Joseph Arthur debut ‘Big City Secrets’ holds up at 20

Joseph Arthur‘s first record Big City Secrets dropped on March 11, 2017 — that’s 20 years ago.

Arthur was the first signee to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records, and he didn’t disappoint with his debut. The album featured a unique variety of instrumentation — including hurdy-gurdy, corn horn (??), Venetian xylophone, caxixi, and berimbau. Despite the interesting use of instruments on the record, it’s Arthur’s exquisite vocals that leaves the most lasting impression on the album’s 12 tracks and would set the tone for a career of a man that has always followed his own path. Arthur addressed the album’s 20-year anniversary with a post on Instagram:

I wasn’t even 10 in 1997, so I’m not going to pretend I was on board at the beginning. In fact, it was thanks to the music of the teen drama The OC that I became aware of Joseph Arthur, when I was in high school. But I quickly became a fan of all of his work, and it is his debut record that lands among my favorite in his prolific back catalog.

Big City Secrets contains some of my favorite Joseph Arthur tracks of all-time. “Mercedes” is a song that I’ve grown to appreciate especially after seeing him perform it live, stripped-down and acoustic. The harmonica on that song gives me chills every time. “Daddy’s On Prozac” is a song I could see having been written by Layne Staley of Alice in Chains — the imagery in particular. The song “Birthday Card” is another crafty piece of songwriting that featured the sort of edgy lyrical skills that would be a signature of his.

It’s a bit interesting how some of these songs from 20 years ago have grown and matured like they are children of Joseph Arthur’s. The tempo on “Birthday Card” has really picked up in recent live performances, like the one below:

A 1997 interview in a music publication called Hits explained how the Peter Gabriel connection came to be:

I came home to a phone message from him — I have saved the tape from my answering machine. Now I’m a huge fan of his music. I was not a big fan then, I didn’t really know his music. “Shock the Monkey” was one of the first singles I ever bought. I always liked him, but I hadn’t found my way to him yet. I had heard through Harvey [Schwartz, A&R for Capricorn] that Peter liked the tape before coming home to find the message. Knowing him and Real World, it’s amazing. He’s so full of ambitions and things to do, projects. He’s constantly busy. I would never have thought to send my stuff to Gabriel or Real World.

In a 1997 interview with Creative Loafing, Arthur shared the story about how when he played his first show in New York — after connecting over the phone with Peter Gabriel — he nearly lost it when he found out Lou Reed would be in attendance as well:

“It was just so fucking intense. I went in the bathroom and got on my knees and prayed, no shit.” Arthur laughs. “It was just way too fucking intense with Lou Reed there. But then before I knew it I was sitting in a restaurant with him sharing ice cream off the same plate. It was like dreaming with your eyes open.” Arthur floated back home to Atlanta, packed up his apartment, and left for Europe to record his album.

Arthur would become friendly with Lou Reed, and in fact would record an entire tribute album in 2014 to Reed’s back catalog following the death of the icon, titled Lou.

Listen to Joseph Arthur’s debut record Big City Secrets below: