Joseph Arthur’s good luck borders on the miraculous. In the late-1990s, Peter Gabriel was searching for an American performer to appear on his Real World international record label. A&R veteran Harvey Schwartz gave Gabriel a four-song demo by Arthur called Cut and Blind. Gabriel was impressed by the lyricism and arranged to audition Arthur at the Fez nightclub in New York City.
At the time, Arthur was living in an attic apartment in Atlanta and working as a guitar salesman at Clark Music Store. As Arthur explained in a 1997 interview with Creative Loafing, “I came home to a phone message. ‘Hi. This is Peter Gabriel… got the tape… you write really good songs. I’ll call you back.’” Arthur flew from Atlanta to New York and nearly lost it when he learned Lou Reed would be in attendance. “It was just so fucking intense with Lou Reed there. I went in the bathroom and got on my knees and prayed, no shit. Before I knew it I was sitting in a restaurant with him [Reed] sharing ice cream off the same plate. It was like dreaming with your eyes open.”
Arthur signed with Real World and flew to Gabriel’s studio in England. He was teamed with producer Markus Dravs (Coldplay, Arcade Fire, Björk) to record the album Big City Secrets. Arthur described the music as “someone struggling to heal over experimental folk-rock.” The songs were angsty in the vein of Tom Waits, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen. Arthur used unique instrumentation including a hurdy-gurdy, Venetian xylophone, caxixi (rhythmic shaker) and a berimbau (single-string percussion). The lyrics are personal and cathartic as when he sings about his father, “Put my daddy on Prozac, don’t think I want him back.” The single “Mercedes” featured background vocals from Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel.
Though the album sold poorly, critics praise it, calling the record “hushed and haunted.” Music supervisors took notice and included Arthur’s songs in movies like The Bone Collector, Bourne Identity, Shallow Hal and Shrek 2. Arthur’s follow-up EP Vacancy earned a Grammy nomination for best recording package.
Arthur grew up in Akron, Ohio home of Chrissie Hynde, Devo and Lebron James. He joked that he’s “Akron’s least famous celebrity.” As a boy, he loved Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. He inherited an electric keyboard from his aunt and then took up guitar. He didn’t start singing until his early-20s. Then he heard Nirvana. It made him want to be a rock star.
By 2002, Arthur released four studio albums and five EP’s. He opened for artists like Ben Harper and Tracey Chapman and became a favorite of music publications like Pitchfork and Allmusic. Rolling Stone’s Chris Rubin rated Arthur’s fourth record Our Shadows Will Remain as the 2004 album of the year. The Guardian wrote Arthur “might just be a genuine mad genius.”
His most popular single was “In the Sun,” first recorded in 2001. The song was covered by Michael Stipe, Chris Martin, Justin Timberlake and Gabriel. It was included on the Princess Diana tribute album. In 2006, Arthur formed his own label Lonely Astronaut Records. He toured worldwide and released a book of his paintings. In 2008, he released four EP’s in a four-month period. “I have so much music piled up, like strange animals in a cosmic cage begging for release. The jails were overcrowded. I had to let some of them go.”
That’s when critics turned on him. Pitchfork wrote that his new records were “unfocused” and “sloppy” as if “it came together on the fly, in jam sessions that didn’t stem from any kind of solid idea.” Arthur was undaunted, though his sales suffered. In 2013, he used Pledge Music (similar to Kickstarter) to finance a new record. He told fans, “With the music business being what it is nowadays, unless you break out big or become a license darling, there are precious few alternatives to fund one’s work.” His friendship with Lou Reed led to an album of Reed covers called Lou in 2014 recorded after Reed’s death.
Arthur’s open about his struggles with addiction and recovery. In a 2008 NPR interview, he said addiction is “definitely something I’ve been dealing with for quite a long time, and it’s something that I feel I’m on the good end of right now.” His 2012 song “I Miss the Zoo” depicts his battle with searing honesty:
I miss the drunk, I miss the fiend
I miss the simplicity of addiction and the scene
I miss wandering aimlessly in half dead sewers
With rats for eyes chewing on forgiveness and the will to apologize
I miss the return of no return as I burn in avalanche of white snow and yellow cocaine
Arthur credited recovery for awakening his faith in a higher power. “It’s connected me to a spiritual life. I’ve gotten many gifts from being an addict.” He identifies as Christian and speaks about “trying to overcome your demons through your spirit.”
During the pandemic, Arthur’s luck took a downward turn. Like Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, he questioned the science behind Covid-19 vaccines. He released a song called “Stop the Shot” with the lyrics “keep your graphene oxide out of me/Baby, I don’t want to rust.” According to a Los Angeles Times article he claimed the “vaccine represents a danger to humanity, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary.” He speculated on collusion between the government and the medical-industrial complex, stating their coordinated effort was “end times type of stuff.”
The backlash was immediate. He was dropped by longtime manager Keith Hagan and booking agent Steve Ferguson. His entire band quit and then Arthur says he lost a record deal. He used the term “segregation” when discussing the blowback. “If you say ‘segregation, the woke crowd comes at you with knives out.” He posted a video on Facebook saying, “This is what Nazis did with the Jews when comparing them to vermin before rounding them up and taking them to camps.”
Arthur’s polemic connected to his struggles with recovery. In 2016, he told a SoundCloud interviewer that he has “an issue with powerlessness.” In the Times article, a former member of his music team said, “He’s an addict, right? So he was either a full-on addict or full-on clean and very preachy. This is part of the extremes that he struggles with.” Arthur’s anti-government social media posts continued. “Don’t listen to fear,” he posted. “Dr. Anthony Fauci should go to prison not just be fired.”
In August 2022, Arthur filed a $25 million lawsuit against the Times claiming the headline “anti-vax” was defamatory since he only campaigned against Covid vaccines, not all vaccines. The lawsuit blamed the article for causing Arthur to be “shunned and avoided” by the entire music industry leading “directly to the cancellation of multiple gigs…career damage, loss of future earnings, and impaired…earning capacity.” As of late-2022, a clerk from the US District Court of Virginia Charlottesville stated that Arthur and his attorneys hadn’t yet served the Times since filing the complaint.
Arthur hasn’t announced tour dates or new albums. He’s said, “You can redeem your whole existence through arts and crafts.” His current social media postings feature a renewed emphasis on spirituality. In a recent Twitter post he wrote, “Forgiveness is the birthplace of genius because with forgiveness comes peace comes solitude and quiet and with solitude or clarity of vision comes God’s giant ideas landing like magic birds in the nest of your mind.”