Joseph Arthur, who had been a critic's darling since his debut in 1998, scored a kind of sleeper hit on the fringes with 2002's Redemption's Son. His searing poetic lyrics and quirky, left-of-the-dial rock and pop sensibilities shone like a flickering beacon from the underside of human emotion and vulnerability. On Our Shadows Will Remain, he takes a further left turn from the heart of isolation and darkness into the broken heart of humanity, seeking to reveal the commonality of experience on the emotional and societal fringes via a sonically labyrinthine tapestry that is by turns raucous, tender, brash, and beautiful. On "Can't Exist," the glissando pop layers of organ and electric guitars underscore his broken, unapologetically confessional lyrics -- "Well I can't exist when you disappear/Disintegrate and I swallow everything/Sister don't be scared, a thousand times or more, I've walked away alive/On my feet again." As the chorus comes roaring from the center, a wall of squalling guitars ushers in a chorus of voices singing a mutant, netherworld gospel of determination and tears. On "Stumble and Pain," a muddied bass and drum pulse plods from the heart of the mix, as a fuzzed-out electric guitar and a forlorn, wasted bluesy acoustic carry Arthur's sung poetry over a string section played by the Prague Philharmonic -- though they sound like they are a forgotten string quartet playing for its life at the end of time itself.
The spidery rock of "Devil's Broom" is more straight-ahead at the front but somehow more ominous: "In the time when I can't enough to make it/Give me back half the sense that I used to have/Waking up in the sun face down on the pavement/Everything I own in a garbage bag" -- but by the time the refrain slides around everything becomes lush, nightmarishly euphoric, and utterly strange and beautiful. Another standout is "Echo Park." The wonderfully arranged strings provide a patchy cushion that is elegant, graceful, and nearly pastoral, as they hover above and float though Arthur's poignant yet hopeful love song. "Even Tho" is a mutant pop song, with drum loops, wispy, shimmering keyboards, and a killer falsetto soul vocal from Arthur. The muscular drum loop "Wasted" undercuts the vulnerable vocal and dubby organ and electric piano lines. And so it goes on into the nocturnal, narcotic faux R&B groove of "Failed," the fractured overdrive lullaby that is "I Am," and the spindly, skeletal tenderness that is "A Smile That Explodes." The set closes with the spooky, harrowing narrative of "Leave Us Alone," closing the record on a fractured note. But the fragmentation, disintegration, and outsider narratives that are at the heart of the protagonists in Arthur's songs are familiar, too. Though they may live on the stiletto edges, they speak our language in that they bravely and even innocently articulate the most hidden of emotions, the ones we are afraid to admit let alone speak. And in doing so they bring them into the scope of the reachable, the mentionable, and their weight can be shared even among those of us lucky or fearful enough to never experience their consequences. Arthur is in a class of his own andOur Shadows Will Remain is a monstrous, memorable outing, his finest moment in a career that is thus far full of them.
Voir Joseph Arthur évoluer seul sur scène avec sa guitare et son sampler est un bon moyen de mesurer le talent du songwriter le plus impressionnant apparu aux États-Unis depuis dix ans. En concert, il construit ses chansons en procédant par ajouts, par touches successives, une boucle de guitare s’enroulant sur une rythmique bricolée, sa voix multipliée à l’envi. Soit un homme seul accompagné par lui-même, très entouré par ses propres ombres.
Sur disque, cette science de la production basée sur l’accumulation n’a cessé de s’affiner depuis Big City Secret en 1996 tandis que l’écriture de Joseph Arthur atteint régulièrement des sommets inédits. Chaque album s’est révélé sensiblement meilleur que le précédent, jusqu’à Redemption’s Son, disque gargantuesque et bouleversant paru en 2002. On imagine qu’il n’a pas été facile de lui donner une suite.
De fait, Our Shadows Will Remain pousse dans une nouvelle direction ses travaux sur l’architecture sonore de ses chansons. Les rythmiques sont plus simples et l’instrumentation plus ample, souvent portée par une basse grondante. L’orchestre philharmonique de Prague éclaire plusieurs morceaux, dont Even Tho où Arthur, fidèle à la technique du collage, multiplie sa propre voix en choeurs déchirants. Le refrain de Can’t Exist éclate sur un mur du son fantastique.
