The New York singer-songwriter gets personal on his 14th studio album
On October 11, Joseph Arthur calls from Seattle, his latest tour stop – this is a significant day for him, because it’s the release date for Come Back World, his 14th studio album.
Even though he’s been through this situation many times before, he’s still nervous as he contemplates putting new work out for public consumption. “Releasing something, there’s a lot of fear around it that I’m surprised by,” he says. “I’ve been putting out so many records, but it’s still a nervy process. I guess it makes sense. It’d be kind of weird if you felt no emotion. But you just move through it.”
He may also be feeling particularly emotionally invested this time around because Come Back World is such a personal album for him. “It’s therapeutic,” he says of these songs. “I love life and I want to express my reverence for it. And also, I have a lot of trauma I’m working through, so it’s a lot of soul stuff. An artist moves to redeem situations, and one of the best ways to do that is to have it make good work. So that’s fuel. You gotta keep it moving! But it’s tricky.”
Although he is candid about enduring personal difficulties in recent years, he doesn’t reveal much detail about what he’s gone through, although he writes on his official website: “The interesting parts are when the world has turned its back on you and you have turned your back on it or them. When darkness could seemingly swallow you whole if it hasn’t already. When there is no such thing as hope and so you manufacture it from a dream which only angle is to survive. If all this sounds dramatic then you haven’t been there yet. If it doesn’t then you know that this is actually an understatement.”
Despite this, Come Back World is not at all bleak – it has, in fact, an overwhelmingly optimistic vibe. The often encouraging and uplifting lyrics gain power from Arthur’s distinctive warm, slightly husky voice, while the acoustic rock-based instrumentation displays the kind of intricate melodies and often beautiful guitar work that have earned Arthur acclaim since his 1997 debut album, Big City Secrets.
“[This album] came out of a dark period, so I don’t know why it’s so optimistic. I think it’s just a ‘coming out of transformation into the light’ sort of thing, leaving a period of darkness and finding your faith and hope again,” Arthur says, “and also, facing yourself and reckoning with your relationships and coming to terms with things.”
He is certain he is not alone in facing these kinds of troubles: “It feels like there’s so many people who are going through this type of thing in the last few years that it’s evidence of humanity’s consciousness evolving. Certainly, all you’ve got to do is look around and see that this world is obviously a pretty big struggle for most people, if not for all people. You have to resolve those things to move on, and the only way for inspiration to find its way back to you is to get to a place of forgiveness.”
Although Come Back World is deeply personal for Arthur, he did seek help in creating it from a number of contributors. He co-produced the album with Chris Seefried (who also worked on Arthur Buck, the project Arthur did with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck; their album, Arthur Buck, was released last year). Several notable musicians performed on various tracks, including Ben Harper, Jesse Malin, and Greg Dulli, among others. “It’s not all necessarily pre-planned or thought about too much, you just kind of go with your instincts,” Arthur says of these collaborative efforts. “It’s like trying to explain how you wind up dating somebody – it just happens. It’s the same thing with collaboration, it just kinda happens.”
For the tour dates this fall, though, Arthur has opted to go solo. This one-man-band approach is not uncommon for him, and he has built up a reputation over the years for putting on an impressive show that goes well beyond the typical “singer-songwriter with a guitar” setup, thanks to his masterful use of numerous effects pedals and loopers.
He says the shows are going well so far, even though the tour started before Come Back World’s release, so audiences haven’t yet become familiar with the new songs before seeing him perform them. “It seems like people are into it, so I’m super excited about that. I’m totally enjoying playing the songs live. When you’re performing, you give off the energy of something that’s new to you, so people feel the vibrancy of it being a real living thing rather than something you’ve done over and over again. But I blend in older songs, too.”
When he’s not on tour, Arthur lives in New York City’s colorful East Village neighborhood, where he says he’s always working – besides his music, he is also a prolific and successful painter: there have been numerous exhibits of his work at galleries around the country, and he was nominated for a Grammy for Best Recording Packaging for the artwork he created for his 1999 EP, Vacancy. He has been known to paint onstage during his musical shows – in fact, he says he did just that during his Seattle appearance the night before. There are several videos on YouTube showing Arthur doing this type of work; a particularly detailed one can be found by searching “Joseph Arthur – Crying Like A Man 02/05/2010 LIVE PAINTING Cactus Cafe Austin, TX.”
As if all that isn’t enough, Arthur also started his own podcast this past June, Come to Where I’m From (which is also the title of his second album, released in 2000). In each episode, Arthur interviews a guest – often a musician (such as Alejandro Escovedo, Robyn Hitchcock, Marc Cohn, and Better Than Ezra frontman Kevin Griffin) – but actress Rosanna Arquette and comedian Dave Hill have also appeared. Besides discussing artistic themes, Arthur uses the podcast to explore other topics he holds dear, such as mental wellness and physical fitness (he’s an avid practitioner of running, boxing, and yoga). Almost 40 episodes have already been released.
“It’s something I’ve wanted to do forever,” he says of the podcast. “It seems like this is the era of podcasts, and I’m a big fan. It’s fun to give yourself a format to express your ideas. Conversations are living things, they take interesting turns. I prefer interviewing to getting interviewed, for sure. It’s fun to ask questions. Open and free expression are really important things for us to protect. And obviously, there’s a battle going on there. So I’m glad I’m in a position where I feel able to express myself freely.”
Even though he’s involved in so many endeavors, he says he doesn’t find it difficult to decide what to focus on next. “I follow my instincts a lot, doing things as and when I’m feeling inspired. But I also don’t wait for inspiration, either, because when you make work, you want to make more work. I like what Andy Warhol said: ‘Make stuff, and then while everyone’s telling you how crappy it is, make more stuff.’” He laughs. “That’s a good attitude!
Besides, this is the kind of productive artistic life he’d always envisioned for himself. “I’ve always been [a creative person]. I’ve never lost touch with the desire to make stuff. I think we’re all born with that, all of us want to make stuff, want attention, want to present our treasures of our consciousness to the world. And I also think it’s like a spiritual practice. I mix my time between all these pursuits. I’m constantly working, but it’s work I enjoy. It’s evolving. I’m very, very grateful for the life I have.”
AUDIO: Joseph Arthur Come Back World (full album)