Joseph Arthur is a one-man-band, a live painter, an under-the-radar rock star (despite being discovered by Peter Gabriel in '96 and the first American signed to Gabriel’s Real World label; despite a Grammy nod in 2000 and a top "year-end critics' pick" in Rolling Stone in 2004). He’s also a social-media sage. Not only does he promote his records and performances largely through Facebook and Twitter, he tweets poetry and insights like, "I've had a revelation, I see it, I'm free as hell, lucky like a punk at a Ramones concert or a priest at the feet of Jesus, or any of us in love."
Arthur might be rock's answer to the Jamaican tourism board's adage, "Once you go, you know." Once you've heard Arthur, you'll get it. And, eight studio albums into a 14-year career, you'll wonder why you didn't know sooner. But Arthur's latest album, The Graduation Ceremony (released in May on his own Lonely Astronaut label) is a good place to start.
Arthur describes the album — a bit softer, more nuanced and more consistent in its bittersweet allure than previous recordings — as "kind of a break-up thing." He had written a number of songs reflecting that painful process, and then brought in some older songs "that fit in with that narrative." Which is not to say that Graduation sounds particularly heartbroken. The track "Horses" calls to mind the disquiet of new love's uncertainty; "This Is Still My World" waltzes around a confessions that "I could cry for you forever, but I'm too young;" "Gypsy Faded," almost spoken-word at points, is all tough-love closure.
Perhaps it’s Arthur's close-to-the-mic vocal; certainly it's his songwriting: It's hard to imagine that Graduation is anything but culled from personal experience. As a writer, he wears his heart on his sleeve, and yet there's a Zen-like disconnect at work, too. "When you're in the studio there's an absence of thought. That's when magical stuff is happening," says Arthur. "You're just playing and you're lost in the dream of it. You're completely swept up in the process." He says that ability to be absorbed in the creative process is a holdover from "when I was a kid and I was four-tracking."
"I still have that, and I'm still aware that it's something to be grateful for," says Arthur. "It's something I consider to be pretty much lifesaving."
As for music's lifesaving properties, Arthur is painfully aware of the pitfalls of the creative life. When singer Amy Winehouse passed away in July, Arthur tweeted, "Addiction is a disease and people should have as much empathy for those destroyed by it as they do for casualties of cancer." He says that reaction came about because someone was singing a joke-version of Winehouse's prophetic "Rehab" and it got to him. "It's something I've grappled with," he says. Though now sober himself, "alcoholism and addiction are misunderstood," he says.
Arthur does say that there are times when tough love is the only way to deal with an addict; it’s an approach he seems to advocate in relationships, as well. "You said that I have to become a dancer and started shooting at my feet," he sings on "Someone to Love." And — more bitterly — on "Over the Sun" he snarls, "When I cheat on you, you're still all I see."
But there's a gentle side to Arthur. He recently directed a tender video for his song "Love Never Asks You to Lie" in which the romantic pair (in prince and princess attire) are played by Arthur's young nephew, Cyrus, and Cyrus' real-life girlfriend, Hayden. The video for "Face In The Crowd" shows yet another aspect of the musician: During the four-plus minutes of the songs he (in time lapse) paints a series of 20 abstract faces that, when displayed together, seem to make a statement about the different-but-same state of begin human. He says the face motif, to which he often returns, "is interesting in the way it’s evolving."
Arthur says there was never really a time when he stopped painting. He remembers a moment in his late teens when he made a conscious decision to buy art supplies, identifying as a painter for the first time. "And suddenly you have canvases around your place," he says. Arthur's artwork can be seen on his album covers; he's published a book of his work, We Almost Made It, with an accompanying CD; and he's held exhibitions. In 2007 he set up The Museum of Modern Arthur in Brooklyn — but he doesn't keep many paintings these days. "I'm good at letting them go," he says. "That was hard to learn to do, but now it's pretty effortless."
Live painting came later, and as a fluke. He had painted just prior to a show in L.A., but a journalist claimed to have seen Arthur paint and sing simultaneously. A light bulb went on for the artist. "I realized I had songs I could loop that didn't have any chord changes, so I could do entire songs and paint,” says Arthur. “That night I did it and it was a totally interesting experience."
Ask nicely and he'll probably do exactly that during his Asheville show.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Joseph Arthur; Ian Kelly opens
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Wednesday, Sept. 14 (8:30 p.m., $12 advance/$15 day of show. thegreyeagle.com)