En constant équilibre entre calme précaire et tempêtes sourdes, Joseph Arthur livre certaines de ses plus belles chansons (Devil’s Broom, Echo Park), hantées par une voix jamais identique à elle-même, tour à tour grave, claire, aiguë, éraillée. L’album s’achève sur la sublime et menaçante Leave Us Alone, dont le titre de travail a longtemps été Ian Curtis. C’est l’une des ombres qui planent sur ce grand et bel enregistrement.
When U.S. atomic bombs exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the blasts were so powerful that they incinerated people immediately and burned their shadows onto floors and walls. There are scientific reasons for this phenomenon, but it carries such a strong metaphorical punch that it carries a depth of meaning even beyond its empirical explanation: Humans-- and humanity-- are easily lost amid the collisions of countries and ideologies.
That Joseph Arthur has titled his fourth album Our Shadows Will Remain reveals his own conflicted emotions about life during wartime. On one hand, his fourth full-length album-- and first after parting ways with longtime label Real World and signing with Vector Recordings-- is informed by terror-era jitteriness, a fear of something worse than death: abject annihilation. Clashing with this paranoia, cynicism, grief, and disbelief, however, is Arthur's wavering optimism. The bright blast that vaporizes him may not be a terrorist's bomb, but the Rapture. A strong believer in God and an afterlife, he nevertheless fears death.
Always more naively sincere boho than detached hipster, Arthur left his apartment studio in his adopted hometown of New York and decamped to the relative safety of New Orleans to record Our Shadows Will Remain. The resulting album is not a drastic departure, but it does sound more expansive-- both geographically and musically. There seems to be a lot of distance in the album, as Arthur evokes both the Midwest (the brief "In Ohio") and Los Angeles ("Echo Park"), not to mention New Orleans and New York.
Arthur fills this space with music that melds the homemade beats of his one-man Come to Where I'm From with the live-band sound of Redemption's Son. The Prague Philharmonic Orchestra injects three songs with swooping strings and nervy anxiety. In contrast, drums detonate throughout "Stumble and Pain", creating an apocalyptic march. Arthur layers his vocals heavily on most tracks, harmonizing with an infinite regression of selves. On his first duet, "A Smile That Explodes"", he sings with New Zealand singer Julia Darling, whose crystalline voice dramatically offsets his grainy tenor and lends the song a somber, defeated tone.
Likewise, Our Shadows Will Remain is similarly moody and conflicted. While not as claustrophobic (or as bold) as Come to Where I'm From, it's much less hopeful and uplifting than Redemption's Son, which is significant: The progression in two years from hard-won optimism to bleak pessimism seems to mirror the national unraveling of post-9/11 solidarity into deep disillusionment and disgust in response to the invasion of Iraq.
But current events only partially inform Our Shadows Will Remain, providing a context for these songs but not necessarily a subject. Despite the plural pronoun in its title, this is a deeply personal record. In fact, as if mirroring his move from New York, the album at times sounds as though Arthur's main subject is retreat-- from society, from home, from friends and especially lovers. "I wanna try," he sings on "Puppets", "to get away from everybody else." The album ends with the blunt command "Leave Us Alone".
Here, as on previous albums, Arthur demonstrates his gift for emotionally direct songwriting, but the specifics often escape his attention. Occasionally, a lyric rings false, relies on cliche, sounds clumsily vague, or simply tries too hard ("like a ghost without an atmosphere his voice sang without a song"). There's a sense of futility and loss to his lyrics, but these slight gaffes are made all the more noticeable by gracefully evocative lines like the one that ends "A Smile That Explodes": "I write one more letter I won't send except for across the floor." Still, the overall meanings of this complicated album are never lost. These songs communicate a gnawing, almost unnamable hurt that drives Arthur not just emotionally but-- more crucially-- artistically. He wants to leave behind more than just a shadow.
Joseph Arthur became somewhat of a critics’ darling following his breakthrough sophomore album Come To Where I’m From, his scratchy voice and painterly arrangements drawing comparisons to folk greats like Leonard Cohen.
No longer under the watchful eye of Peter Gabriel, who signed Arthur to his Real World label (each of Arthur’s subsequent records has been released on a different label), the Akron, Ohio native packed up his Gramercy-area apartment in New York City and headed to New Orleans to record his fourth album Our Shadows Will Remain.
