Not to go all “Andy Rooney” on you readers but did you ever notice that sometimes the singer/songwriters that your favorite commercial artists admire the most are people of whom you’ve never heard? Digging through the Phoenix Files and surfing the internet revealed one such person. One such person to influence the music industry but not a commercial audience is Joseph Arthur.
Arthur (born in Ohio, 1971) had already been writing songs and playing music as a child. At the tender age of 16 he was already the bass player for Frankie Starr and the Chill Factor which broke up in 1990. But fate was kind to Arthur a few years later when (while working in a guitar shop in Georgia) he was discovered by none other than Peter Gabriel.
Gabriel was impressed enough with Arthur’s first EP Cut and Blind to make Arthur the first American to sign to his Real World label. As 1997 approached, Arthur went into the English studio to record his first full-length album, Big City Secrets. His music was classic American singer-songwriter material. They were dirt road ruminations reminiscent of such artists as Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and even The Rolling Stones.
What would eventually make his tracks unique, however, were his unusual singing style and some almost eclectic electronic production elements that seem a bit derivative of Beck, Bowie and The Cure. The record was released worldwide in 1997 after which he went on tour with Gabriel. Millennium’s end would witness the release of his first mini-album, Vacancy, which would earn him a Grammy nomination in 2000.
2000 was also the year he put out Come to Where I’m From. This particular platter (as well as his opening for such performers as Ben Harper) opened his audios to another audience. He also participated in live promotional album and two years later cut four “tour-only” EPs named Junkyard Hearts as well as his next record, Redemption’s Son.
Touring was usually a successful experience for Arthur. Perhaps this was due in part to the fact that he was recording live performances and selling them almost immediately after the appearances. He reportedly even released an additional alternative music project that escapes some discographers. It was christened Holding the Void and included bass guitarist Pat Sansone and drummer Rene Lopez who both also assisted with the vocals.
He toured with Tracy Chapman in 2003 and signed on with Vector having been previously dropped by EMI. After the tour he went into the studios to work on his next official studio recording, Our Shadows Will Remain. The platter was inspired by a real life event.
One day he decided to put his New York possessions in storage and traipse off to New Orleans with little more than a suitcase and his guitar. “It was accidental Buddhism” he told the press. The album hit the shelves in 2004.
Next he went back on tour in America both as a solo artist and with Joan Wasser to promote his new platter. He also managed to eke out yet another EP (And the Thieves Are Gone) and go out on tour with R.E.M. as 2004 drew to a close. European and American Touring continued throughout 2005.
He had his first art exhibition in 2006 at the Vertigo Gallery in London as a brief break from making music. later that year he was asked to to help launch the project A River Blue, where approximately one hundred children in northern Uganda were gathered to take part in a music, drama, and art festival. Arthur also put out a tune “A River Blue” for the foundation. He told interviewers: “‘A River Blue’ is a song I recorded with over one hundred orphans of the LRA nightmare in Northern Uganda. I wrote the song before I went to Uganda. . . I felt a little embarrassed about singing this with them as I could never understand the depth of their plight. During my visit there I was more interested in their own songs and paintings and . . . their incredible beauty. However upon coming home and mixing this whole event together, the song and our collaboration has gained power for me and strikes me now as a landmark blow against poverty and ambivalence.”
Arthur also joined Lauren Pattenaude to start the record label, Lonely Astronaut Records. Another accomplishment in 2006 was his blending of art and music. He published an artbook that came with an instrumental CD. The CD called The Invisible Parade while the accompanying book was titled We Almost Made It .
He also recorded his fifth full-length studio release, Nuclear Daydream in Los Angeles AND Berlin and put it out later that year on his own label. He put together a backing band, The Lonely Astronauts, and went on tour in support of the project. Another noteworthy event that same year was R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Coldplay’s Chris Martin covering Arthur’s “In the Sun” as part of an iTunes exclusive EP supporting Hurricane Katrina Relief.
The EP contains half a dozen version of the tune including one track on which Arthur sings a duet with Stipe. Another cut features a Justin Timberlake remix. The following year, 2007, saw a UK release of a remix of Arthur’s 2002 tune “Honey and the Moon”.
That year also bore witness to Arthur’s sixth studio recording, Let’s Just Be, the first album recorded with his band The Lonely Astronauts. The platter contained 80 numbers. Sixteen of which were recorded the previous year. The bulk of the work, however, was recorded in just three weeks. One critic stated that “the masses wouldn’t be keen on most of them but” that isn’t a major concern for someone who lives only for his art. nevertheless, Arthur followed the release of the disc with one of his largest US tours yet.
Arthur started 2008 off working on a follow-up to Let’s Just Be. He also announced that he would put out four new EPs and one new full-length album during the year. The EPs, released throughout the year as planned, were named Could We Survive, Crazy Rain, Vagabond Skies and Foreign Girls.
He played solo shows and toured in support of his major release, Temporary People. His solo gigs always include a layering sound effect which he creates using looping effects pedals. He is said to spend almost as much time painting onstage as he does singing. He once tried to explain: “When your concious brain is focusing on singing your unconcious is freer to express itself. It gave me a different kind of energy, electric and live.”
He also toured again with Tracy Chapman as her opening act. Oddly enough, a song he had put out that year, “King of the Pavement” was unlike his previous material. In fact, it was reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen. His vocals were incredibly similar to those of Ian McCulloch.
One thing that remains the same is the fact that is music is still easy to listen to and he seems to be constantly creating new material. It seems impossible even for rock journalists and critics to explain why he is not a major player in the music industry. Critic David Smyth believes it might be because “Arthur is too dedicated to following his wayward muse to worry about matching the commercial appeal of his famous (industry) fans.
Last year, 2009, saw the release of his cover of “Step Into the Light” by The Afghan Whigs on the album Summer’s Kiss: A Tribute to The Afghan Whigs. He followed this up with tour dates in Europe with The Lonely Astronauts as well as more solo performances and a reissue of his 2006 CD Nuclear Daydream. It contained six previously unreleased bonus tracks coinciding with his French gigs.
At present he is focusing on the promotion of his 2010 CD–the first solo recording since the above-mentioned Nuclear Daydream. While it certainly must be nice to follow your (day)dreams, one cannot help but wonder just what Arthur would produce if he had a more mercenary focus.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.