In a windowless, clandestine locale in Red Hook, Brooklyn, Joseph Arthur is kicking back in his living/studio space, an acoustic guitar on his lap. The instrument- and tchotchke-filled hangout reflects the myriad interests and talents of its inhabitant, a fifteen-year resident of the borough. Among the items populating the singer/painter’s “Rebel Country” recording studio are a faux trophy, a stuffed lion, ornamental skulls, dozens of guitars, and Arthur’s beloved 1912 Steinway Vertegrand piano, used to record his 2014 album, Lou, a tribute to his pal Lou Reed. There’s no shower in the ad hoc space, but Arthur, affable and open, assures he bathes every day, accordioning his lanky frame into the old white tub. Spiritual and literary fiction books — not to mention dozens of Arthur’s own paintings — line the walls, along with a platinum plaque for the Shrek 2 soundtrack, a project that seems at odds with the prolific singer-songwriter’s reflective milieu.
Turns out he purchased the plaque — but it is legit.
“The guy that produced ‘You’re So True’ on the soundtrack with me, John Alagia, I was in his studio in Los Angeles,” begins Arthur, who also resides part-time in Hollywood. “He’s done John Mayer and Jason Mraz, that kind of stuff. He had that platinum record up, and I go, ‘Why did you get the platinum record? What other songs did you do?’ He goes, ‘Just yours.’ I’m like, ‘And you got a platinum record?!’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, just call the place up. It costs like 75 bucks and they’ll send you one.’ ” So he did.
While Arthur’s commercial potential is indeed Shrek-worthy huge, his musical sensibility is intimate, personal and often transcendent, his creativity diffuse but cohesive. It spreads across more than twenty albums and EPs, from his solo efforts to the (now defunct) Lonely Astronauts and RNDM. The last lineup features Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, and a quick aural preview of the trio’s forthcoming, as-yet-untitled sophomore album reveals a seminal album that could easily populate year-end lists.
As filmmaker/journalist Cameron Crowe observed of Arthur’s untrammeled skills, “I think the guy would be successful in any era, because he puts his heart out there. He was giving it everything, and painting too, onstage. This guy is not wasting one element of the musical experience…he’s just putting it out there with no second-guessing.”
Arthur is a driven creator, a not-too-mad scientist of art and music with an enviably copious and high-quality output. Circa early 2015 he has at least three records complete, though the issue, he notes, is “when and how?”
“I have [this music], but I’m not sure the time to put it out,” he says, musing aloud about the business side of releasing music. “Just maybe make stuff and not worry about [it]…’Cause as soon as you put something out then you gotta do this and that and that…There’s a whole mess that comes with that. I think I’m crossing into a different phase of my artistic life, musically, right now. I feel like [this music is] at the end of a phase and I kinda wish I had put it out in real time while I was doing it. But I didn’t, and now I’m past that. But there’s always that aspect to being an artist. You’re always past what you’re currently putting out.”
That said, there’s an immediacy to many gigs, a spontaneous collaboration of music and painting. It all began with an innocent mistake. A journalist said, “Oh, I hear you’re painting and singing at the same time.” “A lightbulb went off in my head when she asked that question. I was like, ‘No, but I’m going to now.’ I knew right away how. I had songs that looped that don’t have any chord changes between the verse and the chorus. And all I needed to do is find one of those and loop a chord progression and I’m off. Then I can just sing the whole thing and I’m free.”
Live paintings are akin to the difference between making a song in the studio versus recording live. “They have a visceral energy that studio paintings don’t really have,” he says. “They have an energy that I feel like comes from the audience.”
When Arthur began combining his passions onstage, it was almost out of spite. “When I first started doing it, it was mainly because I was painting a lot in the studio and I kind of resented having to tour. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna keep painting.’ It was almost coming from a bratty place — ‘Ha, I’ll do both,’ ” he admits. “But what I discovered is, really, the thing it benefitted most was painting. I came up with paintings I would have never come up with alone in my room.”
And, like many other creatives, he finds that good art in any medium doesn’t spawn from contentment. “The older I get, the more and more I’m really aware of that when I get into a bit of a lonely depression, that’s basically the doorway to making something. So now, when I’m lonely, bored, and depressed, it’s almost like I don’t really even think of it as lonely, bored, and depressed, but more like the doorway to creation,” he chuckles. (He then requested, “You have to put the ‘laughter’ after that sentence.”)
It’s late afternoon by the water in Brooklyn, and while no light gets into his lair, it’s suffused with a warm glow. As befits a proper studio, “interior” windows surround the recording space–cum-bedroom, and the giant bed in the middle of the room will be used later for a comfy rehearsal. “My day will be about getting back into fighting shape. Get those songs back in my head so I’m not stopping and going, ‘Um, what was the line?’ ”
He’s thinking about his bare-bones upcoming performance at Chelsea’s Rubin Museum. “I feel like you really have to be at the top of your game to go in and play with no microphone,” he says. “That’s just, like, completely naked. I think you have to do some sort of interesting, weird, different left turns, if you’re a solo performer, to really keep the audience engaged. Or,” he concludes with a smile, “you could just write really good songs.”
Joseph Arthur plays the Rubin Museum of Art’s Naked Soul Series on April 3 at 7 p.m. For ticket information, click here.
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