The great thing about humble beginnings is you have less to lose. It makes pursuing the lottery ticket of a music career seem less risky. At least that's the way it was for Akron, Ohio-born singer/songwriter Joseph Arthur.
"My parents used to say to me, 'We think you should sell insurance because you've got a good personality,'" says the New York-based musician. "I knew I couldn't do a normal existence like that. I had to go off the beaten trail and I was willing to bet everything on that. One way looked like sure death. The other offered a possibility of life. It wasn't that hard of a decision."
Somehow one of Arthur's homemade demo cassettes got into the hands of Peter Gabriel, who invited him to come to London and record his debut album, 1997's Big City Secrets, for Gabriel's Real World label.
That album, and the T Bone Burnett-produced 2000 follow-up, Come to Where I'm From, created a minor critical stir for mixing subtle electronic effects and drum machines with classic singer/songwriter folk and Americana, not unlike U.K. contemporaries such as Beth Orton and David Gray.
"[That demo] was the first music I made that wasn't geared toward making people mosh," he says, referring to the bar bands he played in around Atlanta. "Then all of a sudden I'm at Real World with cutting-edge technology. Bristol was very close and trip-hop was starting to happen, and I'm having dinner with Brian Eno!"
As his recording career progressed, Arthur eventually grew tired of richly imagined arrangements. Though he's never gone so far as chamber pop, his pop sensibilities do suggest a predilection toward classic Brill Building pop, with catchy (if downbeat) songs rife with sonic nuance. But after recording some stripped-down albums — both on his own and with his former band, the Lost Astronauts — Arthur ended up returning to a lusher sound on this May's The Graduation Ceremony.
The plan was to make a solo acoustic record, "something really minimal and pretty in a nighttime kind of way," says Arthur of the album that ended up with string parts and lots of supple insistent rhythms from Jim Keltner, the legendary drummer who's backed John Lennon and Bob Dylan. "Yeah, I know I failed miserably. It got more produced than that, but it still comes off pretty mellow."
Arthur is still dabbling in some band projects, including a duo album with Blues Explosion guitarist Russell Simins, but at the moment he's mostly drawn to the solo sphere.
"It feels fresh because I went away from it," says Arthur, whose live performances frequently incorporate pedals to loop his parts into fuller arrangements. "There's something magical about playing with loops. It's just something in nature that's looping. There's a panic to doing it live in front of people. There's this element of danger that's appealing."
And while it probably beats selling insurance, Arthur has never been entirely sure of the path he's taken. "If I could quit [music] — say fuck you to it and turn my back — I would've done it a thousand times," he admits. "It's like being in a relationship with someone you're head over heels in love with, someone that keeps doing you wrong but you can't cut the cord."