From the explosive chorus, stacked vocals, and ghostly choir of “Can’t Exist” to the buzzing synth sounds, recycled ‘90s drum loop, and impassioned lyrics of the new age-y “I Am,” Arthur’s new songs are nothing short of breathtaking.
But in case the title of the record hasn’t tipped you off, death figures prominently into the album’s 12 tracks. Arthur alternates between dark, penetrating folk-rock and more hopeful pop songs, but no matter how rapt he is in either venue (death or love), his emotional flip-flopping—for lack of a better word—lends songs like “Puppets” a certain lyrical ambiguity (“I cut myself/But no one came/And no one helped”), and that’s actually a good thing, in terms of accessibility. The exception is “Failed,” a depressing electronic dirge that, well, quite simply fails.
If there's too little to hold one's attention on the new Röyksopp album, the opposite is probably true of Joseph Arthur's latest offering, on which his songs come swaddled in such dense, velvet folds of music they run the risk of being fatally smothered.
It's a problem that's bedevilled all four of his albums since Big City Secrets six years ago – as has the interest in alienation and failure which pervades Our Shadows Will Remain, reaching some sort of apogee on the concluding "Leave Us Alone", where the solipsistic aversion is taken to suicidal lengths.
Before that, Arthur does his best to separate from society, straining to "get away from everybody else" in "Puppets", needing to "find a place to cry" in "Wasted", and reflecting how "I used to have a heart, now I guess it's just a stone" in "Even Tho".
He plumbs the depths of failure in "Devil's Broom", finding himself "Waking up in the sun face down on the pavement/ Everything I own in a garbage bag".
But there's little hope of him figuring a musical way out, given the sense of claustrophobia imposed by the thick layers of guitars and keyboards that are draped around the songs' sluggish rhythms.
The brightest shaft of light comes in the acoustic ballad "Echo Park", which also features the album's most agreeable image: "A fire never understands the spark/ The way it is with you and me".
Singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur has signed a new deal with Vector Recordings, which will release his fourth studio album, "Our Shadows Will Remain," this fall. Sessions for the 12-track set began after Arthur gave up his New York apartment and headed for New Orleans with little more than his clothing and guitars.
When he eventually returned to the Big Apple to complete work on the project, Arthur hung his hat at friends' houses and wound up meeting neighbors who proved essential to the finished album.
"One of the places I stayed was [drummer] Greg Whiz's in Brooklyn," he tells Billboard.com. "[Producer] Ken Rich lived above him and that's how I met him. He introduced me to [vocalist] Julia Darling and [pianist] Andrew Sherman. None of this would have happened if I had my own place. It actually became a big, expensive-sounding record in places thanks to my very poor lifestyle, which is pretty ironic!"
Highlights include the strident, layered "Can't Exist" and "A Smile That Explodes," featuring Darling on vocals. The Prague Philharmonic adds string accompaniment to "Stumble and Pain," "Echo Park" and "Even Tho." The sessions were also informed by Arthur's protracted departure from Peter Gabriel's Real World label, which signed the artist in the mid-'90s after receiving one of his demo tapes.
While declining to discuss specifics about the split, Arthur admits, "I've had some difficulties and that's not a lie. This definitely seeped into the material. But I think struggle is good. It makes things feel necessary, you know? Art borne out of necessity has more power to it than if it's just for sh*ts and giggles."
"Our Shadows Will Remain" is the follow-up to 2002's "Redemption's Son," licensed by Real World to Enjoy for North American release. That album's "Honey and the Moon" was featured on the recent soundtrack to the hit Fox series "The O.C." Arthur also contributed a new song, "You're Strange," to the "Shrek 2" soundtrack. As previously reported, his cover of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" will be issued Aug. 24 on Capitol's expanded edition of Faultline's "Your Love Means Everything."
For now, Arthur is gearing up for his first live appearances in several months, beginning tomorrow (July 14) in Brooklyn, N.Y. The solo shows will find him unveiling a host of songs from the new album, only three of which have ever been played live.
"When I first started releasing records, I was always so concerned with playing my newest songs; ones I'd written after the record came out," he says. "Now I'm more interested in seeing how I can interpret the record. I've never really done that specifically. But it's a good test, and I feel confident because while I've been rehearsing, all the songs sound good to me."
