Joseph Arthur Interview

The evening I went to meet Joseph Arthur, I wandered aimlessly around the Old Street area for a while before finally finding myself in the intimate setting of the Vertigo Gallery a couple of days before the opening of his first UK art exhibition. Of course, I’d seen photos etc. of Jo before but those images hadn’t really prepared me for the massive presence that greeted me with a low American drawl, before showing me a painting that he’d just created (The outline of a head – many of his creations seem to involve a person/people of sorts). We then sit down on two chairs and, minus a move downstairs where we settled ourselves cross-legged on the floor surrounded by his art, this is the extent of my half hour with Joseph Arthur (the long version, for the true fans):

Cat: You record all your gigs. Have you been doing that since the start – before Real World picked you up?

JA: Peter Gabriel gave me the idea – he said you should definitely record every performance. Virgin Records wouldn’t let me do it at the time. A couple years later this guy Ran, who runs a great record shop on Long Beach, gave me the idea again and I started doing it.

Cat: When you do the live stuff do you think beforehand, “This has to be different to my last live thing because it’s all going to be recorded and I don’t want similar CDs”?

JA: No, I think I want to do that a bit anyway, I guess it comes into my mind not to be too samey about it but it’s impossible to do something completely unique every single night, although I guess it’s going to be relatively unique due to the nature of the show. But I try to change it up a bit but don’t freak myself out over it. I really just don’t think about it because if you do then your fear won’t allow you to do it. Most things in art are like that. The more unconscious you are about it, maybe the better.

Cat: You’ve been doing your own artwork for ages, when did you start bringing your music and art together in your live shows?

JA: Just recently – last year.

Cat: Do you have an idea beforehand of what you’re going to paint?

JA: Sometimes but not always.

Cat: Is it based on the atmosphere of the place?

JA: A painting is determined by the first thing you put on it and that then suggests another thing to put on it.

Cat: And the first thing you put on it – how’s that determined?

JA: Just randomly.

Cat: You’ve done bigger gigs supporting Coldplay and REM, do you record those gigs as well?

JA: Well, you only get 40 minutes but, yeah, we recorded those but didn’t sell them straight afterwards.

Cat: But are they on sale on the internet?

JA: Oh I don’t know, you just record for prosperity’s sake. But things fade away, you can’t do something with everything, but loads of the shows are on sale on the website.

Cat: Your art work – none of that is on sale, is it?

JA: Nah, I gotta start trying to do that, not sure why I haven’t – it’s weird.

Cat: So you’re not trying to keep your artwork to yourself?

JA: I’ve sold a couple of things but I’ve not really sold loads. I’d really like to try and get proper gallery representation and get someone to deal with the business side of things – it’s weird trying to sell your own stuff.

Cat: Would you keep that separate from your music?

JA: I’d make an instrumental CD to accompany the exhibition. I went to a Robert Rauschenberg show at the Whitney right before I came here and I thought there’s never really music in art galleries. And I really like Rauschenberg but thought music would be a great addition.

Cat: Is this your first show?

JA: Well, I did one other exhibition of live paintings in America but this is my first exhibition of art I’ve worked on at home.

Cat: What are your artistic influences?

JA: de Kooning, Cy Twombly, Picasso, Basquiat, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Jackson Pollock.

Cat: A lot of the pieces are people-based, is that a conscious decision? A recurring theme? Do you think about it or just do it?

JA: I tend to draw a similar character a lot of the time.

Cat: Is this character anyone in particular?

JA: Nah, I don’t think so, I don’t know.

Cat: Your latest album was the first one with a concept, a story, it’s a lot shorter and more precise. Is this for a reason?

JA: The record I put out before that was 74 minutes long so I was conscious of the fact that I wanted to make something more concise so deliberately tried to make it shorter but it almost was really long as it’s always hard to cut things out. But the older I get, the better I get at cutting things out.

Cat: Were you brutal on yourself?

JA: Not really, just like records which are shorter.

Cat: And how do you decide what to cut out?

JA: I basically cut out things that weren’t holding my interest after ten days even if I like the song and it ended up as 11 tracks.

Cat: I guess that’s why most albums are 11 tracks long – the human attention span. What’s your new album called?

JA: “Invisible Parade”.

Cat: And what’s going to happen with that?

JA: I don’t know yet. It’s way more minimal…acoustic based. Much less production. No reverb on the vocals.

Cat: Is that a one-off or do you see yourself going down that stylistic route?

JA: I just wanted to do a record that was minimal as my last two albums weren’t. But I’m working on a bigger record at the moment too.

Cat: The cutting down of the album and song durations – was that for commercial reasons?

JA: I like the idea of someone listening to a record the whole way through, getting to the end and wanting to listen to it again, instead of getting 5 songs from the end and getting bored. It’s like putting artwork on every space of ceiling and wall – it’s too much.

Cat: What’s the Nappy Dug Out?

JA: Mike Nepolitana – Nappy – it’s what it’s called – his studio.

Cat: Did you go to New Orleans with the intention of recording?

JA: Yeah I’m always trying to do something otherwise I get bored my mind goes crazy. I was also trying to buy a house.

Cat: What percentage of the songs were written before you went?

JA: Most of them I already had.

Cat: Some of your songs have been used in films and commercials – how did that all come about for someone who is quite underground?

