Maybe it's because Joseph Arthur is a quixotic Anglo-American singer-songwriter on the glossy Real World music label. Maybe it's the whole "protégé of Peter Gabriel" thing--an association with a figure who's not horribly in vogue these days. Or maybe it's that the music of Akron, Ohio native Joe Arthur is just slippery enough to elude easy comprehension.
For whatever reasons, Arthur's 1997 debut album Big City Secrets remained one giant secret in North America, and in the wake of the recent release of his compelling follow-up, Come to Where I'm From, Joe's starting to get that sinking feeling again. I catch him visiting his mother in Akron on an off-day from his unique touring that sees him revisit cities over the course of a few weeks, and Arthur's just been scanning magazines for any kind of blip about the new record...
"Nobody wants to cover me or something," says Joe. "I don't think people like my music. Nobody will write about it, nobody pays attention to it. I mean, fuck me, I don't know what you gotta do, but I keep making soulful records in a world where there aren't that many soulful records, and nobody'll even say they've heard it. I don't even get bad reviews."
But go to Arthur's main fan site and you'll see copious and glowing feedback from around the world--especially Europe and France (there are many American artists who channel their culture--not the least blues and jazz greats--only to be appreciated from the outside). Or listen to Come To Where I'm From and be moved by Arthur's mysterious mix of recognizable elements--the standby acoustic guitar, some ambient electric, synths, and even breakbeat backing--odd linear trajectories of songs that seem to go one way and just stop. Or check him live, where he uses a record-delay to loop bits he's just played to create a self-contained samplin' band.
"I think I've sold more records in Spain than I have in America," says Arthur, "and I can't even fathom why. I mean, I've played three gigs in Spain. I don't know what they're doing over there, or what they get... To be ignored by your country is just brutal, you know? It hurts. It hurts the soul."
Here's another theory: maybe nobody can deal with an ostensibly hip singer-songwriter who repeats the line "May God's love be with you" in the lead-off song to his new album?
"Yeah, there is something subversive about it," says Joe. "It somehow becomes a punk rock thing to say because it goes against the grain. I do do that: when things are going one way I tend to want to go the other way. And I just thought that other people would respond to that, but so far nobody has.
"If I do become hugely rich and famous I will deserve every fucking penny of it. Because they've made me fuckin' take my skin off and jump into a vat of rubbing alcohol for this shit--seriously. They've made me fuckin' lie down on coals until my bones are burning."
Peter Gabriel's Real World label can be given credit for exposing some of the most intense and spiritual musicians in the world to a larger population than probably would have been possible by their own means.
While unleashing such vital artists as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Papa Wemba to the world has been a godsend, Gabriel seemed to have overlooked North American talent which makes one question whether we actually live in the real world. When Gabriel released Big City Secrets in 1997 the debut album by Akron, Ohio's Joseph Arthur, audiences confronted the reality that Gabriel was simply waiting for the right artist to come along who would be able to encapsulate the shiftiness and the urban anxieties of Arthur's home New York City, arguably the heart of North America.
"He's the kind of guy you want to show you the way and he does," comments Arthur on his relationship with Gabriel. "He advises me all the time. He hears all the things I do, breaks it down, writes lists and stuff. He's a huge support. He took me in at a stage when I still had a lot of developing to do. Not that I don't now."
Arthur is pleased to be a part of Gabriel's record label which has the reputation of producing and releasing a distinguished and crowd pleasing lineup of musicians.
"I'm glad to be involved with Real World and be involved in that karma," says Arthur.
"There's fantastic music to be discovered on the label. When I was first in contact with Peter, I got to play WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) and take part in Real World recording week. It was just outrageous. From that point on I decided that I was in a different world. Nothing surprised me anymore."
With the recent release of Arthur's second full length album Come to Where I'm From, there have been a few adjustments he has had to make despite claiming to be free of surprises.
"In New York, I kind of isolated myself," says Arthur. "I liked living in this shell. Then all of sudden, I move to L.A. and (the media hype) all starts. I was in this hotel with this huge mirror in front of the bed that basically covered the whole wall and I just got stuck with my face not just my image but my whole body. I went through this weird transition. I cut my hair and got into this obsession with it. When I was a kid I always felt uncomfortable with how I looked and it all came back. I thought it was self-hatred but I was just getting acclimated to this. I am getting this public skin on and it's painful, but there's always pain when you grow."
