Joseph Arthur: Nonstop Rock Joseph Arthur has had a busy 2008. The singer-songwriter and painter has released four EPs and one full-length album, Temporary People, this year alone. Arthur talks about his new releases, his music style and the differences between music and painting.

Joseph Arthur: Nonstop Rock

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Earlier this year, we spoke to rock artist Peter Gabriel about the album "Big Blue Ball." The CD was the product of jam sessions in the early '90s when Peter Gabriel invited musicians from around the world to his studios in rural England. One of them was Ohio native Joseph Arthur. He was an obscure singer-songwriter in his early 20s when Gabriel found him. Here he's singing on the "Big Blue Ball" project.

(Soundbite of song "Exit Through You")

Mr. JOSEPH ARTHUR: (Singing) Exitin' the shower, I forgot to wash my heart. Now the dust has turned to mud, Since we've been apart.

HANSEN: Joseph Arthur made several albums for Gabriel's Real World record label and won a dedicated fan base in the U.S. He later left the label and fought a battle with substance abuse, but he has been very prolific. This year alone, he has released one full-length album and four EPs with his own record label. Joseph Arthur is in our studio. Welcome. And it's very nice to meet you.

Mr. JOSEPH ARTHUR (Singer-Songwriter): Nice to meet you as well.

HANSEN: You know, the number of things that you do - I mean, four EPs, the full length album, one year, lots of music. Are you writing all the time? I mean, do you sleep? How do you do it?

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah. It's interesting. Like, I love to work. I mean, what I call my work, I would do even if it wasn't my work. So I think that's a key to it. But I do just hang out a lot. I mean, I have a lot of downtime as well. So it's interesting, the painting as well. I have a quite a lot of paintings too.

HANSEN: I want to talk about those a little bit later. First, I want to talk about the new album. And the title tune is called "Temporary People."

(Soundbite of song "Temporary People")

Mr. ARTHUR: (Singing) Hangin' out with the temporary people, 'til I find my way back to you...

HANSEN: I mean, who are the temporary people? To me, it almost sounded like demons in your own mind.

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah. I suppose so, manifest into reality, like you hang out with maybe people that you shouldn't be hanging out with. But the title for the album took on sort of a broader meaning to me in that we're all kind of temporary and just the frailty of being a human being. The album to me is, like, about a journey, like, reaching towards the light through your spirit trying to, like, overcome your demons through your spirit.

(Soundbite of song "Temporary People")

Mr. ARTHUR: (Singing) And I can't stop blaming myself or nobody else, nobody else...

HANSEN: Did I read - it was this album, I think you wrote - I'm going to paraphrase it - about the idea of you hanging onto this recording like a life raft?

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah. It felt like I - there was this quote from Hermann Hesse that has been with me for years, which is the strongest art or the strongest things are born of necessity. And this was very much a case of that for me.

HANSEN: Did any of it have to do with your substance abuse, and your - you know, the efforts that you're making to...

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah.


Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah, it was sort of at the end of that. You know, I think once you're an addict, you're always an addict. I think I drank my first beer when I was in sixth grade, and I was - I just remember knowing I was an alcoholic then. It's definitely something I've been dealing with for quite a long time, and it's something I feel like I'm on the good end of right now.

HANSEN: Does music help you do that?

Mr. ARTHUR: Absolutely. You know, I think it's kind of a result of how prolific this year has been. It's just been through sobriety. You know, I'm not one of these sober people that thinks drugs are bad. But I do know for me in this point of my life, clarity is definitely much more interesting and exciting to me.

HANSEN: Well, your band is kicking.

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah, thank you.

HANSEN: And "Temporary People" really just rocks it out. I want to talk too about the EPs that you recorded. On "Could We Survive" there's a song called "Rages of Babylon."

(Soundbite of song "Rages of Babylon")

Mr. ARTHUR: (Singing) Another time I've been before. Fighting in a rich man's war. Blood can fill oceans of sand. I no longer possess my hand...

HANSEN: This is something that sounds - and I'm sure you've heard it many, many times before - you know, very Dylanesque. You've got the acoustic guitar, you've got the harmonica. And this song seems to be making some kind of political statement. Is the point of view from a soldier who's serving?

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah, it is. And writing politically is not a natural fit for me. It's something I kind of have to force myself to do. And I just felt like there was such a call for it. And I read this thing about divorce rates and suicide rates amongst our troops. And that just - that hit me. Particularly the divorce rate, like what it would do to your relationship to be gone like that, and how brutal actually that is.

