GO, BABY!: Touring with a band has brought out Arthur’s inner rock star.
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 Redemption’s Son (Universal, 2002) and Our 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.