Grave Singer

We’re all gonna die, and Joseph Arthur wants to sing you a song about it.

The closing track on Berlin, Lou Reed’s 1973 late-blooming masterpiece, is entitled “Sad Song.” Indeed it is a sad song, with Reed voicing a violence-prone junkie’s half-hearted remorse for the despicable acts he’s committed throughout the album’s tales of domestic discord and addiction. Yet the song exudes optimism and light. The soft waver of flute and piano at its commencement echoes “Over the Rainbow,” and the sweeping, dramatic crashes of cymbal and guitar sound downright uplifting—even though Reed’s character is offering a backhanded apology, defensively declaring “Someone else would have broken both her arms.”

It’s a fascinating, artistically effective exercise in dichotomy, not dissimilar to the approach taken by Akron, Ohio–born singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur. Throughout his 14-year career, Arthur has forged a wealth of fearlessly introspective, heart-wrenching pop, folk, and rock-inflected songs, occasionally augmented by samples and loops, and always signed with his distinctly mournful but life-affirming signature.

“I think there’s a thread of sorrow running through life,” says Arthur, laughing dryly and speaking via phone from his home in Brooklyn. “We and everyone we know are headed for the grave. I have an ongoing battle with depression, which thankfully I’m on the good side of most recently…that definitely has informed my work. It’s a great motivator. Nothing can turn around a moment like a creative act. It just redeems everything.”

Those creative acts have taken the form of seven full-length studio releases and 11 EPs since his 1996 debut on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. His combination of vulnerability and fearlessness has won him an international fan base that includes celebrities as wide-ranging as Greg Dulli and Justin Timberlake, while his intelligence, humor, and sartorial flair made him a compelling, colorful subject for a 2008 film entitled You Are Free, which documented the launch of his 2005 tour. His live shows are legendarily hypnotic, intimate affairs, especially when Arthur plays entirely solo, as he will this Friday and Saturday night at the Triple Door.

With his most recent record, Temporary People, well over a year behind him, he’s currently working on two separate projects, including one with UK-based producer Stephen Hage (Pet Shop Boys, Siouxsie Sioux). “We’re sending things back and forth,” says Arthur. “I heard about people making records that way and it had never struck me as ideal, but it’s pretty cool.”

He’s dubbed the second project The Ballad of Boogie Christ, and describes it as “Kind of a concept album…long, lyrical pieces all based on words. So I have two records in the works, one more rooted in the melody and one more rooted in the words.” They will eventually be released via Arthur’s own label, Lonely Astronaut Records, though precisely when remains up in the air: “I’m just not sure which one’s going to come out first. They are both really different and I don’t want to release them on top of each other.”

Two projects at once isn’t bad for a guy who didn’t find the confidence to voice his own compositions until his early 20s, when Jimi Hendrix helped him over that hump. “I used to sing along to Hendrix. I think I was 21 when I first started recording songs with my own voice. But [the songs] were all mired in this convoluted and complicated identity I had created. So they weren’t particularly good songs; they had too many complicated changes.”

Though his first recording wasn’t released until he was 24, Arthur’s early interest in playing evolved into a love of writing: “I started with piano when I was 10 years old.” The real turning point came when his aunt gave him an analog synthesizer with a six-track sequencer, which allowed him to experiment with overdubs and multitracking. “My whole start was composing electronic music, really,” he recalls. “Once my imagination got access like that, it was sort of a revolution.”

Arthur then fell deep into the well of the avant-garde and complex. “I started listening to a lot of jazz fusion—Miles Davis and Weather Report,” he says. “I wasn’t singing or listening to songwriters. I assumed I couldn’t sing, so my whole focus became on jazz. In my fantasy land I was going to become some sort of musical virtuoso.”

Once he shook himself out of his jazz-damaged state and discovered the Beatles and other pop staples, he recorded a demo that miraculously made its way through a chain of friends and industry acquaintances, eventually catching the receptive ears of Peter Gabriel, who was looking for new acts to sign to his WOMAD-inspired boutique label.

Real World released Arthur’s debut full-length, Big City Secrets, in 1997, and he went on to tour internationally with Gabriel. Vector signed on to release Arthur’s fourth full-length studio effort, Our Shadows Will Remain, in 2004—the first record in his catalog that sounds as if it came from a performer who’d found his voice through the world-weary life experiences of travel and exposure to a wide breadth of genres and sounds. At times reflecting an appreciation for the dark, dirgey sides of Tom Waits or Nick Cave, but also refracting a ray of hope and careful pop craftsmanship that brings to mind John Lennon or Elvis Costello, Our Shadows Will Remain was a critical and commercial breakout for Arthur.

Regardless of how his future successes are measured by record sales or critical hallelujahs, it’s clear the 38-year old is married to his craft. “It’s been the way I’ve been all my life. I can’t see how that could change. But who knows, maybe I’ll have some big breakthrough and just be content sitting in the lotus position. If that happens, great; I just hope someone comes and gives me something to eat.”