HANSEN: Or you come back a completely different person from the one who left.

Mr. ARTHUR: Exactly. So it was kind of from that point of view that I wrote the song.

(Soundbite of song "Rages of Babylon")

Mr. ARTHUR: (Singing) Do you notice, when we are gone. Through the rages of Babylon. To protect the land of the free. Will my family remember me? Will my family remember me?

HANSEN: You talked about your painting. I have your - I mean, I'm looking at one now. It's kind of a grim image...

Mr. ARTHUR: It really is...

HANSEN: Of a skeletal face and monkeys coming out of the eyes. And it's on a piece of sheet music, and it says a song with no melody. I mean that's...

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah. I think, like, painting is for me a darker expression than music.

HANSEN: Really?

Mr. ARTHUR: I think so.

HANSEN: In what way?

Mr. ARTHUR: I don't know. I just see it as darker, like more of the midnight energy. Music to me is more like celebratory and light. Painting is a solitary expression. You know, you're removed from your audience when you paint.

HANSEN: That's true. And then you just have to leave it. What's with the skulls?

Mr. ARTHUR: I don't know. I love skulls. I don't know why. I just do. It's probably the adolescent boy in me and the ancient shaman in me all together. They both love skulls, and they both dance around them with glee.

HANSEN: The six-year-old goth in you, is that it?

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah, exactly.

HANSEN: You mentioned music being kind of a celebratory thing. On your second EP, that song "I Wanna Get You Alone."

(Soundbite of song "I Wanna Get You Alone")

Mr. ARTHUR: (Singing) I wanna get you alone, I wanna get you alone, I wanna get you alone, I wanna get you alone, I wanna get you alone, I wanna get you alone, I wanna get you alone...

HANSEN: We're dancing.

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah.

HANSEN: You know, it's that wonderful kind of electropop thing going on. What attracts you to that music?

Mr. ARTHUR: Oh, I don't - you know, I've been open towards all kinds of music. I love all kinds of music. I think it's interesting how people comment on the style of music over the substance. I think there's sometimes maybe a lack of substance in music that has led people to be more focused on the style, you know.

(Soundbite of song "I Wanna Get You Alone")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) How much I love her. I pull her cover...

Mr. ARTHUR: To me, the style of music is like the outfit I'm wearing right now. I could be wearing this or I could be wearing, you know, jeans and a T-shirt or...

HANSEN: But for the record, you are in a brown suitcoat with a wonderful scarf that has ancient writing on it - or not ancient, it's more like colonial...

Mr. ARTHUR: It's like a Rilke poem.

(Soundbite of Maria Rilke poem "The Eighth Elegy")

HANSEN: Never not for a single day do we have before us that space into which flowers endlessly open.

Mr. ARTHUR: Hello.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Hello!

Mr. ARTHUR: My scarf is better than me at speaking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: But I understand what you're saying about clothes and...

Mr. ARTHUR: That's style.

HANSEN: And music and style. So there's no true Joseph Arthur style, one you like playing more than others?

Mr. ARTHUR: I don't think so, no. I think it's just - well, you know, a big hero of mine, and I'm sure most people, is Picasso. And he explored all the different styles. And I think that was like a big lesson for us all.

HANSEN: Well, the CD is released this year, huge discography. And I'm going to bet that there are lots of people that are listening to us who have never heard you or your music. What would you want them to listen to first?

Mr. ARTHUR: Honestly, right here and now, it's "Temporary People," you know, which is a good feeling.

HANSEN: Yeah, it is.

Mr. ARTHUR: That is what I would want them to listen to first.

(Soundbite of song "Look Into the Sky")

Mr. ARTHUR: (Singing) Look into the sky. Look into the sky. Look into the sky...

Mr. ARTHUR: I think it's a true record and that it works as a record. It works as a body. It works - it tells a story.

HANSEN: And the story would be?

Mr. ARTHUR: The story, I think, is reaching into your soul to overcome your weaknesses and survive with hope.

HANSEN: And a kick-butt band.

Mr. ARTHUR: Yeah, with a rock and roll soundtrack.

HANSEN: Joseph Arthur's new full-length album is called "Temporary People," and his four new EPs are titled "Could We Survive," "Crazy Rain," "Vagabond Skies," and "Foreign Girls." Joseph Arthur, thanks a lot for coming in.

Mr. ARTHUR: Thanks so much for having me.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.