Singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur returns with new album and outlook
Some artists follow their muse like a slot car racer; for Joseph Arthur, it's more like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, an endless road picture with numerous twists and turns.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Arthur fell in love with music early, playing piano as a child and later falling under the thrall of classic '70s rock. He headed to Atlanta with his bandmates after he graduated high school, but the move was mostly just an excuse to get away from home. When the band broke up, Arthur continued to pursue music.
"Atlanta was cool. It was a good time to move there, and a good time for me," he says by cell phone while negotiating the streets (and Starbucks) of Manhattan. "It was an interesting city to explore; it was different and I was just kind of finding my voice."
An early demo made its way to Peter Gabriel, who enjoyed it, and asked Arthur for more. Gabriel later caught one of Arthur's performances in New York, which was also attended by Lou Reed.
"I wrote a whole thing for Musician [about it] ... and how terrifying it was," Arthur says. "But it feels like talking about someone else's life at this point. It was so long ago and I've talked about it in maybe 3,000 interviews. It's like it's no longer even a part of me. It might as well be a made-for-TV movie that I'm relating."
As a result of the gig, Arthur landed a record deal with Gabriel's Real World label, which released his electro-folk debut, Big City Secrets. His follow-up for Virgin was produced by T-Bone Burnett (the Wallflowers, Elvis Costello), and found Arthur taking a more intimate, organic approach. The warmer sonics countered Arthur's dark, anxious lyrics.
"Redemption's Son was a little more pop, a bit lighter, but not lightweight," Arthur says. "I don't make music to be marginalized. I don't think my music sounds like that. I feel my music sounds like commercial music. I don't think that's an ugly expression, but it has pretty much been marginalized."
His latest album, Our Shadows Will Remain, displays a rich baroqueness that Arthur melds to his rootsy, folk style. It achieves a balance between Arthur's pop sensibilities, his experimental impulses, and a lyrical fascination with the shadowy underside of human emotions. When he was making the album, Arthur was struggling with demons of his own, including drug and alcohol addiction. Work became therapeutic. "Writing and recording music is a relief for me," he says. "I enjoy it a lot. It's something I do as a way of dealing with life. It's not something I have to deal with; it's something that helps me deal."
Music isn't Arthur's only creative outlet. He also paints when he's not recording. (Those paintings fill the CD's insert booklet.) "I usually work on paintings the same time I'm working on a record," he says. "It's a good release. It kind of captivates you in a different way. And it truly provides an escape from the intensity of the work."
Arthur is content with the way his career has gone, even though he's far from a household name. "It is better to have a smaller cult following because it helps keep you closer to the ground," he says. "I think, then, also there is something to strive for, which I think helps an artist."