Joseph Arthur Talks 20th-Anniversary Reissue, Support From Peter Gabriel and Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl. Peter Gabriel. T Bone Burnett. Twenty years later, the bold-face names that helped launch Joseph Arthur’s career return in a flood of memories. “The cast of characters who made that project brings back so much love in my heart about it,” Arthur says.
The project was Arthur’s career-defining second album, Come to Where I’m From. In a year of landmark albums — Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP, Radiohead’s Kid A, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, Coldplay’s Parachutes — Arthur’s sophomore album may not have been one of 2000’s commercial blockbusters. But starting with the sweetly supportive if bittersweet “In the Sun” — covered by Gabriel, as well as a collaboration between Michael Stipe and Coldplay — it marked the arrival of someone attempting the impossible: reviving the lone-troubadour format when it felt over and done.
Co-produced by Burnett, Come to Where I’m From — which will be reissued with bonus material on June 12th — was far removed from that producer’s usual Americana tendencies. The arrangements were murky and foggy, a perfect match for angsty, tortured songs that picked over Arthur’s excesses (“Chemical,” “Creation or a Stain”) and wrecked relationships (“Invisible Hands,” “Tattoo”). Arthur sang in a voice that could be scratchy and bedraggled but was never less than commanding.
Despite its nods to tradition — strummy guitars, harmonica — here was a troubadour album for the new century, complete with moments of lush melodicism (like his definitive version of “In the Sun”).
For the expanded 20th-anniversary reissue, those songs will be supplemented with 13 outtakes, including alternate versions of “In the Sun” and “Exhausted,” the latter featuring legendary drummer Jim Keltner. Even more intriguing are live recordings from that year. Those one-man-band affairs found Arthur encasing himself in loops and effects years before Ed Sheeran did the same.
Born and raised in Ohio before moving to Atlanta in the early Nineties, Arthur was brought to the attention of Gabriel who signed him to his Real World label; that company released Arthur’s 1997 debut, Big City Secrets. While the album sold minimally, it led to Arthur participating in the WOMAD festival that year. Through a mutual friend in the business, Arthur was introduced to Burnett as a potential producer. The idea appealed to Arthur, who felt his debut was perhaps a little too tame. “There was a loose side that was caged, but with T Bone, I was able to let it out of the cage and go nuts,” he says. “When I hear the album now, I hear that freedom. I was 26 and full of self-doubt, but T Bone brought out that confidence I had.”
Come to Where I’m From was cut at the iconic Sound City studio in L.A. and included a few songs left over from Big City Secrets. According to Arthur, Gabriel was particularly taken with the churning “History” and the line “Your history acts as your gravity.” “He said, ‘That’s interesting’ — he told me that directly,” Arthur recalls. “Peter was always adamant about putting that song out. T Bone didn’t like it and didn’t want it on the record, but we decided to put it on. I was really attached to it.” Thinking back, he marvels at the memory that he pushed back against the far more experienced Burnett: “I think now, ‘Was I confident or just dumb?’ I really don’t know. I still don’t know.”
Grohl was working in an adjacent room and asked to jam with Arthur; he wound up playing drums on an early version of “In the Sun.” (It’s still unclear whether the alternate take on the expanded edition features Grohl or not since the paperwork has not turned up.) “T Bone wasn’t there and he came back and said, ‘Nah, that’s not the right version,’” Arthur laughs. “We were bummed because we wanted to have Dave Grohl on there!”
Among the outtakes are the flowing “California,” “Cocaine Blind” (“about nights of wandering and debauchery and describing the feeling of it,” Arthur says now), careening Stones-style rockers (“Victory Boulevard,” “In the Distance”), and the trudging, experimental “Heavy Bullets.” Arthur is particularly fond of “Heavy Bullets.” “It has a looseness you don’t hear on a lot of music nowadays,” he says. “It was like a Nineties thing, like Pavement — that loose vibe when magic happened. I was trying to mix that sensibility with the singer-songwriter vibe.”
Like many musicians since the lockdown, Arthur has been doing what he can to stay busy. A tour with Greg Dulli has been rescheduled for the fall, although those plans remain up in the air. He’s returned to one of his passions, painting, working regularly in the temporarily closed art gallery of a friend. He’s writing new songs and has wandered into the world of livestreaming; he’s considering a stream that would feature new performances of songs from Come to Where I’m From.
Those unplugged livestreams have also prompted him to want to make an album in that format for the first time. “The whole livestreaming situation is conducive for solo acoustic singer-songwriter types like myself,” he says. “It’s been a good opportunity to really focus on new songs and just feel of service to other people. I feel like music is becoming much more intensely important to people during these times, and it feels good to be able to provide that. Soul and vulnerability feel more relevant because we’re face-to-face with our own vulnerability now.”
He’s also hoping to eventually resume his podcast, also called Come to Where I’m From, where his wide-ranging guests have included Rosanna Arquette, Michael Imperioli, Mark Lanegan, Joan Osborne, and country act Chely Wright.
Since those long-ago days of Come to Where I’m From, Arthur’s music and career have taken any number of left-turns. He switched labels several times, eventually starting his own and releasing a barrage of albums and EPs. (“I’m exhausted by my imagination,” a line in Come to Where I’m From, proved to be prophetic.) He also made albums with Fistful of Mercy — a semi-supergroup with Ben Harper and Dhani Harrison — and Peter Buck (2018’s Arthur Buck).
Along the way, Arthur struggled with drug and alcohol issues. But his last few albums, including the intimate The Graduation Ceremony, the musically varied The Ballad of Boogie Christ, his Lou Reed tribute album Lou, and last year’s Come Back World, have been a return to form. At 46, he’s sober and exercising regularly. During a recent run in New York, he exercise soundtrack was, of all things, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. “Good music to run to is hip-hop and really soft acoustic songwriter stuff like Nebraska,” he muses. “I don’t know why that is.”
The relaunch of his 20-year-old album also prompts Arthur to mull over his journey since then. “It’s been so long, so many roads, going through the trials and tribulations of your soul,” he admits. “You realize how much harder you were making your life for yourself than you needed to, along with toxic relationships and other stuff. I wish I could have woken up to those behaviors sooner.
“I definitely have regrets, but I also don’t have regrets at the same time because I’m here now. I like where I am. I feel better than ever. I still have places I want to go. It’s been an amazing journey. I have a sense of optimism, even though the world feels like it’s getting spookier all the time.” Arthur laughs. “We’re getting deep,” he says. “Someone pass me a doobie, bro!”