PLAYING HARD TO GET WITH ART Joseph Arthur

The modern-day
Renaissance man talks music, collaborations, squatting (!), and what it’s like
to own a “badass easel.”

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

Born in Akron, Ohio, in 1971 and nowadays living in New
York, Joseph Arthur has been a professional recording artist since the late
‘90s when he became the first American to be signed to Peter Gabriel’s Real
World label. Since then he’s released seven critically-hailed studio albums and
– his most recent one was 2008’s Temporary
People
, released on his own Lonely Astronaut Records – and a slew of
not-merely-stopgap EPs, including four thematically-linked titles in 2008
alone. He’s also been the subject of a documentary film, You Are Free, and his song “You Are Free” gained international
attention when Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Chris Martin of Coldplay re-recorded
it as part of a Hurricane Katrina benefit project.

 

In some circles he’s known equally well for his work in
visual arts, and it’s unquestionably an understatement to label him as prolific
a painter as he is a musician. He began drawing and painting as a child, and
although encouraged by his mother to develop his talent, he never had any
formal art training. Yet over the years he’s had a hand in the creation of each
of his strikingly
designed record sleeves
, and with the establishment of his Museum Of Modern Arthur (aka MOMAR), he became
unique among the musical community for operating an art gallery where fans and
collectors could literally walk in and view his abstract renderings on canvas
and paper. MOMAR operated for a couple of years starting in 2007, but following
a dispute with the landlord of the building the gallery was housed in, it has since moved online and now does business as a so-called “virtual gallery.”

 

What’s more, on recent tours performing as a solo act (he
also tours with his band the Lonely Astronauts), he employs loops and effects
to create a full ensemble sound while additionally devoting a portion of each
concert to live painting – with a twist. Not content to merely set down his
instrument and pick up a paint brush onstage, during a song Arthur will set in
motion guitar and percussion loops then, holding a microphone in one hand and
his brush in the other, begin work on a fresh painting while singing the song.
In a sense, it’s as crazy as it sounds, but as you’ll learn from Arthur’s comments,
the process is a lot more complex than it may appear. (Worth noting: Arthur
sells the paintings at the conclusion of his shows, and he’s been donating 100%
of the funds to Haitian relief efforts. His current tour dates, including a
string of shows in Philly, NYC and L.A.
that kicks off this week, are listed at his official website.)

 

I talked to Arthur last year by phone just prior to his
embarking upon a solo music-and-painting tour. In the background were lots of
crowd noises and, at one point, the rumbling sound of what appeared to be an
approaching then departing subway train. Far from being distracted by the setting,
however, Arthur was as animated and forthcoming an interview subject as they
come.

 

***

 

 

BLURT: Your work as a
visual artist is well known, of course, and the fact that you have been doing
these solo performances where you play music and paint onstage during the show almost seems to take that notion
to an uncharted level. And I understand that for your upcoming tour you’ll
continue to do the painting and playing thing?

 

 JOSEPH ARTHUR: Yeah,
the van’s [on the road] right now, in fact, carrying one of the baddest-ass
easels you ever saw!

 

 

 I’ve never heard of an easel described as
“badass.”

 

 [laughing] You know, it’s weird; I’ve never thought of an easel as
“badass” before. Except before this week! When I used to paint live, which I
did years ago, I’d do it on a big piece of plywood and just roll raw canvas on
top of that, then lean it against a wall. Then on the West Coast tour I started
using an easel, but it was kind of too small. So I made sure to get “the real
shit,” you know? So that’s what’s got me thinking of easels as badass!

 

 

 I watched a video
of you live on Seattle’s KEXP
painting and singing, and while we often talk
about artists marrying disparate disciplines I don’t think I’ve ever seen that
notion done in quite so literal a fashion as you. Is there a precedent for
that?

 

 I don’t think so;
I’ve never heard of anybody singing and painting at the same time. I know that
people paint live [in front of an audience], and people obviously sing, but I
don’t think anybody else does both at the same time.