Arthur's relocation forced him to confront issues he didn't intend to confront.
"Writing music and singing songs is one thing," continues Arthur, "but when I went to L.A. to shoot a video it made me realize how much (of the music business) depends on how you look. That's a focus I wasn't prepared for."
While music now appears to be a full-time job for Arthur, he balances his song writing with an appreciation of all the arts. Arthur himself is a skilled painter who uses the packaging of his CDs as a canvas, an endeavour which earned him a Grammy nomination in 1998 for his EP Vacancy.
"I've never considered doing art for a living," says Arthur. "I just don't think I have ever produced anything that I am that satisfied or comfortable with. Packaging is a place I feel comfortable displaying on. It's such a wasted space to an extreme amount otherwise.
There's so many interesting things you could do with it and you don't have to do it yourself, but that's a Peter Gabriel philosophy really. That's why no writing goes on the cases [of Real World releases]. He sees it as a place to display art."
Arthur's stripped down, bare bones painting provides a perfect companion to his music. His images are raw, unrefined yet razor sharp. His brush strokes are done with the inexactitude and honesty of a child and one is reminded of Jean-Michel Basquiat upon seeing Arthur's scrawling.
"It goes a little outside of him, but Basquiat is definitely an influence," clarifies Arthur. "I was doing this crazy shit for a long time before I saw him, but where he influenced me is in making me realize that stuff like his could get into museums. I was just having fun with paint when a friend of mine took me to a museum to see a show of his. I'd never seen anything as alive as that. I didn't realize that this was something you could pursue."
Joseph Arthur's live shows are also a thing of awe. He has found kinship in a machine called the Jam Man, that he uses to sample himself on stage. It's almost like painting with music. He lays all the colours and textures out at the beginning of each song and then uses his pedals to smear them all over the audience's psyche. While listening to Arthur strum his guitar and play his harmonica tends to sound a little like Bob Dylan, as he starts pushing the buttons and playing with delays, he transforms into Dylan Thomas raging against the dying of the light.
"It's similar to painting in a way," concedes Arthur. "It's an unconscious experience. It's not controlled. I have maps, and I know what I'm trying to do, but each show is different because it's done on the spot. I feed off the crowd too, and sometimes they're into it, and sometimes they're not. People like to compare live shows to recordings, but it's like comparing a play to a movie. A good play is going to be a deeper experience than any good movie but both can be moving. Seeing something happen in that moment will deliver invisible electricity."
The harder Akron's Joseph Arthur works, the more debt he accumulates.
In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, Come to Where I'm From, the new album by Akron-raised singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur, is reviewed in conjunction with Elliott Smith's latest effort. The end result: The relatively unknown Arthur gets an A-minus and Academy Award nominee Smith receives a B-minus. It's praise that Arthur, whose gentle, folk-based music shares Smith's quiet intensity, takes with a grain of salt.
"I felt like I was in school or something -- I don't think it's good to put people against each other like that," Arthur says via phone from his home in New York, when asked about scoring so high in the EW ratings. "It's like art as professional wrestling. It doesn't really make sense. It's nice to be on top, but it only means that, next time, you're going to lose. I try not to take it too seriously."
Arthur started playing piano before picking up the bass and joining Frankie Starr's blues band. Arthur says that, with Starr, he played several nights a week in Cleveland and recalls opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan at Nautica. Arthur moved from Akron to Atlanta, and then London, before settling in New York. While he was in Atlanta, a copy of one of his demo tapes made it into the hands of someone connected with Real World Records, the imprint run by Peter Gabriel. Arthur was signed, and Real World put out his first album, 1997's Big City Secrets. A year later, Arthur went into the studio armed with enough material for three more records. Out of those sessions, he delivered last year's Vacancy and Come to Where I'm From, and says he has been concentrating on writing prose and painting lately, rather than songwriting, since he already has another album of material ready to go.
