Never one to waste time between gigs, Joseph Arthur, multi-tasker extraordinaire, speaks to me by cell phone as he walks through Time Square in New York City on a Friday afternoon.
"We just finished playing a studio gig for Sirius radio, which went well," he relays.
Amidst the din of Manhattan, from sirens to static, his voice bleeds through the speaker in tired but jubilant tones. The Akron-born/Brooklyn-based Arthur has just released his fifth full-length record, Nuclear Daydream, and he's busy showcasing it for radio and tour spots. By now he's familiar with the promotion process, but Daydream especially demands that he makes the rounds, since it's probably his most accessible project to date.
Discovered via a demo tape by Peter Gabriel in 1995 and subsequently signed to Gabriel's Real World label, Arthur has teetered on the edge of mainstream success for a few years now. Several of his songs have been featured on soundtracks and been used for benefit causes.
Known for his one-man band capabilities in the studio and live, Arthur often records and performs solo. But he's not only a prolific songwriter: He also paints (sometimes, improbably enough, on stage while performing), writes poetry and publishes his journals. He usually provides his own artwork for his CDs as well, and in 1999 he was nominated for a Grammy for these collages.
Recently, he published a book collection of his primitivism art called We Almost Made It.
His music revels in its lo-fi sensibilities, from the Trip Hop loops that anchor many of his songs to the swirling acoustics that glimmer through the murky beats. His voice rides over the song textures with husky resonance, providing just enough grit to suck listeners into the atmospheric blend.
In regards to recording Daydream, he says, "I wanted this record to be a little looser and more accessible than some of my other stuff." No doubt he achieves that on the tuneful disc. These 12 songs still retain the dark pulse that beats through his earlier work, but they also glisten with more polished melodies.
"I expected to make even more of an acoustic record than this turned out to be," he confesses.
But even with its more pronounced ear-friendly tendencies, Daydream still challenges with somber tales of urban love and decay, a scorched love among the ruins. It's a New York record, with many of the city's disparate sources filtered in with impressionistic traces. Daydream ranges from the rollicking Pop single, "Enough to Get Away," to the whispered, tender desolation of the title track. "You Are Free" gives clues to Arthur's changing state, as he sings, "Those days are gone/I'm no longer who I was/No longer who I thought I was."
Arthur admits he's one of the lucky songwriters whose muse rarely deserts him.
"I don't sweat songs so much or overwork them," he says. "They do sort of come easy for me. Often I'll just improvise in the studio, inventing lines as I go. If you follow your train of thought with lyrics, eventually you'll come up with something good."
He taps into this free-flow artistic process through all his work; it's the same impulse that leads him to paint onstage or release many of his shows on self-recorded bootleg discs after the concerts. "People tend to be too uptight about art," Arthur says. "I like to put myself out there."
He rarely sticks to standard set lists either, so his recorded shows spark with spontaneity and take risks more often than not.
In today's world of lawsuits, copyright infringements and downloading, it's refreshing to hear an artist speak like this. He's generous with his music and his art, and takes inspiration from the very people for whom he performs.
"I get so much feedback from my fans," he says. "It helps me figure out what's working and what's not."
On this new tour he's playing with a full band for the first time in quite a while. As he discusses the band, I can hear the satisfaction in his voice.
"We've got Jen Turner and Sybil Buck on guitar and bass, Greg Wiz on drums, and Kraig Johnson from Golden Smog might join us soon too," he says.
After performing solo for so long, he must find it almost relaxing to rely on others a bit more and feel less pressure onstage.
"I don't have to play guitar now if I don't feel like it," he says. "And I probably won't paint onstage anymore either, at least for a few years. I've done that."
This looks like a high-profile, banner year for Joseph Arthur. Besides his new record, label and tour, he just contributed a song to Rogue's Gallery: Pirate Ballads, a Pirates of the Caribbean-inspired collection that also features Bono, Lucinda Williams and Richard Thompson, among others. Michael Stipe from R.E.M. recently recorded an EP with versions of Arthur's early, great single, "In the Sun," for Hurricane Katrina relief. And he'll be on David Letterman's show Oct. 10 to promote the new disc amidst a steady stream of tour dates.
Evidently, all of the promo work and producing all these different genres of art wasn't enough for Arthur; in his spare time, he recently started his own record label, Lonely Astronaut Records. Fittingly enough, Nuclear Daydream is the first release on the label.
"If we have some success, we might be able to sign other bands," he says of his imprint. "There's so much good stuff out there now."
Arthur admits he mainly just wants more control over the entire process.
"My idea for (the label) comes from wanting to put out music as fast as I can make it. I want it to stay current," he says. He doesn't have to wait for a bigger label's distribution deals anymore; all decisions root back to Arthur, and that's how he wants it.
JOSEPH ARTHUR performs Tuesday at the 20th Century Theater.