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There are times when every print journalist is glad they don’t work in radio, and this is definitely one of them. Joseph Arthur is on the phone from Brooklyn, teleconferenced in by a third party, and the effect is as if he’s answering questions from three metres underwater while wearing a leaky, old-fashioned diving suit, the water occasionally rising to cover his mouth.

It doesn’t help that Arthur’s dreamy, languid singing style translates into a similarly laconic speaking voice. Nevertheless, he successfully communicates his excitement about his first visit to Australia, personally or professionally: “I’m really looking forward to coming, and all I’ve heard is that I’m going to love it.”

Arthur’s solo shows have a very improvisational feel, characterised by new takes on old songs, liberal use of loops and delay pedals and beats tapped out on the body of his guitar. His Australian shows, however, will be performed with Fistful of Mercy, a trio Arthur formed with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison, George’s son.

“It’s a completely different thing. There’s more collaboration in a band situation, there’s a set list, but I never have a set list with the solo shows and I do a lot of improvisation,” Arthur says.
“There’s more room for me to stretch out solo, but it’s nice to be in a band after so many years of playing on my own.”

Arthur’s music has received no shortage of critical acclaim, and he counts the likes of Peter Gabriel and REM’s Michael Stipe as vocal fans. Gabriel, in fact, signed Arthur to his label in 1996 and has continued to play a part in the development of his career.

But critical approval doesn’t always translate into commercial success – so would Arthur trade some of the former for some of the latter? He thinks about the question for a while, and concedes that it “would be nice to expand our audience”. To this end, after Australia, Arthur and company are heading to China to continue spreading the gospel.

In a 15-year career, Arthur has released seven studio albums, almost twice that number of EPs and is prone to dabbling in side projects. Thematically, however, he feels that his early output is still relevant.

“I think there’s a through line. It’s funny, I don’t have any real problems playing songs from my first album,” he says.

“I feel like I’m moving on, but I get into different phases. You’re trying to control what you’re doing and incorporate other influences. The way artists evolve is kind of interesting – it’s not a straight line; you lose things and gain others. Look at the last paintings of Picasso. They’re very childlike.”

This last offers a neat segue into another aspect of Arthur’s creative psyche. He’s as prolific and passionate a painter as he is a songwriter and has recently taken to painting on stage during gigs, though he isn’t sure if he will be doing the same in Australia. It’s a rare example of the two pursuits occupying the same space – often, he says, it’s one or the other.

“Yeah, they compete, but they sort of relieve each other. When I’m a painter, I feel that’s all I do. I have a lot of energy, and I put as much energy into painting as I do into making music. Then when I come back to music it’s as if some form of evolution has occurred.”

He used to have a physical gallery called the Museum of Modern Arthur, which is now browseable online, and Arthur’s one Grammy nod so far has been for the artwork on his 1999 EP Vacancy. As far as compliments go, does he consider this to be of the backhanded variety?

“Not at all!” he says. “That was just a little EP. I had no idea how they heard of it. I just thought it was such a trip.”

Another Arthur signature is the practice of recording the gig off the soundboard and making that recording available to concertgoers as they leave. It’s an interesting tack, one that will hopefully thin the ranks of those incredibly annoying people who see fit to watch a performance from the tiny screen of a camera held aloft for the entire duration of the gig.

“Initially there was a real novelty aspect about it, but now people come to expect it,” Arthur says.

“A lot of artists are worried about the mistakes they make or if their equipment breaks down, but now everything is recorded by everybody all the time anyway, so what’s the difference? We live in the time of exposure.”

That exposure has been sorely lacking in Australia, where Arthur has only just secured distribution of his latest album, The Graduation Ceremony.

“I think it’s one of the best records I’ve made. It’s very song-based, with strong, beautiful songs, and I think people who like music will really like it.”

Hari Raj  The Weekly Review