Joseph Arthur: From Midwestern Basements to Carnegie Hall
Joseph Arthur has won over famous fans like Michael Stipe, played in Fistful of Mercy with Ben Harper, and performed with his band The Lonely Astronauts. He comes to Carnegie Hall on November 11. Here, his long-time friend Jonathan Cohen reflects on the journey "from Midwestern basements to Carnegie Hall."
It's a cliché that you never forget your first time, but with rock ‘n' roll, it's especially true. That initial exposure to the titans of the art form makes a lifelong impression, and I'm proud to say it was at the behest of Joseph Arthur that this magical world was first revealed to me.
Joseph and I grew up across the street from each other on Wiltshire Road in Akron, Ohio. Back then, he was just Joe: the cool, exceedingly tall, older kid who all the other kids were looking up to, literally and figuratively. I was about five years old and consumed with learning how to play Neil Diamond and Paul Simon songs on my nylon-stringed guitar when one day Joe played me "I Was Made for Loving You" by Kiss. I loved the disco beat, but I was so scared by the appearance of the band members on the album cover that I remember leaving the room. Then he played me some Led Zeppelin. I thought that was a strange name for a person. He also put on "Toys in the Attic" by Aerosmith. I marveled that I didn't know girls could sing rock ‘n' roll ...
Cut to 15 years later, and I'm ignoring my classes at Indiana University in favor of spending every moment at the school newspaper writing about music and interviewing bands. On my desk landed an album by one Joseph Arthur called Big City Secrets. I didn't think much about the creator of the music until I popped the disc in and heard a familiar deep voice. Could this be Joe from Akron? Joe, who last I heard was working at a music store in Atlanta, of all places? A quick call to my mom back home confirmed that it was indeed, and did I know that no less than Peter Gabriel had nurtured the album and released it on his own label?
By the early 2000s, I was writing for Billboard in New York and re-connected with Joseph. Attending his shows, I could see first-hand how his music affected people so strongly. It was unflinchingly honest but rarely morose; experimental but rarely at the sake of melody. His on-stage paintings added an extra layer of immersion into his unique artistic outlook.
After a certain point, it no longer surprised me that superstars like R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe and Coldplay's Chris Martin were covering Joseph's songs, or that he was releasing several albums in a calendar year. His creative drive continues to take him to new and unusual places, most recently on his excellent new album, The Graduation Ceremony, which to my ears combines all the best aspects of his recordings to date.
This summer, independent of one another, Joseph and I found ourselves backstage at Pearl Jam's 20th anniversary festival outside Milwaukee. Joseph had long ago befriended the band's bass player, Jeff Ament, and had recently recorded music with him. Throughout the weekend, he collaborated with Ament and other Pearl Jam members, both during his sets and theirs. Meanwhile, I had just completed writing a comprehensive history of the band for a book, Pearl Jam 20, and was there to promote it. During a break in the action, we sat down at a picnic table and took a moment to reflect. We gave thanks for those formative days in Akron when anything seemed possible, and how lucky we were to have both made careers out of music in one way or another.
From Midwestern basements to Carnegie Hall, Joseph has never stopped following his muse. I hope you'll join him on the journey.
—Jonathan Cohen is the music booker on NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and a former writer and editor at Billboard.
Joseph Arthur performs "Almost Blue" from The Graduation Ceremony