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."