Joseph Arthur has one of the most potentially intimidating press kits in the music industry. Over the past six years and four albums, the Akron native/New York City resident has been generating reviews that glow so much you almost need sunglasses to read them. It's the kind of critical encouragement that could either inspire an artist to new heights or destroy his ability to maintain perspective. Luckily, Arthur doesn't allow his daunting reputation to get in the way of his musical endeavors.
"When I'm finishing a record, you wonder how people will take it, especially if it's different, and you don't know if people are going to get it or not," Arthur says. "Then I get self-conscious about it. But then I just avoid newsstands and the Internet. Like right now, I don't randomly pick up magazines. And when I go from town to town, I never pick up the weeklies before a show. The really good reviews, people tend to get to me. I just try to avoid it but, at the same time, I'm curious.
But I don't obsessively do Google searches on the Internet, that's for sure. I did that on my first record, and I got burned."
Arthur's career has been exceptional from the start. In 1996, one of his home-recorded demos found its way to Peter Gabriel, who signed Arthur to his Real World label, making him the first non-World Music artist on the roster. Arthur's 1997 debut, Big City Secrets, was lavishly praised, as were his subsequent albums, 2000's Come to Where I'm From (which Entertainment Weekly lauded as the best album of the year over Radiohead and U2) and 2002's sprawling Redemption's Son.
Arthur's acclaim has come at a considerable price. For all of his great reviews, his albums have yet to achieve significant sales, although each subsequent album has sold better than the last. His first three records were all under his Real World contract, but he was forced to change distribution with each album, lending very little consistency to the promotion of his work.
"You can tell that story in two minutes, but there is a lot of struggle in between," says Arthur. "There's lots of hardships in and around getting in and out of record deals."
Once Arthur disentangled himself from Real World, he felt the need to create outside the standard comfort zone of his New York apartment studio. Earlier this year, he loaded his possessions into a storage unit and moved to New Orleans for two months to work on new material.
"I'm always trying to do different things, and experimentation is a big part of what motivates me," says Arthur. "I like to challenge myself. It was basically time for me to get out of New York because I'd been there for a long time, and I didn't have a record deal anymore, so I wanted to make sure I held on to whatever money I had in case I needed to put the record out independently."
The result of Arthur's challenge is his fourth and perhaps best album, Our Shadows Will Remain. Although he came to New Orleans with a dozen songs written and demoed in New York, he only used about half of them on the album. The Crescent City had a profound impact on everything he did while he was there.
"You can feel the history in that place," says Arthur. "There was a lot of strong energy, dark and light. It's a strange place. There are lots of fine musicians there, musicians you'd have to pay 15 bucks to see at the Bottom Line you see walking around New Orleans for free."
Like all of his previous albums, Arthur had a destination in mind for his music when he started with his existing demos, but he's aware enough of his process to leave room for happy accidents.
"I have a loose vision, but it's not something I hold onto too tightly," says Arthur. "It's a vision that you let things happen and see where it goes. A lot of my vision is intact and a lot of surprises came."
Arthur's gift on his first three albums has been the ability to make very different sounding records while retaining his own unique identity. That pattern carried through to Shadows.
"It was less of a singer/songwriter record, too," says Arthur. "The main focus of the record wasn't necessarily around what would normally be considered singer/songwriter aesthetic. I was trying to make some sort of party record, too, in some ways."
With Shadows' completion, Arthur signed to small but dedicated Vector Records, which seems committed to him for the long haul. The label will also be releasing a six-song EP in December, so Arthur feels that he's finally aligned himself with people who share his vision and passion.
That's not an insignificant point for an artist whose creative arc features so many different sounds and atmospheres. Through all his challenges and deliberately varied experiences, Arthur feels a certain consistency in his work that transcends the differences he's built into each one.
"I think they're all open and brave and experimental and original," says Arthur about his albums. He then adds, with a laugh, "That sounds totally immodest and maybe it is, but sometimes you gotta go for it. Hey, you asked. I never said I wasn't a megalomaniac ... 'Enough about me, what do you think of me?' "
JOSEPH ARTHUR performs Tuesday (Nov. 23) at the 20th Century Theater.