah!" he laughs. "You've got to give it up to him, though you can't really admit it. And Eminem is holding his own. He's giving us a little bit more credibility than Vanilla Ice. But it's just not natural for me to do that. My real influences are Dylan, Leonard Cohen -- I like melodies too much."
Still, Arthur couldn't resist flexing his freestyle flow on Come To's penultimate rant, "Creation or a Stain" -- though it sits more comfortably alongside "Subterranean Homesick Blues" than "Fuck tha Police."
"It's a white boy's version of hip-hop without trying to be black," Arthur explains. "And it's got the line 'Down and out like Eric Clapton,' which is a hip-hop line for a white boy. The best hip-hop has not forgotten about lyrics, and I think white music has forgotten that lyrics are the thing. Ultimately, that's what lasts."