 

 

 If Ed Sullivan were still with us you could
fit right in with the guy who’s spinning plates and telling jokes at the same
time…

 

 Yeah man, and put
some cymbals between my knees too – I’d be good to go! [laughs]

 

 

 Tell me a little about your background. I know
you grew up in Akron and then after finishing
high school moved to Atlanta
in the early ‘90s. Did you attend art school anyplace along the way?

 

 No, no, and I’ll tell
you this part: selling jewelry in Little Five Points [bohemian/artsy section of
Atlanta] was my
art school education. I met all kinds of artists and interesting characters
there.

 

 

 Then if you don’t have any formal training,
when did you first become interested in painting professionally, and how did
that evolve for you?

 

 It’s funny; I was
dating this girl I Atlanta, and she invited me to go to a museum show in Alabama. And to me,
coming from Akron,
I thought of a museum show as something that would just be boring – you know,
Renaissance paintings or something. So when we went, it was Basquiat! It was a mind-blowing experience. This
huge retrospective of his work. And I had already been painting by that time,
my own kind of abstract stuff, but I didn’t know you could take that stuff
seriously. So that opened my mind a lot: “Okay, yeah, there’s an audience for this.”
And the fact that he was so amazing was inspiring to me too. Then I found out
who else was out there – Cy Twombly, Rauschenberg, de Kooning – and started
learning more about painters.

     Then you really
start to teach yourself through looking. It’s kind of the same way you teach
yourself music – through listening. Like when you first hear Bob Dylan and you
go, “Oh my God…” Then you start spinning off that and listening to other people
and you figure out how to write songs through listening. Same thing with
painting.

      It was
interesting, too, working on album artwork. Working in Photoshop with somebody
on album artwork and watching the way they would make layers, and put layer on
top of layer. That taught me more than anything else, because I thought, “Oh,
it’s all about layers. I get it.” It was like a lightbulb going off over my
head.

 

 

 That’s interesting how something as
tech-specific and digital as Photoshop would be an influence on your physical
painting.

 

 Exactly. That’s the
point. It was from technology, and I could bring that into my organic work. It
was like attending a Master’s class. So I never went to art school, but I feel
like I had art school laid before me along the way. When you’re open to it, the
universe kind of provides, you know?

 

 

You just laid out the
parallels between a self-taught musician and a visual artist with no formal training,
the learning process. Yet people may tend to think of the musical arts and
visual arts as so wholly separate disciplines that they use different portions
of the brain, so to speak. Do you feel that the respective inspirations may
come from the same place?

 

 I do, absolutely.
That’s why I paint live, too, because I think of music in painterly ways, and I
think of painting in musical ways. It’s like how I was describing Photoshop:
when I made my first record, for the producer I would bring in these songs and
he would basically put these angular, crazy, fucked up things over the top on
them. And I was like, “Oh, I get it! You’re supposed to try to fuck ‘em up as
much as you can without destroying ‘em!” [laughs]
That’s how it registered in my brain, literally.

   And then of course,
there’s a line: the more you fuck it up
without destroying it, the better.
But then you’re closer to the line of
destroying it, and for some you will destroy it.

     For some, say,
James Taylor, that song’s destroyed. But then for others, like My Bloody
Valentine is the perfect example of something that’s almost completely
obliterated yet at the same time is this thing of shiny beauty that’s just
amazing, and that’s [Kevin Shields’] genius right there, that he could create
all those layers and textures and have this amazing thing.

 

 

 Have there been any instances where one of
your songs inspired a painting, or vice versa?

 

 Well, it’s hard to
say specifically that, “Oh, I looked at a painting I did and now I want to
write a song about the painting” or vice versa. I don’t know that that’s ever
really happened. But they inspire each other in that they spin off each other.
I guess that’s how they come together live. Particularly my live solo shows –
they’re kind of like an example of my home environment. Even to the point where
I loop myself and record myself in front of people [onstage]: that’s what I do
at home; that’s four-tracking. And then I also paint. A lot of times I do both
at the same time at home. You’ll work on music, and then you want to go do
something else but you don’t want to just go lay down or read a book because
your imagination is going strong, so [you go paint].