He’s been called “one of the last true artists,” and if true art comes from real pain and struggle, Joseph Arthur is justly referenced. He’s one of those people who makes art not for money, fame or even enjoyment, but because his survival demands it. In more ways than one (let’s hope not in every way) he is like Elliott Smith: a passionate singer/songwriter who bled his wounds in song till he had nothing left. These artists offer tortured art as anesthetic for a tortured world, and we thank them for that. We gain much through their pain.
Joseph Arthur has given listeners such catharsis for years through his exquisite brand of experimental folk rock. He’s one of those highly respected musicians (so much so that Peter Gabriel signed him as the first American artist on his Real World label) that never seem to get the audience they deserve (can anyone say Over the Rhine?). Arthur broke on the scene in 2000 with Come to Where I’m From, an albumEntertainment Weekly named the best of the year. With 2002’s Redemption’s Son, Arthur went more mainstream with a straight-up folk album full of hook-laced ballads and metaphorical lyrics. He landed atop several critics’ year-end lists and enjoyed college-radio success, but still didn’t break through to the untapped hordes of Beck-loving hipsters waiting for exactly what he’s got.
After a summer of movie-soundtrack exposure (Shrek 2 and Saved!), Arthur has a new record (released Oct. 12) that could be the one to pave his way to stardom. Our Shadows Will Remain, though much bleaker than Redemption’s Son (a very God-centric flirtation with peace), finds a musical balance and bravado that is exhilarating. There are moments of low-key beauty and raucous exhortation, and sometimes within the same song.
The album opens with the gorgeous, all-too-brief prelude, “In Ohio,” which segues into an uncharacteristically optimistic track, “Can’t Exist.” The song is an aggressive, synth-fueled masterpiece with a killer hook: Oh Sister don’t be scared/ A thousand times or more/ I’ve walked away alive/ On my feet again. Whatever hope there is here dwindles in later songs, such as “Failed” and the trip-hoppy “Wasted” (I need to find a place to cry … ). It all but vanishes in the bittersweet piano melodies of “Puppets,” which alludes to his ongoing struggle with freedom versus fate (“Echo Park” is the freedom song of the record).
Indeed, Shadows seems to find Arthur at some of the lowest points of his life. Suicide is mentioned several times, and the God that seemed so near in Redemption’s Son is much more remote this time around. Thematically the album deals with redemption again, though not from any divine source. Arthur’s only glimmer of hope resides in the idea that the shadows of our lives and loves will survive even though we do not. Songs like the radio-friendly centerpiece “Even Tho” and the haunting after-life confrontation “Leave Us Alone” (the last, possibly bleakest song on the album) form the skeleton of this proposition.
With intense emotional defeat comes humility and naked truth, however, and that is what gives a measure of hope to the album. “I Am” offers a moderately positive message about living in the present rather than the past and future (You are not a person/ Nor are you what you see/ Beyond this world you live in/ Beyond your memory), and “Devil’s Broom” reaches a place where divine plea is the only solution: I just pray that the lord is gonna come down and take me/ Sweep me off this floor with the devil’s broom. But the happiest song on the album is also the most heartbreaking. “A Smile That Explodes” comes near the end of the 45minute purge, at a point where Arthur seems utterly defeated and ready to surrender … to something: My room is too small/ To get by without the help of alcohol/ Pin my arm to the wall/ Now I’m too gone to fight/ Not afraid to fall. The bare-bones piano and vocal track is almost otherworldly in its beauty and transcendent honesty. It is about a man at the end of his rope, ready to be rescued by love or at least memories of it.
After all that baggage the album might seem like it’s not worth it, but I urge you to listen anyway. Joseph Arthur is legit, and with Sufjan Stevens and others—the future of bleeding-heart progressive folk. I saw one of Arthur’s legendary live shows (legendary for his insane onstage sound looping skills) at Hollywood’s Largo bar last month and what I witnessed was something I could only describe as a sublime worship experience. I witnessed a man clearly in turmoil, someone possibly (hopefully not) performing for the last time (as if I were seeing Jeff Buckley or Kurt Cobain in their latter days). It was an experience that left me with the urgency that I now pass on to you: tell all your friends, spread the news, buy the albums; this is an artist to watch.
[Brett McCracken listens to music and watches movies all day. Once in a while he eats pizza to satiate his hunger.]