JA: The advert came at a time I wasn’t getting much exposure and it was when many people were breaking their songs through advertisements. I kinda regret saying yes to that. I don’t regret saying yes to any TV or movies ‘cause I think that’s a cool way to expose your art. I don’t like the idea of my music selling something but I don’t mind it being used in a TV show, even if it’s not high art. But it’s cool, I like to expose things that way. There was one time this gossip TV show wanted to use “In The Sun” but I said no. It was the Insider – a feature on a teacher who went to jail for getting married to her 14-yr old student.

Cat: You’ve been in England quite a bit; France too…

JA: It’s going well over here, I have good representation and people like it a lot.

Cat: In light of what’s happened in New Orleans, how were people you know affected?

JA: The homes of a couple of my friends went completely underwater but nobody died.

Cat: How do you feel about the way it was handled by the government?

JA: I think America got really disillusioned by the whole thing.

Cat: Rightly so?

JA: Rightly so. Even more than the war. It just realised that the administration was full of sh*t on an entirely new level.

Cat: Would you call any of your songs political?

JA: Yeah, I guess a couple – not really totally political. “All Of Your Hands” seems quite political to me.

Cat: Do lyrics or melody drive a song for you?

JA: Melody first, lyrics suggest themselves.

Cat: When do the arrangement ideas come?

JA: Kinda all just forms. Not a lot of thought behind it.

Cat: Any musical training?

JA: *yawns*

Cat: Sorry, am I boring you?

JA: No, no – jet lag. (OK, if you say so!) Not really, never went to college. I picked the guitar up but no proper music training.

Cat: Who did you listen to to teach yourself ‘The Craft’?

JA: I went through all kinds of phases. I listened to a lot of jazz fusion – Jaco Pastorius, Miles Davis. I wanted to be a jazz bass player.

Cat: Have you seen “Shadows And Light” with Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius where he does that amazing live looping? (I get excited and go on for a bit about the concert as JA nods along enthusiastically…I think)

JA: He’s amazing…

Cat: And after the jazz fusion?

JA: Well, before that I was into Van Halen, then jazz fusion, then things my sister was into – Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan. Then Jimi Hendrix – really into him. Think that’s where I got my recording philosophy from – just complete experimentation. Everything’s ok so let’s just try anything. Then of course, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young – all great songwriters.

Cat: You’ve been touring solo and your art is all solo. Can you see yourself staying solo or do you want to collaborate?

JA: I want collaborate, I want to eventually have a band but I like performing the way I perform too.

Cat: Even with a band, would you keep the live-looping element?

JA: Yeah, I think that’s my live instrument. My set up would stay the same; I’d just add musicians to it.

Cat: Who would you want to be in your band?

JA: Well, I like this guy Pat Sansone; he plays with Wilco now although I toured with him a while ago. Then for a drummer, G-Whiz, Greg Whiz – great drummer.

Cat: What was it like doing the bigger stadium gigs?

JA: It was pretty amazing but I got used to it. Michael would introduce me to the audience so I had a foot in the door, walking on stage. And they were real receptive and good. It worked out.

Cat: You’ve got a book coming out of your art work – everything or a selection?

JA: A selection of everything.

Cat: Do you have commentaries?

JA: Just pictures. It was going to include poems but now it’s just pictures.

Cat: Why?

JA: I needed space!

Cat: Did you write a forward?

JA: No – no explanation.

Cat: Back to the live sampling – did you start doing that ‘cause of Hendrix?

JA: It was this guy, Paul Ridout, who asked me if I’d ever played with delays and he helped me set up this system. I was off touring with “Big City Secrets” (his Real World debut) so started doing it for quite a long time.

Cat: The album after – “Come To Wherever I’m From”, is quite different to your debut. Was that due to discovering live sampling in the interim period?

JA: I think it was more that I had the confidence to produce it more myself. I was a lot more vocal about the direction – I had a vision, whereas with “Big City Secrets” I was more blown away that I was getting this chance to make a record. The producer was Marcus Dravs, great producer. He was really strong and so picked the direction more in the first album. My debut is an interesting record, but I’m not mad about it. It’s quite different, which is cool. They’re all quite different from each other.

Cat: But there’s more of a progression between the other 3, whilst “Big City Secrets” stands alone with its more traditional song-writing.

JA: Yeah, I agree. (Even if he didn’t, I guess that was the easy answer to get me off his back!)

Cat: One last thing – most favourite and least favourite contemporary musician.

JA: I like Cat Power a lot, she’s a solo artist and does her own thing.

Cat: Least favourite?

JA: Uh.. I dunno, can’t think of anybody that I wanna bust.

And with that it was the end of my time with Joseph Arthur, a laid back and pretty open artist, who I saw perform a couple of weeks later at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. To be absolutely honest, I love his voice with it’s affecting extremes of rumbly bass and ethereal falsetto and some of his looping is ingenious, but I feel that it’s hard for anyone to hold an audience and a stage, especially one as expansive as SBE, for an hour. It did, at times, lack in variety, and some of the songs were lost to me. For me, not being a complete JA afficianado, the high points were the well known numbers like “Even Tho” and the Hurricane Katrina single, “In The Sun”. There were some fun lights going on behind JA but the painting wasn’t fantastic, although one can always be consistent with something spontaneous! All in all, a career I shall continue to follow and a man that was a pleasure to meet.

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