"Nowadays, it's hard to get in the studio," Arthur says. "It was hell trying to figure out what songs go where, after the session was over. I just broke it up, put out Vacancies first, which seems to have its own identity. I'm looking at two more years in the penitentiary of the road before I can think about hijacking the studio again, and once I do that, I'm going to record another 40 tunes. This music business is just unfair to a person like me. Back in Dylan's day, he could record an album every nine months. And Hank Williams did that and the Beatles. There's so many records that come out, there's so much crap to fight through, it hardly seems worth it at all. I've been working really hard for like five years, and I've managed to accumulate more debt than you can imagine. If I had done something sensible, like become a garbage man, I would be rich right now. I'd be the Employee of the Month. But instead I decided to be a songwriter, and I'm in debt in New York City. That's the funny thing about it. I think that's why I'm thinking about becoming a history teacher."
Actually, Arthur, who just returned from a tour of Europe with Ben Harper, will be playing residencies at clubs across the country. He performs at the Grog Shop on May 5 with Poem Rocket, DJ Veins, and Ether Net, a Cleveland band which will be celebrating the release of its new album, The Requisite Chemicals. He returns to the Grog Shop on May 19 to play with Rosavelt and is also booked at the club on June 2 with the Plastics Hi-fi. In many ways, playing multiple shows at the same venue is an ideal way to build a buzz -- that is, if Arthur makes it that far.
"I'm absolutely burned out," he says. "The world is a huge place, and to make a record work, it's insane. Sometimes it just appears to be impossible. Even though from the outside things are going well, at the same time, it feels like I'm about ready to give up."
Two battle of the bands competitions will take place this week. First, the fourth annual Jim Beam Rock Band Search comes to the Tower City Hard Rock Café on May 4. These are the regional finals -- the winner will go to Phoenix for the finals on June 1. Acts competing include Galaxie (from Knoxville, Tennessee), Koncrete Kite (from St. Petersburg, Florida), SuperThief (from Cleveland), Symmetry (from Coshocton), and Ten Pound Bag (from Cleveland). Doors open at 8 p.m., and the competition starts at 9 p.m. Admission is free. Call 216-830-7625 for more information. Months ago, the field was wide open, but now the Lucky Strike Band-to-Band Combat has narrowed it to 15 finalists vying for kudos to the tune of 15,000 clams. Anne E. DeChant is Cleveland's finalist, and she will be performing on May 6 at the Phantasy (11802 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood) in a showcase with 19 Wheels (Detroit's winner) and the Excentrics (from Washington, D.C.). The $5 cover not only gets you in, but also gets you a free copy of the CD, featuring a song by each finalist and the chance to vote for the ultimate victor. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call 440-333-7478 for more information.
IN PERFORMANCE: POP; Wandering Mirages Yanked From the Soul
By ANN POWERS MAY 8, 2000
Joseph Arthur built a maze of estrangement around his songs on Tuesday night at the Knitting Factory. This singer-songwriter turned his austere verses into wandering mirages, their elements dissected, reassembled and repeated until they could no longer be surely traced. Moving through selections from his second album, ''Come to Where I'm From'' (Real World), Mr. Arthur gave a disturbing shape to introspection, exploring the sound of the soul's inevitable loneliness.
Mr. Arthur's lyrics explore romantic loss and spiritual crisis. Surrounded by crushed flowers, flickering candles and his own Munch-like paintings of skeletal figures, Mr. Arthur, in sunglasses and SoHo black, embraced his arty heritage. The story told in many of his songs, of a damaged woman whose suffering precipitates the singer's, reflects the stale narcissism of a supposedly sensitive male. ''May God's love be with you,'' he intoned to a possibly dead lover during ''In the Sun.'' This could have been totally condescending.
Musical daring let Mr. Arthur glide beyond these cliches. His innovation is the use of tape loops and delays. He plays or sings a line, then layers it into an arrangement orchestrated with the effects pedals. By unsettling his words from their first utterances and letting them float in misty song structures, Mr. Arthur circumvented the obvious.
Occasionally he pulled back to just sing a ballad, benefiting from a casual humor in his pensiveness. Well-traveled ground can yield insight, and Mr. Arthur uncovered enough to attract the like-minded to his shadowy outlands.