Joseph Arthur’s fourth full-length studio effort Our Shadows Will Remain begins not with an attention-grabbing bang, but with the ambient whisper of In Ohio — a somber, 45-second snippet of a song that captures the sad sense of desperate isolation that pervades much of the album. Still, it’s the second tune — the explosive Can’t Exist, with its gospel-tinged, U2-meets-David Bowie vibe — that is far more representative of the bulk of the set. By folding together wispy keyboards and heady drum loops with splashes of acoustic and electric guitar, dobro, and dulcimer, Arthur creates a murky, unsettling atmospheric suite of material that is further colored, at times, with the lush orchestrations of the Prague Philharmonic. There are moments — such as on the chilling Leave Us Alone, the ghostly clatter of Stumble and Pain, and the airy Failed — when the ominous tones turn downright claustrophobic — which explains why, despite a plethora of fawning critical praise, Arthur has yet to reach the masses with his music. Even so, there’s a sweetness that clings to the melancholy of Echo Park, and tracks like the deliriously soulful Even Tho and the infectiously melodic Puppets offer a more accessible avenue for sinking into his gloomy world. In essence, although Our Shadows Will Remain isn’t a flawless affair, it is a compelling endeavor that effectively muses about the fragility of life and love with frequently captivating results. ½
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."
Joseph Arthur is a singer-songwriter with an itch for electronics. His music floats beneath waves of sound and echo, dreamy and biting, painfully direct or obscured by clouds. He's just a man with a guitar, but one who has the right gadgets and light touch to twist folk rock toward some compelling postmodern ends.
In the first of two nights at the Troubadour on Monday, Arthur performed his delicate melodies and hypnotic shuffles while dressed in dark shades, his microphone stand tangled up in blue Christmas lights. His vocals could be equally gloomy, as he sang, "The devil is the lord of this confusing world / Where all the wrong dreams come true."
There were endless loops and canned beats to fill out the arrangements, but for most of the 90-minute set, Arthur was ably joined by violinist Joan Wasser, who often played through her own heavy echo effects, as the bedsheet draped on the wall behind them flashed with lights and moving pictures.
The result could be blissed-out or bummed-out amid the layers of psychedelia, not unlike the high-tech, lo-fi work of Jon Brion (who was set to join Arthur for Tuesday's show).
And yet Arthur was just as effective without the effects, relying only on the clarity of his voice and acoustic guitar, expressing strength and longing on "Vacancy." Sometimes a good song is all you need.
"It's a nervous habit," Joseph Arthur says, concentrating intently on his sketchbook as he makes another red eyelid on one of his intricate line drawings. With his head-down doodling, you'd think he wouldn't reveal very much in an interview, but the opposite is true.With his girlfriend at the table, he sketches and enjoys a refill at his favorite bagel shop on New York's Lower East Side. This is what makes the singer/songwriter/artist happy.When he's comfortable, he's honest about his work, even funnier and more self-deprecating than expected.
His previous albums on Peter Gabriel's Real World imprint won him critical acclaim, highlighted by 2002's Redemption's Son (which went to No. 1 on the CMJ charts). The songs on his fourth record, Our Shadows Will Remain, on his new home of Vector Records, paint an even denser emotional and musical portrait.Arthur makes pop and rock songs, but moody and broody, with beats and textures that recall new wave and lyrics that come from a more personal place. Before he headed out to do a few dates with R.E.M. Arthur talked about art, music and Halloween costumes. Name another magazine that gives you that kind of range!
First dumb question. Are you excited about opening for R.E.M.?
I was terrified about it, but I'm really looking forward to it. I've played in rooms that size one time with Ben Harper, but other than that I have no experience. I'm sure a lot of people will be walking in when I'm on. That's cool, that takes the pressure off. It's like, "I'm just here to chill you guys out while you find your seats."
R.E.M. were part of the Rock For Change tour and you played a John Kerry benefit. There's also an unreleased anti-war song and video, "All Of Our Hands," on your website. Have you always been political?
I was never that political, but I just felt that the stakes were different. We're involved in an unnecessary war. Human lives are at stake. You gotta stand up.
Why did you record in New Orleans as opposed to New York?
