The new legends of Arthur
Joe Arthur worked in a guitar shop until he sent Peter Gabriel a demo. Now he's a phenomenon in the making
Friday 21 April 2000
In some ways, the affable man before me is your archetypal urban American songwriter. You can hear Leonard Cohen in Joe Arthur's stoical lyrics; Tom Waits in his clunky arrangements; a touch of Simon and Garfunkel in the chorus harmonies of his forthcoming single, "Chemical".
Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were a key influence, too, and this, coupled with T-Bone Walker's left-field production and subtle sampling, helps to contemporise Arthur's forthcoming album Come To Where I'm From. He's also a prose writer, sculptor and artist, whose idiosyncratic drawing style features on the album's sleeve. Put simply, Joe's sickeningly talented.
Backstage at the Barcelona venue where he's just supported Ben Harper, our gangly troubadour seems a little out of sorts, though. Sensing that the gig post-mortem is to blame, I assure him that I enjoyed his performance, making specific reference to the sampled loops he generates using his guitar as a percussion instrument. Still, there's no denying his claim that two-thirds of the Spanish audience had chattered throughout his set. "You don't want to shout 'shut up!' and come across like a spoiled brat," he says, "but it is frustrating."
Arthur was "discovered" in 1996 when Peter Gabriel responded to an unsolicited demo. At this point, Joe was working for the minimum wage in a guitar shop. Imagine his surprise on receiving a call from Gabriel at home. During the ensuing conversation, it was agreed that Arthur would arrange a showcase gig in New York. It was to be a memorable evening.
"I'd prepared myself psychologically - just barely - to play in front of Peter," he explains, "but then I met his daughter Anna and she told me that he was picking up Lou Reed and his DAT recorder on the way. I grew up on the Velvet Underground. I had to go to the bathroom, get on my knees and start praying."
Clearly, somebody answered. Shortly afterwards Arthur became the first American artist to sign to Gabriel's Real World label. The following year, moreover, it was a Joe Arthur composition that Gabriel chose to cover when asked to participate in a tribute album for the late Princess of Wales. The tune was "In the Sun", and Arthur's own (superior) version is now scheduled for release as the lead track on Come To Where I'm From.
Given that he didn't write the song with Diana in mind, and that many found the deification of Diana difficult to swallow, how did he feel about Gabriel dedicating the song to her?
There's a long pause, during which Arthur and his tour manager exchange a smile that suggests that they've been expecting this one. "It's such a loaded topic", says Arthur eventually. "I can only tell you that I didn't think about it too much. I was just honoured that Peter wanted to do one of my songs."
The trickiest question behind him, Arthur starts to loosen up and soon we're having a real conversation. We discover a shared passion for the novels of the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun. We talk about the inspirational writing of Rolling Stone's seminal rock critic, Lester Bangs. "He was an artist, that's the point. He just happened to be a critic," says Arthur. Bangs was such an inspiration, in fact, that it almost led Arthur to consider a career as a music critic himself.
I haven't read any of Arthur's prose, so when he tells me that he's keeping a tour journal, I'm intrigued. After much coaxing, he fires up his Powerbook to read me what he'd written in Porto two nights previously:
"Everything was mysterious like an early Seventies drug movie. The woman embraced womanly shape, the men seemed confused like passive dogs. I saw a church tattooed with blue tiles depicting a religious scene. Inside the saints looked real and old people were on their knees. I said a quick prayer, but mostly just took in the old world-ness of it all. Europe knows how to be Europe in Porto. The show was catastrophic in the best possible way; people cheered and clapped, even artistically during 'Prison'. I felt that I could keep doing this, afterwards eating spaghetti. Our tour-bus is of the highest quality. We hardly deserve it. Gene and me watched Quadrophenia as our home moved to Lisbon. I passed out and slept for 12 hours. When I woke up we were on the side of a highway and the sun was breaking through the window on my saliva-soaked face. No one was around. I walked up the hill playing my new black guitar for this new place."
I conclude by asking Arthur what he hopes listeners might find appealing about his new record. He moots its air of vulnerability, its openness, its diversity. Not simply the lyrics, then? Not lines like "Since you've been away from me/ I know how the pins feel in the bowling alley"? Or "Your history acts as your gravity?"
"I didn't want to say lyrics," he smiles. "It's a bit like 'who do you think you are?' I work hard on them, though," he adds. "It's more and more important to me the older I get, which probably means they'll end up crap."
Somehow I doubt it.
'Come To Where I'm From' is released by Real World on 12 June. The single 'Chemical' is out 29 May
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