Come Undone: An Interview With Singer/Songwriter
As musical genres mutate to serve the demand for creative innovation, singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur takes the one-man-band concept to a level that renders an accompanying band obsolete. Armed with his acoustic guitar, a dozen effects boxes, and the endless adaptability of two Jam Man’s, Arthur accompanies himself with beats (drummed out on the body of his guitar, which is elaborately decorated with his own abstract drawings), loops, and his own free-form backing vocals. Delay pedals and volume controls create dynamics and layers of sound. What begins as fairly sparse fills out quickly, becoming a gorgeous, circular buildup of interlocking samples, vocals and guitar patterns that’s truly hypnotizing.
“It’s not just a loop playing and then another loop of the same thing,” Arthur explains, seated in the conference room of Virgin Records’ Park Avenue office. “You can bring things in and out and create some life in there. I have established beats, but I try to keep [the show] as improvisational as possible. That’s just more fun for me, and I think people sense that.” The experience is all the sweeter when squeezed into the small venues Arthur’s been touring in support of his sophomore release, Come to Where I’m From.
Standing over six feet, with dark, tousled hair and wire framed glasses, the 28 year-old Akron, Ohio native bears a strong resemblance to either John Lennon or the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft, depending on the day. Arthur has an easy-going charm and endearing, quick wit and can be somewhat self-deprecating. He remains somewhat incredulous when recalling the fairytale-like career break that dropped into his lap when Peter Gabriel mysteriously got a copy of his demo tape. Impressed with Arthur’s songs, Gabriel phoned Arthur and invited him to record for his Real World label. “I was just straight-up out of the music store, working [for] minimum wage. All of a sudden, I’m at Real World (Gabriel’s studio in England) making a record. I was really freaked out,” he laughs. That album, 1997’s, Big City Secrets, turned critics’ heads but did little commercially. Arthur says Come to Where I’m From is “closer to what my sound is.”
You seem kind of shy on stage. How does it feel right now to be in the middle of a critical buzz?
Last night (at NYC’s Mercury Lounge) people told me it was a good show, but I felt like it could have been better. Maybe I only feel that way because it’s New York. [But] I feel good. I was feeling more of that insecure, shy-guy thing last night. Sometimes I’m much more self-assured than that but I’ve been going through this kind of weird insecurity crisis in the last week, on stage. I think it has something to do with being tired but you do sometimes get into that head space [of thinking] ‘How is this entertaining for anybody?’ I start philosophizing while I’m performing and it drives me crazy. I start going down to the nuts and bolts of what performance is, like ‘This is a strange ritual that people come into a room and you’re before them.’ I think, because I’m alone, it’s sort of raw and a naked sort of experience in a way, so it even accentuates the absurdity of performance. Plus a New York audience is a little bit cool, even though I think they are appreciative. It makes me go more inside myself.
It’s obvious that you were making a major connection with your audience. I actually heard people talking about you before the show like you were some kind of sacred teen idol. It was wild.
That’s pretty insane, isn’t it? What does that mean?
I think it’s exciting.
It is exciting. I don’t know how I take it. To be honest with you, I don’t mean this to be bad or harsh, I just don’t take it that seriously. I love it, it’s fun. I’m really happy that people are receiving the music and it’s fun to travel around and have people be into it, but I think in retrospect it’ll trip me out more. When I’m in the moment of it, it’s so surreal that I just go with it.
I’ve been going back and revisiting Big City Secrets over the past few days, which is a great record…
Thank you, yeah. I always thought that record was better than the attention given it. Not to say that people didn’t appreciate it, but nobody seemed to hear it. But I don’t want to go into that.
Before I started listening to it again, after maybe a year of not hearing those songs, I didn’t expect to hear much of a difference. But when I put it up against the new record, there seems to be a huge leap in your creative style. It sounded like on Big City Secrets there was a very apparent Peter Gabriel-esque overtone. Come to Where I’m From is so much more raw, so much more like you. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I made the first one at Real World. I gave a lot of the control to the producer, Marcus Strauss, who is a very strong producer-type, in that he had his own vision as well, and he brought it to that record. I look at that record as somewhat more of a collaboration between me, him and the other [musicians involved]. Then, with T-Bone [Burnett, producer of Come to Where I’m From], he was more of a support-of-my-vision kind of producer. I’m not saying one’s better than the other, I’m just saying they’re different styles. [This record] was made in America and I was more sure of what I wanted to do and that the fact that what I wanted to do was OK.
A lot of the press that you’re getting, the critics, I know what they’re trying to say, but I don’t necessarily agree with that point of view…
Yeah, me too…
Everyone belabors the point of saying you evoke influences of Leonard Cohen and Kurt Cobain and all of this horrible sad death…
Yeah, the ‘horrible sad death’ thing, I don’t get that either, I don’t see it. When people say [the record is] ‘seriously dark’ I’m like ‘Really?’ I mean, I know that it goes there but that’s not the overwhelming tone. And the comparison thing, it’s usually very flattering people that they’re comparing me to. So, on that level, I like it. But on another level I’ve been compared to so many different people that it starts to be like ‘Well can’t you just say that maybe I have an original sound?’ Because really, I’ve been compared to, it’s like 20 different people.
One review said “Come to Where I’m From is the diary of a ravaged man.” I had to ask myself “Am I not getting this?”
