“It’s Not Like You’re Getting Better”: An Interview with Joseph Arthur

Akron — also known as the Rubber City — is the fifth largest city in Ohio and sits on the outskirts of Cleveland. For the past several years, the city has become synonymous as the birthplace of basketball phenom LeBron James and more recently as hometown of the Black Keys. A little research on the town’s Wikipedia page and you discover that Akron was also the birthplace of Hall of Fame catcher Thurman Munson, Chrissie Hynde, and Devo. But nowhere on the web page or in any casual conversation does anyone ever mention Joseph Arthur’s Akron connection and that oversight; the more he considers it, sort of pisses him off.

“To be honest, I am a little bit like, ‘I am from here too, yo! What’s up?'” he says with a laugh. I recently spoke with Arthur a few weeks after the release of his eighth studio album, The Graduation Ceremony and in the midst of the NBA Finals. Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year, you are undoubtedly aware that last summer James, Akron’s most famous son, took his talents to South Beach creating a potential basketball dynasty in Miami while gutting the Cleveland Cavaliers franchise and enticing the ire of every casual sports fan in the western hemisphere. So is Arthur, Akron’s least-famous celebrity, rooting for the reviled James and the Heat?

“I don’t really keep up with it to be honest but I went to my friends place in the West Village and they just came back from Miami and they gave me one of those super nice $50 Heat baseball hats. I guess by default I am rooting for the Miami Heat but I told them I can’t be seen wearing this hat cause I am a traitor to Ohio if I wear this. Then again, I am the bastard stepchild so I might as well wear it.”

But that always has seemed to be the case for Joseph Arthur. His musical career took off in 1997 with the release of his debut, Big City Secrets. Arthur garnished praise from both critics and peers over the release of his next two albums. His music was in trailers, movies, and ads and it seemed like Arthur was destined for a major commercial breakthrough. More albums came flowing out of him the critical glow diminished with each subsequent release and despite a consistent fan following, Arthur has once again become a bit of an unknown.

Ten minutes into the interview, Arthur has asked me as many questions as I have asked him, inquisitive about how “south” my adopted home Austin is and shared with me details about his Brooklyn neighborhood. I am temporarily disarmed when I realize Arthur is a lot funnier than one would assume. This is no slight towards the talented singer/ songwriter, but anyone intimate with his catalogue wouldn’t necessarily assume that he would be so self-deprecating and quick witted. His music has been described with phrases like “haunting melodies” and “hushed whispered slow burner” while Pandora might play him under a station called “serious emotional rock.” Ever since his debut on Peter Gabriel’s label Real World, Arthur has been acknowledged as a talented lyricist whose topics deal with love found, love lost, and the things in life inherently out of our control. Listening to his early work, it isn’t hard to imagine a love torn romantic, wrists covered in scars hidden by gauze, yelping and singing in between pained confessions. Consider this lyric from his sophomore album, Come To Where I’m From: “Someday we may / See each other and look the other way / But I’ll love you just the same”.

In retrospect, it is not surprising how much my 19-year old self identified with his work but it is reaffirming to see that his music stands the test of time. It is unfair of me to come to the table with preconceived notions of what Arthur would be like when considering not only his songwriting style has changed through the years but also when you consider how serendipitous his journey through the music industry has been.

“[As a child] I listened to heavy metal and my sister was into Floyd or Dylan but that was, like, her music. Then I got into Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and other stuff but I never started singing until I was in my early 20s. I remember thinking, ‘OK — I am not a singer, I am a musician.’ I wanted to be this like heroic bass player so I listened to people like Jaco Pastroius, just smoking weed listening to Bitches Brew over and over again. And then like Nirvana came out and I was blown away and then I got into Bob Dylan.

“Around that time I started playing acoustic guitar and realized I could actually write songs if I wasn’t playing complicated bass lines. It was much easier to concentrate on melody and lyrics and the things I responded to on an emotional level when I listened to music. I had only been singing for a couple years when I signed with Real World. I was so lucky. I passed it out to a few people and it ended up in Peter Gabriel’s hands completely randomly. “

It is impossible to not notice the humility Arthur describes his entry into the musical scene that seems copped straight from a screenplay. A break that thousands of musicians wait their entire lives for sort of falls into his lap a mere few years after he starts singing and he ends up getting by one of the most accomplished musicians in contemporary music of the past 40 years. Arthur takes nothing for granted and that is most reflective in his musical output.

