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01 août 2007

Joseph Arthur : MOMAR man

Joseph Arthur rounds the corner of a wall displaying his artwork, squinting into the soft, perfect light of the main gallery space. MOMAR — the Museum of Modern Arthur — unofficially opened in early June a block from the Brooklyn shore of the East River. The idea is to sell his large abstract paintings, many done live on stage as part of his solo performances, and maybe the work of other artists as well — he’s working it out as he goes along. He’s also busy recording another album with his band, the Lonely Astronauts, roughly his third recorded disc this year. Roughly, that is, because there’s already an album of Lonely Astronaut songs in the can, and he’s also sorting through 35 tracks for his next solo record. How many songs he’s written and recorded lately, he’s not exactly sure.

With his mouth bent into a smile under the heavy slits of his eyes and high forehead, Arthur looks like a porpoise poking his head above the surface of the water — or, eyes adjusting and readjusting to the light, a baby. Rock and roll is notoriously infantilizing to those who practice it. You’re carted to where adoration is readily available by people responsible for your safety, and all manner of intoxicants are presented to you as easily as a bottle tilted at your chin; the whole nocturnal/diurnal divide is just an abstract concept. But some of the best artists are indeed like babies: every sensation arrives as fresh information about the world. Babies are always in the moment.

Arthur is one of those for whom the differences between life and art blur into a smear. Inspiration isn’t something you spend time or energy doubting, no matter how absurd its origins. Take the idea of opening a gallery. “A few months ago, I was just walking around the neighborhood,” he explains, “and there was a broken storefront — somebody had broken into at night. I walked in there and just sat in the middle of it for a little while, and the idea came to me there.”

Art came first for Arthur, who’s 35. He drew and painted growing up in Akron, and he just never stopped. But he also started listening to his older sister’s records, and those of her friends. “I was really young hanging out with older upperclassmen and listening to Zeppelin and shit like that. In eighth grade, I was in a band with two seniors, which in high school years is a lot.”

It was validation from the older, more established set that also established his music as a career. Peter Gabriel signed Arthur to his Real World label, releasing the experimental folk rock of Big City Secrets in 1997. Arthur moved up to Virgin for Come to Where I’m From (2000), and he continued to label-hop with the acclaimed (Universal, 2002) and Redemption’s SonOur Shadows Will Remain (Vector, 2004). He released both Nuclear Daydream (2006) and Let’s Just Be (2007) on his own Lonely Astronaut label. With each recording, he’s taken a different approach to songwriting and presentation, moving from that idiosyncratic folk rock to a more straight-rock band.

The question now is when and where those 35 solo tracks will be winnowed down into a single album and released, because the songs so far are stunning. “A River Blue” — the only one available for public consumption, streamed on — hints at these tracks. It was recorded in Northern Uganda with 100 young people from a camp for the internally displaced; the idea was to raise awareness for a music-art-and-drama project there. Imagine the displacement of the rough-hewn choir that’s crowding Arthur’s reedy vocals — assuage your guilt by donating at — and you get an idea of the twilit grandeur to come.

At his best, Arthur positions his songs in the narrow space between heartache and compassion, creating a broad canvas onto which you can splatter your own mess of an internal life. Except that, now, inspired by the band’s drawing out of his inner junior-high rocker, even his solo songwriting drives those sentiments through with melodies that would be big pop hooks if they weren’t in the service of something more obscure.

“This one is more a follow-up to Our Shadows Will Remain,” he says of the upcoming solo disc, “where Nuclear Daydream was a sidestep and Let’s Just Be was a sidestep too. Nothing to diminish the quality of those records, but I was going in a certain direction with Redemption’s Son and Our Shadows Will Remain, and this is more in keeping with that, in that it’s more meticulously produced with in some ways bigger productions, but I think there’s a lot of light in it. There’s lots of love. It’s one of those things that’s hard to talk about in music. I’m not trying to sound esoteric, but you’re talking about one of those things that’s innately esoteric. So it’s difficult to not go there.”

Playing with the Lonely Astronauts has been a revelation, both to him and his audiences. His solo shows held elements of performance art — pretty inescapable when you’re painting a huge canvas throughout the performance — but he was limited to what he could do with his voice and an inventive looping of his acoustic guitar. It was a neat trick, but the Lonely Astronauts, whom he put together to tour Nuclear Daydream, make him a rock star. Thank guitarist Jennifer Turner’s muscular leads in particular; the effect is like hearing Lou Reed’s rocked-up Velvet Underground songs on Rock and Roll Animal. Theirs is the rare show where it seems that anything is possible. When at the end of the Nuclear Daydream tour they began closing sets with the Stones“Miss You,” it felt less ironic than a celebration.

“It’s like a new inspiration, the band,” says Arthur. “It’s a genuine band that came together organically. It feels like a bonus to me, this chemistry that we all discovered. We started writing together, and there was this openness and a lot of fun, just a big spirit about the whole thing, which is what Let’s Just Be is all about, because we took all that crazy energy and went into the studio. That’s why we put that record out. And now we’re recording another band record, which I feel will be quite different.

“It’s definitely liberating. With all this stuff, you have to keep challenging yourself. I suppose that’s what this space is about as well, to some degree.” He casts an eye toward the bright center of MOMAR. “You put these things in front of yourself and through them you grow.”

Located at 25 Jay Street in Brooklyn, the gallery — with its polished, freshly mopped floors and a leggy woman of indeterminately posh accent manning the front desk — officially opened on July 13; the event was marked only by a press release a week later. They’re still figuring things out. The plan is for a big opening event on September 5. (You can track progress at

Arthur’s paintings are mostly dense and layered, on huge unframed canvases. The original of the work seen on the cover of Let’s Just Be, however, is smaller and starkly emotional, with black rivulets of paint radiating out from a figure like a peacock plume coated in club-girl mascara. Some see the figure as the Virgin Mary; others, as a bird. So it goes with Abstract Expressionism.

“I suppose it’s like Abstract Expressionism,” he says. “I’m not too familiar with the labels of it. I have no license to be doing this. It’s all internal. It’s about bringing out something you see in your mind and following the forms. There’s an aspect of meditation to it, some sort of communion with the spirit. As hoky as that sounds, I think it’s true. I feel that it’s a form of therapy meets church meets performance. It’s a funny reaction to life.”

He brushes slept-on hair away from a week and a half’s worth of beard and continues, “I have many days when I write and paint all day long. If you don’t watch TV or get connected into the Internet, it frees up a lot of time, man. But that’s the whole thing, keeping your human spirit alive and awake and unfearful of its explorations.”

He pauses to take a pull from a claret-colored natural energy drink, blinking into the late-afternoon summer sun. “Just being in the moment, being with yourself,” he says of his creative process, which could also be considered a philosophy, or simply life as he’s received it. “It’s kind of like playing.”

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