I left my Real World deal and I had been living here for the last six years and was no closer to buying a place. I didn't know if I'd have any money, so I was ready to split. I packed up my apartment and went down there. I realized it was really easy to live out of a suitcase and wander around. That was a lot of fun because wherever you are, you're home. By the time I got out of my Real World deal, I was fine without having a record deal. New Orleans is a cool town; you can live there for cheap. I just thought I could sell my own records over the Internet, live in a cool town, go tour in a van, head back to France when I can. Just sing for my supper that way. But then Vector got excited about the record, so I said, "OK, let's try this."
Did some of your original sketches of the songs wind up in the final versions?
I start a lot of songs with beats and that's how we picked a lot of the songs to record. If it had a cool groove, we would pick that. It was more of a visceral decision than the one with the best lyric or something. "Wasted" came about because the beat was cool and then we developed it a bit more in New Orleans.
There are a lot of really great choruses in these new songs, but they are very dark at the same time.
I think they're pop songs, but you're right, they don't seem to sell themselves very easily [laughs].
A lot of your fans talk about your work on more of an emotional level than a musical level. What emotion do you feel when you listen to your own music?
I listen to it a lot when I'm making it, but then after that I don't really listen to it. When I'm writing it I really feel it though.
If you don't listen to them, then who do write your songs for?
Hmmm, I don't have pat answers for that [laughs].Maybe I should concentrate and stop drawing for a second. Who do I write these for? I guess, my spirit in a way. God. Love. People I've upset. It's usually a personal expression towards one entity. And sometimes it's me, yeah. Oftentimes I think it's the higher part of my consciousness trying to give the lower part of my consciousness a message, because they come out pretty easily. It's hard to talk about it without sounding like a total egomaniac [laughs]. I hate it when people say the songs come from somewhere else, but they really do.
Well, it's just like you can't say that what you're drawing now is coming from something specific.
To me it's just doodling, but there's all sorts of crazy stuff going on. Symbolism. But I don't really understand consciously what the symbolism is, I'm just doodling. I'm doing exactly what I was doing as a kid. It's just that now it's freakier.
The majority of your drawings are just of heads. A psychiatrist would say that symbolizes that you value the cerebral over the physical.
Yeah, I'm trying to get into hands [laughs, pointing at the page]. See, I'm trying to expand my horizons… What did you do for Halloween?
We were supposed to be Sonny And Cher, but it didn't work out.
Maybe you should have swapped costumes.
Yeah, of course! That's what everyone said after. Because I'm taller.
all of our hands
leave us alone
i donated myself to the mexican army
there is a light that never goes out (the smiths cover)
in the sun
after the gold rush (neil young cover)
speed of light
Solo concert, with Joan Wasser on violin and vocals.
moon in the skull favorite girl september baby mercedes echo park shock me (kiss cover) can't exist she paints me gold there is a light that never goes out (smiths cover) a smile that explodes good about me speed of light shock me (kiss cover) (2nd time) history blue lips you've been loved honey and the moon daddy's on prozac killers' knife don't give up on people
This concert was officially recorded, and sold on CDr after the show.
Solo concert, with Joan Wasser on violin and vocals.
she paints me gold can't exist blue lips prison echo park leave us alone all of our hands in the sun killers' knife speed of light birthday card favorite girl a smile that explodes toxic angel there is a light that never goes out (the smiths cover)
This concert was officially recorded (with sound issues), and sold on CDr after the show.
Joseph Arthur advocates instability. He doesn’t believe in comfort zones. If his seat in life gets too cushy, he’ll pull the chair out from under himself just to remember how hard the ground feels after a fall.
Most recently, this mindset landed Arthur facedown somewhere on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, armed with not much more than a guitar, some clothes and a few rough demos.
It’s not that he wasn’t enjoying a successful music career out of his home base in New York City. After Peter Gabriel took the young singer-songwriter under his wing in the mid-’90s, Arthur turned out three albums to critical applause (1997’s Big City Secrets, 2002’s Come to Where I’m From and 2002’s Redemption’s Son) and toured with the likes of David Gray and Ben Harper. It was just that the booming metropolis had begun to feel too much like a recliner.
“It’s good for an artist to be off balance a little bit,” Arthur says. “I write best when I’m traveling because traveling detaches you in a way.”
“At first there was a lot of disillusionment from being detached, which turned out to be a great gift. But at the time it doesn’t feel great at all. It feels like your life is falling apart.”