In addition to steadily releasing full lengths throughout his career, Arthur has also released 11 EPs, put together a backing band called the Lonely Astronauts and worked on side project in semi-super group Fistful of Mercy with Ben Harper & Dhani Harrison. I haven’t even mentioned his increasingly successful painting career that has put his work in galleries across the country. The cover art to The Graduation Ceremony, like the majority of his previous releases, feature one of his paintings. This is a man who doesn’t know how to take a break from working and to a certain degree he understands that may have hurt him through the years.

“When I put out Temporary People I had just put out four EPs, so it was kind of hard to get anybody pay attention to it. You sort of have to give space in between releases or else people won’t pay attention.” Despite the lukewarm reception of some of his works, Arthur has no regrets as history has shown him a busy musician isn’t necessarily just throwing anything out there praying something might resonate.

“I was just on WNYC for this thing and they had to pick a year that is important for musical history and I picked 1977. Iggy Pop put out The Idiot and Lust for Life out that year. David Bowie had Heroes and Low out that year. You think about the Beatles and they did the whole thing in like five years. The whole conventional wisdom that if an artist is putting out a lot of material fast that means he is not editing himself and he is putting out sub standard material is not actually correct. I think historically, if you really look at it, it’s the opposite. The Rolling Stones put out their four greatest and it was like Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! So how is that bad?

“It really took me that long to be the master of my own destiny about what I could release. I waited a couple years in between my first couple records, not because I wanted to, but because each one I needed to rebuild a situation where I could get a record put out or have the funds to make it. It was this real slow as molasses process every single time and it used to drive me insane. And the first minute I got free I was like, ‘Great, six months later I can put out a band record’ and I got like sort of swatted for it right away so I thought, ‘Oh shit — maybe there is something to this wait three years every time I put something out,’ he says laughing.

There is certainly a growth trajectory in Arthur’s work through the years that might be missed if you have passionately followed each EP release or you sit down to digest his catalogue in one sitting. It is akin to seeing someone who has lost a ton of weight in six months every single day or once a year — the difference appears drastic if you haven’t sat down to spend time with the person in some time. Arthur’s first two albums sound like the headspace of a heartbroken angry 20-something year old while his most recent releases are written from the perspective of a musician who is no longer content wrestling with the thoughts and questions rattling around his own head. The world is a large place and as long as his music or his painting or whatever he puts out there feels true, Arthur will continue to protect his work and himself. He sees the changes in himself and his work through the years and he is grateful about how easy inspiration comes to him.

“It is important to protect yourself artistically and not read about what people write about you. You don’t want to be completely oblivious but you need to know the general vibe to what’s going on but you don’t want to get too deep into it. It’s also a ‘don’t look back’ sort of thing. With art and music I feel like you do lose certain things and you gain certain things; it’s not just like you are getting better and better. There is something to be said when people are young and they don’t know what they are doing.

“Art, the way it comes out and it is received has a very specific relationship with many contingencies like time, place and where the person is who is receiving it. It is impossible to control how something should be received or thought about. I feel like I am proud of the way my music has evolved and what I have put out. I don’t think I have stepped off or been inconsistent. Of course there are certain things people will like more than other things but I feel very much I am at the forefront of my abilities and. I just feel very hungry about it all. I am not kicking back and on repeat. I feel like I am pressing up against my own evolution like always.”

We take a minute to discuss this point and I share with him how much his first two albums played in my dorm rooms in my second and third years of college and how I put the track “Bottle of You” on a mix for a girl I had a crush on who these days lives with me as my girlfriend. His voice lights up when I tell him this as I just proved his point.

“Look, when those first two albums came out when you were in a certain place and at a certain age and now this album is coming out and you’re not in the same place. I remember when Redemption Son came out and overwhelmingly I got this vibe that ‘it’s not that good’ or ‘it’s alright’ and more and more I get people telling me ‘that is my favorite record of yours.’ You see the way things change in the course of time. There is a natural human to view the past with rose color glasses and on some level I think artists need to not give a fuck about what people think or say. Not in any nihilistic brutal way just in a more self-protective sense. Whenever I hear some criticism or something come my way, it actually sort of inspires me. It is so odd. I am like ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah?’ It breeds fight into me and it never knocks me down. Its like, ‘we will see,'” he says with a chuckle.