I would just say that it goes to that, because that’s part of being a human, but it certainly doesn’t remain [there]. It’s more rounded than that. It’s a documentation of a time. It’s hard to explain but I’m glad that you say that because I agree. I don’t think it’s super dark.
Do you get inspired by anything in particular? Do you have any method for how your songs get written?
I think there’s that element that you can’t control, definitely. But a lot of it to me is just about hard work. Maybe there is something real brass tacks about it as well. If you write a lot of songs, you’re going to write a lot of bad songs and then you’re also going to get lucky and write some good ones (laughs). I think it’s that simple, and it is mysterious, but then you could say that about everything in life. We’re mysterious, so of course creativity is mysterious and spiritual because everything is mysterious and spiritual. But it’s also a lot about needing it. If somebody needs [creative expression] to be redeemed or just to live happily, then they’re going to excel at it. I like to just do a lot of things and then when something happens [that’s] good, for me, it does come easily after struggling a lot on things that didn’t work out.
Speaking about hindsight being 20/20, did you feel like the title the album maybe means more to you now that you look at the songs all together in this package?
The title has grown on me so… (long pause) of course people ask, but I just say I don’t know what it means. And I really don’t know what it means, the title, but it has grown on me. Each time I’m finished with something I just think about going on to the next thing. It’s hard to let go, but once I’ve let go then I’m just detached from it, in a way. I mean, I hope it does really well and I’m thrilled that people like it and are giving it good reviews. Beyond that, just [having] people coming up to me and say “I love your record,” that’s really great to hear. But I’m already thinking about what I’m going to do next.
With “Chemical,” some reviewers have tagged you as sounding like Beck…
Right, OK, If you’re going to go there, let’s go there.
I could see a comparison to something off Mutations, maybe. But I’m sure you weren’t even thinking of Beck…
Verse one and verse two [of “Chemical”] slightly sound like Beck. Let me say I like Beck, but my music has so nothing to do with Beck’s music – and that’s not putting down Beck at all. Whenever I read somebody saying “It’s like Beck!,” I just go, “OK, this person has not heard my music at all. Out of all that I’ve written, one thing comes up sounding a little Beckish, it’s gonna happen, isn’t it? I don’t go home and have Beck posters on my bedroom wall and go “If only I could be the next Beck!” There was something in The Village Voice about that, and I was just like “Is this guy kidding me? Has this guy heard my music at all?”
There’s a lot of humor in your music, also.
Right, I like to be funny without being ironic. I think it’s cool to mix seriousness with humor within the same song rather than just going fully joke rock.
What’s the difference between, say, playing for a few hundred people last night and being in front of 17,000 when you played with Ben Harper in France?
In some ways, it’s easier to play in front of huge audiences, because you’re sort of detached, in a way. I think the absurdity of performance is more obvious in a smaller setting than in a huge setting. Maybe you wouldn’t expect [that], but if it’s you and five people in a room, it seems more embarrassing for everybody. Whereas if it’s you and 17,000 people in a room it’s like “OK, this is a huge event we’re all condoning it, so it’s OK.”
Also, if you’re in front of that size crowd, don’t you have lights in your face and you can’t see anyone anyway?
Yeah, you just close your eyes and go out and do it. I’m pretty good [at not being nervous]. It was the Paris show where it was 17,500 people and I was pretty nervous. I start getting edgy, like “OK, should I wear this jacket or should I just go in a T-shirt?” And then I obsess about it and it becomes a huge thing, know what I mean? I’ll just find one thing to obsess about and do that until someone says “OK, now you gotta go on stage.” And then I’m, “OK, I’m fine.”
Tell me the Lou Reed story.
It was the first time I was going to play, in front of Peter (Gabriel), in New York because he had gotten my demo tape through a freak accident. I had met his daughter like a week before and she was at the Fez, which is where the show was, and she said ‘Oh, my Dad’s running late because he’s picking up Lou Reed. They’re going to be bringing Lou Reed’s DAT player to record the show.’ And I was like “What?’ (laughs) Because I was deep into Lou Reed for awhile so that was too much to fathom. I was already at my brink playing for Peter but I knew that Peter liked my songs so it was just a matter of playing them and trying to do a good job. Then, with Lou, it added this whole other weight as well, so it was overwhelming. I wrote about it in Musician magazine actually.
How did you write the song “Exhausted”?
I was at Real World when I wrote that, and Real World is a very closed environment, in a way. It’s out in the country and I don’t do well out in nature. I like all of this animosity around me ’cause it makes me feel calm, for some reason. When I was out in nature I just needed to get out of there, so I think that’s what inspired [the chorus] “I’ve got to get away from here,” just being surrounded by myself the whole time.
I agree. I’d much rather be in NYC than stranded out in the suburbs.
I like distractions.
Manhattan affords someone like you a great place to be anonymous and just blend in. Do you think that’s going to change if people start recognizing you?
I don’t know. It’s funny because it goes back to what you said at first. ‘Cause I start to think “Am I famous now?” and when I walk down the street I wonder “Do people recognize me?” because I don’t feel famous, so it’s strange. But I don’t think anybody knows who I am when I walk down the street.
It’s nice to be lost in New York.
Yeah, ’cause when I say “anonymous,” I’m just talking in the general sense of how nobody cares what you look like or what you’re doing. Even if you are famous, I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Most people here don’t even know that I’m a woman (laughs).