JOSEPH ARTHUR'S band is setting up at the Troubadour for the night's show, but their leader isn't in the room. Try out back, one of the musicians says.
In the alley behind the club, Arthur stands in the sunlight working intently on a bright red jacket spread out on the hood of a pickup truck, applying abstract shapes to the fabric with an artist's crayon.
"Purple makes it make sense, man," says Arthur, eyeing his work.
The man standing next to him looks over and nods. Angelbert Metoyer, an on-the-rise figure on the national art scene and a friend of Arthur's, is sharing the truck's hood and working on his own piece, a drawing packed with Miro-like organic shapes and fanciful figures.
Welcome to Joseph Arthur's traveling art and music circus, a sort of bohemian road show where this visual work is incorporated into the freshly minted music played by Arthur and his band.
There's a fertile, freewheeling feel about this enterprise. The Troubadour show will include songs that the band wrote the night before, and the following day they'll go into a studio in Arcadia and record them and others for an album that will come out in April, an unconventionally short six months after Arthur's latest release, "Nuclear Daydream."
A collection of plangent ballads and emotion-drenched rock songs that crossbreeds Neil Young with the Velvet Underground, "Daydream" is one of the best-reviewed albums of the year, and it figures to resurface prominently as the year-end best-of lists appear.
Such acclaim isn't new for the Akron, Ohio, native, who's been a consummate cult hero for most of this decade. But with "Nuclear Daydream" and in its aftermath, Arthur has shaken up his whole creative world, becoming a high-profile case study of an artist responding to the challenges and opportunities afforded by the decline of the old-line music industry.
After years with large independent labels and major-affiliated companies, Arthur started his own label, Lonely Astronaut Records, to release "Nuclear Daydream." That move could be the reason that he has suffered a drop in sales with his most accessible album, from his customary cult-hero range of 30,000 to 50,000 to a meager 12,000 since its release in September.
But Arthur feels more than compensated by the new freedom it affords him.
"We're playing our new songs as we write them, and then we bootleg ourselves and sell copies of the show that night," says the singer, sitting in the Troubadour's empty bar, now wearing his freshly decorated red jacket. "So most of our new songs have already been released now.
"I would just rather be open than afraid of what that means," he says. "I like a sense of openness to everything. I think people are finding out that counterintuitive thinking along those lines is actually more the way to go. Like people letting their records be streamed for free. It's counterintuitive to logic that that would help record sales, but I guess it does."
It remains to be seen whether it will boost Arthur's, but at the moment he's most excited about being liberated from the pressure to make a commercial breakthrough.
"That's why I'm not afraid anymore," says Arthur. "The source of frustration for that breakthrough was the fear that I wouldn't be able to do this anymore. That was sort of the mode of thinking back then: You get a record deal, and in order to maintain a record deal you have to do such and such; if you don't do that you're gonna get dropped and then what, you have to go find a minimum-wage job again?
"So that breeds all kind of crazy fear," he says. "Now, I just trust that I'll basically always get to sing for my supper on some level."
Help from friends
THE sounds of Arthur's band warming up in the showroom occasionally blast into the adjacent bar as he talks, a reminder of a musical change that's proving as revolutionary for him as his new business model. This is the first time in his career that he's toured and written with other musicians, and the experience has him all charged up.
"It's interesting that after doing this for so many years really on my own, kind of extremely alone, there's this collection of people around me that's like -- I've got incredible people around me right now," he says, "and I just feel like I'm having the time of my life
"I don't know what's happened in my mind or what. I've broken through in my soul.... I trust whatever's happening as what's supposed to happen with this whole band that's formed around me. I feel like everything's just beginning."
When Arthur says "extremely alone," he's talking about the solo performance method that he used for years, in which he electronically layered, distorted and enhanced his voice and guitar to create rich, atmospheric arrangements onstage. That technique became identified with Arthur and contributed to his high standing among aficionados of art-rock-inclined singer-songwriters.
But it was his evocative, wide-ranging songwriting and richly textured music that originally gave him a career foothold and earned the admiration of such elders as Peter Gabriel (who signed him to his Real World label and released his first records in the late '90s) and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, who recorded Arthur's aching ballad "In the Sun," in several versions with different singers, for Stipe's Hurricane Katrina benefit EP.
"Joe is one of those rare writer-performers where you get the sense, whatever your belief, that something greater is being channeled through his music and voice," says Stipe. "Like Patti Smith, Grant Lee Phillips, Thom Yorke, Joe trances, and the voice, the meaning, becomes bigger than him, bigger than a few pop chords or words strung together. It touches something very deep and universal."
Or as David Letterman put it after the singer's transporting performance of the falsetto anthem "Slide Away" on his "Late Show" program recently: "I want to go with those people. I would like to be with those people. I think they're probably doing things that I'm not."
Arthur, 35, can have that intoxicating, Pied Piper effect, with his old-school rock-dandy charisma and, this day anyway, a loopy enthusiasm that borders on euphoria. His music might be shadowy and atmospheric, but he's all puppy-dog eagerness as he snacks on some trail mix and regards this new combustion in his life and career.
In a group made up of guitarist Jennifer Turner (who used to back Natalie Merchant and had her own band, Furslide), bassist Sibyl Buck, keyboardist Kraig Jarret Johnson (from the Jayhawks and Golden Smog) and drummer Greg Wieczorek, rock's definitive solitary man has found a community and a collaborative laboratory, as well as partners in an exhilarating if exhausting road adventure marked by impromptu turns. They pulled his friend Metoyer onto the tour bus when they passed through the artist's hometown of Houston, so abruptly that he didn't even have a chance to pack a change of clothes. They booked the Troubadour show at the last minute when they came back to Los Angeles to appear on Craig Ferguson's late-night CBS show.
Material from the Arcadia recording sessions will be released as "Abwoon Part One (Let's Just Be)," scheduled to come out April 17, with a second CD coming out later in the year.
"I like that, two records a year. I think that's creatively very active," the Brooklyn resident says. "You're not releasing every single thing you come up with. I think you can have a nice quality there, and I think it's a pace that people can keep up with, those that want to, and those that don't can check in every other record or every three records."
Wherever this new road leads, Arthur is ready for the ride. There's his side career as a visual artist (he self-published a book of his work and had a gallery show in London) and a new passion to help war-orphaned children in Uganda, where he traveled this year.
And although he jokes that he'll "write the hits that never become hits," his low commercial yield has actually struck the ideal balance.
"It's been an amount that's made me feel like it wasn't enough, which kept me hungry, which is really vital for an artist, to be hungry and to stay where everything's a necessity," he says. "And I've been in that place since I started releasing records professionally....
"I feel incredibly fortunate that I've had a career that's been so long and so submerged. It's been a perfect ground for me to evolve as an artist in a way I could never have conceived of when I made my first record."