 

 

I was going to ask
how much time do you devote to painting versus music in any given day or week, but
you’ve got the best of both worlds while touring.

 

 In fact, on the last
tour I was selling a lot of paintings that weren’t necessarily live paintings
but ones I did at soundcheck. It’s almost like I go to paint “Factory-style”. [laughs] I mean, it’s possible to approach art in a cold way that I think
is really healthy for it.

 

 

 Why is that?

 

 I think art responds
well to when you kind of don’t give a fuck about it, do you know what I mean?
When you get all precious and ritualistic about it, “it” kind of shies away
from you. Almost like a girl you’re trying to date: if you worship her and
stuff, she’ll just go, “Ooh, get away from me!” But if you’re kinda casual
about it, she’ll like you – and the art will like you.

 

 

 We’ve just arrived at a good title for this
piece: “Playing Hard to Get with Art.”

 

 Oh yeah, exactly – exactly! The rules of seduction apply
across the board.

 

 

You’ve had a hand in
all your record sleeves, some of them displaying your original art and others
incorporating various photographers’ work – in the latter instances, the sleeve
credits suggest a collaborative effort, however. Is collaboration a positive
artistic value in your mind?

 

Big time. And more and more, recently, especially in music.
I’m almost more interested in what I would come up in a collaborative way with
somebody than on my own. That’s different from how I was, say, ten years ago;
that would have been the opposite, more like “I just wanna produce it myself
and play everything on it.” Like I had to prove something to myself, I dunno!
But now I like the idea of writing with other people.

 

 

Now, it’s easy enough
for you to work with a fellow musician, and even do it on the fly – say, with
Peter Buck or Ben Harper, who I know showed up at a couple of your West Coast
shows and sat in with you. If all else fails, whip out “Louie Louie,” that sort
of thing. But is that level of collaboration even possible visually, given that
painting is considerably more solitary an activity by nature?

 

 It’s funny, because a
painter friend of mine recently said she’d like to paint with me sometime, and
she does stuff that takes months,
whereas I’ll work on a painting for ten
minutes.
So I’m thinking, jeez, I’d feel weird about ruining one of your
paintings! [laughs] You know? But
yes, it’s less of a natural thing for two painters to collaborate.

    But like I said,
I’ve definitely collaborated with people on Photoshop and stuff like that. And
[art designer] Zachary Larner on my early record sleeves; some of my favorite
ones are collaborations with him. [See 2000’s Come To
Where I’m From
for an example of Arthur and Larner’s sleeve design.
] So
yeah, particularly now in modern times, it’s possible. Photoshop in particular.

 

 

You don’t have to
worry about fucking up someone’s canvas in Photoshop – you can always return to
the source on the computer.

 

And you know, that’s one of the biggest challenges to
painting, particularly live painting: your tendency is to just keep going until
you obliterate what was in there in the first place, because it’s hard to
conceive that something “simple” can be great, as the mind’s nature is to go,
“No, I must work on it and think on it and really contemplate it for months and
months for it to be great.” That can be far from the truth, and with live
painting there’s no chance of that because you leave your mind no space whatsoever.
The mind is kicked out of the equation, and that’s what’s great about it.
Usually half the time I’m doing it I think, oh, this is terrible, it’s not
working, and this is an important show and I really wish this painting was
good… Then once I’m done and the show’s over and I go offstage and look at it I
usually go, “Wow, that’s pretty good…”

 

 

 Your mind is going one direction while the
muse is veering in a different direction?

 

 Yeah. The muse is
under the pressure of the audience. It has no time to let the mind beat it up
to the point where you sit down on the couch and get depressed! You’re in front
of a roomful of people where you’ve set up the uncomfortable situation of
“paint something that’s alive and that works” for them.