New Orleans turned out to be an ideal venue for Arthur to reassemble the splinters of his shattered-by-design existence. The result was a lo-fi blueprint of what would evolve into latest moody pop masterpiece, Our Shadows Will Remain.
The album is a buoyantly ponderous affair, like a 12-track poem written by a motivational speaker on the worst day of his life. The songs bear dim titles like “Wasted” and “Failed,” but inclinations toward withdrawal are held upright by a sturdy spine of optimism and bright pop melodies.
Arthur views his music as a study in emotional symbiosis, a manifestation of creativity’s codependence with pain. In the song “Can’t Exist,” for example, he threatens to disintegrate altogether just before reassuring listeners that no, really, he’ll be fine: “Sister, don’t be scared/ A thousand times or more/ I’ve walked away alive/ on my feet again.”
“It’s a mystery where inspiration comes from, but I think it has something to do with a spiritual source and also a place of suffering. There’s some kind of relationship there between a state of crisis and state of grace. It’s a graceful crisis, I guess,” he says.
The album takes its bittersweet title from a nuclear phenomenon: When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the impact of the blasts was so intense that people were immediately incinerated and their shadows were burned onto floors and walls. Arthur perceives this as metaphor for humanity’s ability to surmount tragedy, a poignant reminder that life goes on in spite of ideological rifts.
“I don’t think this is an overtly political record, but I think its disillusionment reflects the times to a degree. I think there’s some hope in my work, too,” he says.
Musically, the album is a Picadilly Circus of genres, from subway-style acoustic guitar to brooding synthesizers to guest appearances by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. For shows, Arthur records himself playing live, then loops the recordings and harmonizes along with them to better reproduce the texture of his diversely sprawling style.
Creative consistency is one hobgoblin that Arthur couldn’t care less about.
“People want to protect themselves by saying that they’re this or that. But I see identity as something to transcend, not protect,” Arthur says. “Why not explore a bunch of different things? When you pull from a variety, you make something more original.”
Case in point, Arthur identifies with the label “artist” on several different levels outside of the strictly musical realm. He paints, writes poetry and began dabbling in documentary filmmaking during a recent tour with REM. In 1999, the self-designed art of his Vacancy EP earned a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package.
“The same principles you apply to visual work you can apply to music,” Arthur explains.
However, he hesitates when asked to describe what his music would look like if it were translated into a visual medium.
It’s a tough question. Arthur’s compositions possess the visceral substance of sculpture, the sensitivity of blown glass, the impulsive brushstrokes of paint on canvas and the choreographed abstraction of a slightly out-of-focus photograph.
“I think it’d be film,” he finally responds, “because it’s moving.”
I was able to catch up with Joseph Arthur before his show at the 20th Century Theatre in Cincinnati on the 23rd of November.
Musicleak: So it must be nice being back in Ohio, do you get to go home for the holiday?
Joseph Arthur: Yeah, I’ve been home for the last couple of nights, and I get to sleep in my old bed so that’s nice.
ML: How’s the tour been?
JA: It’s been great, but it’s been really busy. I was just trying to think if I’ve ever been this busy on a tour, as far as promoting a record goes. It reminds me of my tour for “Come to Where I’m From” which was extremely busy. But I guess it’s good.
ML: Is this more of a promotional tour for “Our Shadows will Remain” or are you still doing work with “Honey and Moon”?
JA: Mainly this is for “Our Shadow’s will Remain.” (Honey and Moon) has gotten some acclaim from the OC which I think is a good thing. Anything that gets my music out there is good from where it’s at at this point. Once the music gets the attention you can get picky and choose the avenues it gets for attention, but until that happens you have to take those opportunities as they come.
ML: Are you doing this Album Independently?
JA: No, this is with Vector Records, but I have always had total creative control, even through the span of my career.
ML: So there wasn’t total fallout with Real World Records?
JA: No, not based on anything creative.
ML: Do you regret that period of time at all?
JA: No, absolutely not. I learned a lot and I think that was really fortunate. Creatively I think completely fortunate for that situation, and I think it toughened me up in a lot of ways too. But no I don’t have any regrets at all.
ML: Do you still hear all the comments about Peter Gabriel?
JA: People still bring it up once in a while, and I don’t really care. To me it’s not a negative, it’s a part of my life and an interesting story. By now it’s about ten years old, so I guess it’s old, but it doesn’t really come up that often.
