Folk-rocker coming to Birdy’s
The career of Akron, Ohio, native Joseph Arthur has been all about movement. Last month, Arthur released his fifth full-length album, Nuclear Daydream, one of the best of his decade-long career. The record represents a dramatic shift: Not only was it the first record released on his own Lonely Astronaut record label, the supporting tour he’s on now is his first with a full band.
Arthur first came to attention in 1997 when a demo caught the attention of Peter Gabriel. Big City Secrets was put out by Gabriel’s Real World Records and exposed the world to Arthur’s unique blend of folk-rock, which is somewhere between Jeff Buckley and the Smashing Pumpkins. In the tumultuous and somewhat frustrating career that followed, Arthur has been a victim of major label mismanagement and commercial disappointment. His five albums have been released by five different record labels. But whatever shortcomings he has as a cash cow, Arthur continues to be a well-respected artist and critical darling.
In reaction to the record label merry-go-round, Arthur chose to start his own record label, Lonely Astronaut. “Every time I would put out a record, the company that put it out doesn’t want to put out another record, the last one didn’t make enough money, that kind of thing,” Arthur told NUVO. “Dealing with someone else’s money, I don’t know — I figure it’s nice to do it myself, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.”
The album, Nuclear Daydream, is a synthesis of Arthur’s strengths as a composer and lyricist. In an ironic twist, his first independent album may also be his most commercial. “I wanted it to be accessible but not in any way that made it lame,” Arthur admitted of the new record. “It kind of put itself together when it came time to make it. Listening to the masters, it seemed like those songs went together real naturally.”
Arthur retains his eye for extremely catchy melodies and powerful hooks, but the album has some dark moments. The first song, “Too Much To Hide,” begins with the lyric, “The needle says she’ll tell you when she’s through / no sense now in trying to believe in you.”
“It just depends on what thing you like,” the songwriter said about his penchant for bleakness. “For some people it wouldn’t be accessible, but I guess I’m being accessible to the way I think.”
A validated career
Nuclear Daydream comes on the heels of an album many deem Arthur’s best, 2004’s Our Shadows Will Remain. His career was also validated when Michael Stipe of R.E.M. named his Hurricane Katrina relief organization (inthesun.org) after one of Arthur’s songs, “In the Sun.” As a fund-raiser, Stipe made a CD featuring six different cover versions of the song with the help of Chris Martin of Coldplay and Arthur himself. It’s a testament to the respect others have for an artist who is making his best work now while many of his late ’90s alternative contemporaries are producing flops or rarely heard from at all.
“I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been underground,” Arthur said. “Not totally unrecognized, but low visibility, it makes you evolve. It’s good to be not rich, so I’ve had an unusual situation where I’ve been able to keep making records and growing. I still feel real inspired, as inspired if not more inspired than ever.”
In February of 2006, Arthur also staged his first art exhibition at London’s Vertigo Gallery. He also published a collection of his artwork in a book complete with musical accompaniment called The Invisible Parade in April. Fine art has been an alternate passion of his from the beginning.
“It’s kind of a similar experience just different mediums. If I get burned out making music, then I can put my energy into art, and vice versa. It helps with the music, it gives me a fresh perspective.”
Playing in the band
Arthur has a touring history supporting the likes of R.E.M., Tracy Chapman, Gomez and Ben Harper, but he has always performed live solo. His current tour is the first time he has employed a full band: Kraig Jarret Jonson on keyboard and guitars (Golden Smog, The Jayhawks), Jennifer Turner on guitar (Fur Slide, Natalie Merchant), Greg Wieczorek on drums (Twilight Singers, The Honorary Title) and Sibyl Buck on bass (Champion Of Sound, Milk 4 Cats).It’s also Arthur’s first tour as his own boss. “It’s scary, there’s more at stake with the turnouts, it’s a little heavy.”
If his career has been any indication, Arthur will role with these new punches. “The main change has been the Internet,” he says of 2006’s environment. “It’s an all right thing, I think there’s more independence in that. People take music for nothing now, and that doesn’t really bother me, but now that I have my own record label and a band, I want people to buy the record so I can keep doing it this way.”