Joseph Arthur, thanks to four critically well-received albums, qualifies as one of the post-millennium's most thoughtful singer-songwriters. At the same time Arthur has also worked extensively as a painter, building abstract, "Earth-inspired" works. His dual pastimes, in fact, have led to a fusion between his music and his painting. Arthur creates his own album covers, and has even used his paintings as backdrops for live performances. Even though he is critically acclaimed, however, Arthur has struggled to find a larger audience for his music. "Arthur's fans include Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, David Bowie and Michael Stipe," wrote Mark Edwards in the London Sunday Times. "Despite this, Arthur remains underbought." But Arthur has remained undeterred. He told Rob Thomas in the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times, "That's not my goal when I'm making a record, to have a song go huge on the radio…. I enjoy making records and singing for my supper, and I'll probably be able to do that for as long as I want."
Arthur was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. His love of music began at a young age, when his aunt bought him a synthesizer. Arthur forced himself to finish high school, and at 18 he moved to Atlanta, where he worked a number of small-time jobs—salesman, music shop gofer, and pizza chef—to support himself. "I spent a good four years there," Arthur told Larry Katz in the Boston Herald. "It was happening compared to Akron. There was a really thriving music scene and I got way involved in that."
Soon Arthur was using his guitar to write songs, and when he was 21 he started singing. In 1996 he sent a demo recording to pop-singer Peter Gabriel, a recording that led to an audition with Gabriel and Lou Reed. This led to Arthur's real break in 1997 when Gabriel signed him to his record label, Real World. "The first tape I made wound up with Peter Gabriel," he told Katz. "I got really lucky."
Arthur proceeded to record his debut, Big City Secrets, during the same year, introducing listeners to his self-reflective songs and eclectic musicianship. "Arthur's music," noted Evan Cater in All Music Guide, "employs a wide range of musical influences, adorning his songs with instruments as diverse as hurdy gurdy … and harmonic missiles." The album was embraced by the music press, and his brooding songs were compared to those of writers like Leonard Cohen and the late Jeff Buckley, but Big City Secrets sold few copies. Arthur, unconcerned with his lack of immediate success, returned to Akron, where he delved deeply into creating abstract art. He also continued to perform sporadically, making appearances at Gabriel's annual World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) shows during the 1990s.
Arthur returned in 1999 with Vacancy, a seven song EP. The EP's packaging design by Arthur and Zachary Larner received a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package. In 2000 Arthur followed with the full-length Come to Where I'm From, distributed on Virgin Records. The album "exhibits a more polished and accessible sound," wrote Cater, "without sacrificing the adventurous spirit that has been Arthur's greatest asset." Arthur also benefited from the presence of producer T-Bone Burnett, known for his work with Elvis Costello, Sam Phillips, and the Counting Crows.
In 2002 Arthur released his third album, Redemption's Son, on Enjoy/Real World. "Redemption's Son achieves a sophisticated marriage of traditional songwriting craft and avant-garde production," noted Robert L. Doeschuk in All Music Guide. Despite the positive response, Arthur expressed dissatisfaction with his record label's handling of the release. Real World's parent company, Universal, postponed the release of Redemption's Song, and Arthur eventually decided to leave for another—and possibly smaller—label. "I think people who remain slightly under the radar are sort of the luckiest," Arthur told Lucas Hanfit in the New York Observer. "Artists who have a good-enough fan base to make a living, but never getting too huge, because ultimately that messes you up."
In 2005 Arthur's profile received a temporary boost when he signed to 14th Floor in the United Kingdom, a label that had worked with a number of singer-songwriters. He also aligned himself with the small Vector Records in the United States. In September Arthur released Our Shadows Will Remain, an album that once again showed the artist's willingness to push the boundaries of his music.
In 2005 Arthur's dual talents as a musician and a painter came together. It was time to tour again, but he was clearly enjoying his work as a painter. He had used his paintings as backdrops for his concerts in the past, but this time he imagined taking it to the next level: he would paint during concerts. "The first time I tried it was at the Troubadour in LA," he told Edwards. "The first thing I did when I got on stage was make a charcoal drawing on the canvas. Then I grabbed a guitar and started playing. I set up some loops on the guitar, left them playing and went and added more to the canvas." When one concert audience failed to respond to Arthur's method, he won them over by juggling fruit that he then tossed at the painting.
While Arthur's audience continues to grow, thanks to a steady stream of releases and a busy concert schedule, he remains more committed to making good music than to success. "I'm always trying to do different things, and experimentation is a big part of what motivates me," Arthur told Brian Baker of Cincinnati's City Beat. "I like to challenge myself." Like his expressionistic paintings, his struggle has been to follow his inner vision, no matter how dark that vision may be. "For me, I feel like I'm just developing," he told Katz. "In music there's the whole myth of being really young and doing a bunch of things and then burning out quick. But I'm trying to develop as an artist."
Big City Secrets, Real World, 1997.
Come to Where I'm From, Virgin, 2000.
Redemption's Son, Enjoy/Universal, 2002.
Our Shadows Will Remain, Vector, 2004.
For the Record …
Born in Akron, OH.
Signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World label, mid-1990s; released Big City Secrets, 1997, and Come to Where I'm From, 2000; released Redemption's Son, 2002, and Our Shadows Will Remain, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Real World, 114th West 26th St., New York, NY 10001, website: http://www.realworldrecords.com. Website—Joseph Arthur Official Website: http://www.josepharthur.com.
Boston Herald, February 5, 2003, p. 47.
Capital Times (Madison, WI), November 10, 2004.
New York Observer, January 20, 2003, p. 22.
Paste, October/November 2004.
Sunday Times (London, England), June 26, 2005, p. 10.
"Joseph Arthur," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (September 10, 2005).
"The Legend of Arthur," City Beat, http://www.citybeat.com (September 10, 2005).
"Arthur, Joseph." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/arthur-joseph
"Arthur, Joseph." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/arthur-joseph
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