ML: Do you still read your own critiques?
JA: Only when people hand them to me and that usually means there good. I don’t seek them out in magazines or anything.
ML: What were your Musical Influences in your life?
JA: Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, and I guess earlier than that was KISS, and Ozzy Osbourne.
ML: So how did you get to where you are now?
JA: Well, I’ve always been open to different kinds of music; I got into Bob Dylan and I absorbed a lot of that. Nirvana, Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen. I think my music has a wide range of influences.
ML: I noticed that “Our Shadows…” is a little darker, a little less folk. How would you describe the evolution in your albums?
JA: I think each one is different from the other one which is a good thing. I think I have always reacted against the last one (album) to some degree. It hasn’t been to consciously, I like to stay unconscious as possible, but if I an unconscious about what I am doing or self-conscious it is an attempt to react against the last one to make sure I don’t repeat myself.
ML: So do you enjoy being in the studio or being on the road?
JA: it’s a balance because I love being on the road. When you’re in the studio you’re like wow I should just be making records all the time. I love it. When you’re on the road playing night after night you’re like wow I love doing this too. I like both. I don’t know which one I like more their just different types.
ML: So what are the differences between the US and Europe crowds?
JA: I don’t think there’s a difference. People are people really. And it varies from state to state in America. I mean in the US you have those really vibe places and then you have places that aren’t, and you have those places in Europe too. Its exactly the same for me.
ML: When was the first time you heard your music on an outside source?
JA: I would imagine college radio or something, but it hasn’t really been that many times. It’s not like when I know a song is going to be on a TV show I tune into the show. And I don’t go to see movies generally. I like to be as un self conscious as possible about it. So I don’t go see them on purpose.
ML: So going against your other albums is just artistic for you?
JA: You know if I do read some press, it just messes with me a little. I like to pretend I’m in a vacuum in a way. I feel freer that way. Once I produce a record I don’t go play it like crazy to analyze it. I analyze it like crazy when I make it.
ML: Is that why you do the one man show?
JA: I don’t know, it just kind of worked out that way. A lot of it is that its really expensive to tour. Even as I’m touring now maybe it’ll cost a little maybe, well break even or maybe well make a little. It’s really right on the line. It’s also something that has just evolved, and I like it.
ML: How intricate is looping to your show?
JA: It’s pretty intricate but I can go out and perform without using it sometimes. It is a great dynamic to have. I can improvise in a different way. It’s just great to have.
ML: With touring and all do you still have time to do your artwork on the side?
JA: Well, artwork can be either really big or really small; on the road I bring a little watercolor set, and just do little paintings in the notebooks.
ML: Is there a separation between your music and artwork?
JA: I think artwork requires more of a dark energy and music requires more of a light energy.
ML: Did you do all the artwork in your book?
JA: Uh huh.
ML: Was it all in your free time?
JA: Yea I draw and Paint all the time.
ML: When you first got signed to Real World Records what did you do?
JA: I was actually at recording week, when I signed my deal with them. They had a bunch of people from around the world come and improv in their studios.
ML: What is the Biggest Band you toured with?
ML: Do you think this is your passion, and is this what you want to do with the rest of your life?
JA: Well, so far, yea it’s been my passion. I love it. In twenty years I have no idea. I would love to be
ML: How do you go about writing your songs?
JA: I usually start with the music then sing a song. Usually I write the music then fit the words in.
ML: Do you have a favorite Venue that you normally play?
JA: No, I don’t have a favorite Venue but I have towns that I like a lot like Chicago and San Francisco.
ML: Would you credit your fan base to word of mouth or the internet?
JA: Yea, The internet for me has been really helpful.
ML: So do you have an issue with people downloading music?
JA: Not really, I mean as long as they pay for it at some point.
ML: Are you thinking about doing a live album?
JA: Every night I do it, we sell the concert after the show.
ML: How long are your sets normally?
JA: Their about an hour and twenty to thirty minutes. But my set for the CD is cut off at 72 minutes then by the end of the show I have about 45 to sell.
ML: So how did you get to Atlanta?
JA: Well I graduated High school 4 days before they moved down there and then I just went down with them and lived with them for 4 years, and worked in a guitar store.
ML: Do you have any future plans?
JA: I have an EP coming out in December it’s called “The Thieves are Gone” its six songs for six bucks and its all new.