 

 

 You’re saying that it’s not like being able to
change the setlist in the middle of a concert.

 

 No! And you can’t say
to the audience, “I was just kidding! I know that there’s this badass easel
here, but just kidding about this, just ignore that…” You can’t do that.

     I wasn’t actually
ever intending to play and sing at the same time. The first time I ever did it
was in L.A. at the Troubadour a few years ago, and I was just gonna walk out
onstage, draw a little something, then say good-night. Maybe even more
artsy-fartsy than that, just paint a little backdrop at soundcheck, then work
on it a little in the show. That’s kind of how I did it. But the next day an
interviewer said, “Oh, so I hear you are painting and singing at the same
time.” Well, no, I hadn’t planned that. But the light bulb just went off that I
could. I was still self-sampling, so
I knew I could enter in a loop and sing and do it. I thought, “Oh my God,
that’s a great idea.”

 

 

 Earlier you mentioned a few artists that
inspired you. Is there any living artist that you admire who you’d like to have
the chance to work with?

 

 Well, Cy Twombly. I love him. I’d
like to meet him. Most of the painters I know about are dead. He’s alive, but
very old.

 

 

You may have stoked
some potential collaborative fires with the coloring book contest for your
recent Color Me Courageous art/coloring book too. [For the
competition, Arthur solicited fans to submit their own Arthur-esque renderings,
yielding an impressive field. The winner was a four-year old. Go here at Arthur’s
website
to see that and the runner-ups displayed gallery style.
] Some
of those paintings were hugely impressive. The opportunity for a kid to have
their stuff displayed in such a high profile fashion, to be associated with a
“known” artist so to speak, is beautiful. It’s fantastic encouragement – my
9-year old son has an outstanding art teacher who has consistently encouraged
him to develop his talent, and that’s important. A little encouragement can go
a long way.

 

That’s awesome. Yeah – the contest, the four year old that
won, especially. And a little encouragement does go a long way when you’re
young, for sure. I think as long as kids don’t get discouraged, you know? Like,
my mom, when I was a kid, would tell me, “You’re really good at drawing!” And I
would go, “Really?” Because my sister could draw realistic and I couldn’t; I
didn’t draw like that. I was more [abstract]. So I asked my mom why, and she
said, “Because your drawings have personality.” And I was, wow. That blew my
mind when I was young. And I just never stopped painting after that.

 

 

The MOMAR [the Museum of Modern Arthur, his
online virtual art gallery, which initially operated, starting in 2007, as a
physical artspace in Brooklyn until being ejected by the landlord of the
property] – tell me how that’s going these days. I would imagine you were
unhappy when you got shut down.

 

Ahh, well… to tell you the truth, not actually. I did have
pangs about it for months after it was closed. Then I had regrets: “Oh, we
could have done this…” But not necessarily about it remaining open. It ran its
course, and was open for two years. When we opened it our financial people were
like, “Dude, you’re not going to be able to keep this open for four months!” So
it had its great life and we threw some great events and I’m glad we did it.

     Plus it was hard
for me. I had to live illegally in the back of it; that was one of the ways I
could make it happen. That was rough.

 

 

 You were squatting in your own space?

 

 I was squatting for
two years. So you know what, I actually am relieved that I’m back to a private
lifestyle! [laughs] But it was good.
It was epic! A cool place, and it had a great moment. And hopefully maybe one
of these days I’ll get a chance to open something else up.

 

 

In talking to you, I
was getting the feeling that you’re always a step or two on the path to the
next source of inspiration or opportunity to create something different.

 

 You know what else
I’ve found out? Over time, things have a way of repeating themselves in this
weird way. Things have seasons in different forms. So I think you’re right. I
think MOMAR will open up in different form.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Danny Clinch]

 

 

Joseph Arthur tour
dates are at his official website.

 

 

Leave a Reply