I first heard Ben Arthur play in a lineup called The Modern Troubadours. I tagged along with some friends, having never heard of what I assumed was a band. Instead I was presented with four singer-songwriters, sharing their work in an intimate, acoustic setting. I fell in in love with Ben Arthur’s music that night – his quirky sense of humour balanced the sometimes morose cloud of soul-bearing lyrics. With songs like “Keep Me Around” and “Mary Ann” I found new use for the “repeat” button on my playlists.
Years later, and I’m still listening with as much rapt attention as that first show. Arthur’s second album “Mouthfeel” was considerably darker than the first, showing a different side of his sharp wordplay and vivid imagery. His arid vocals put all the emotion front and center, but never without a musical cushion to soften the emotional blow.
We met about a year ago, after I wrote about “On A Sunday” for NPR’s Song of the Day. He emailed me, and I immediately jumped off the couch and danced around the room in fan-girl glee. Then I calmed down, actually met the guy, and realized he is a real person who just happens to make music I love.
So let’s meet….Ben Arthur.
How did you get started playing music?
My brother Michael lent me his guitar when I was 13 or 14 and taught me the chords to Lola. No idea why that particular song, but Lord did I play that one riff about a million times. (Badly.)
When did you decide that playing would be your career?
Shockingly soon thereafter. Something about it just seemed right to me, and I’ve never found anything I like doing as much. Well, actually, I like writing as much, but then I’m doing that these days, too.
What was the first recording you ever purchased?
Well, let’s see…I stole a copy of the Doors “13″ when I was, well, 13 or so. But that doesn’t count, I don’t think. I’m going to say Appetite for Destruction.
Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical? A painter, building, dish of cereal?
Hm. My work is like…a corner bodega, There’s a lot of different stuff in there, it’s kind of a mess, but the folks inside are friendly.
When you’re stumped for ideas, what do you do? Go someplace, read something, drink copiously?
Rarely stumped for ideas. I always have 10 or so projects up in the air (by design), so that when I run into a problem with one thing I can just switch to the other. Generally when I come back the problem has solved itself.
I do occasionally run into a directional tangle, and then I usually chat with my wife or friend Asli, both of whom are whipsmart and have excellent instincts.
You also write books – is that a totally separate project for you, or does it feed into your musical work?
Funny you should ask…
The new project is a concept novel/album called If You Look for My Heart. The album has narrative songs that reflect elements of the story arc, as well as ‘artifact’ pieces, that is, songs that the characters themselves hear during the course of the story.
It’s been a fascinating, fun project so far and I’m looking forward to getting it out to the public.
You’re usually billed as a solo artist – do you prefer this over playing with a band? Or did it just work out that way?
I’m usually billed as a solo artist because I can’t afford to tour with a band. If I was playing Wembley, I would surely be billed with a band.
If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?
Dave Grohl–drums, vox
Emmylou Harris–guitar, vox
Rachel Yamagata–keys, vox
John Paul Jones–bass
Tom Morello–guitar, vox
I picked all live people because i am not at all partial to the undead/zombies.
What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?
I like hearing something unusual, particularly lyric-wise. A new use of an old phrase, an interesting match of words, a reversal of some sort.
I’m also partial to writers to put themselves on the line. It’s fairly easy to hide behind obscure semi-nonsense lyrics, and I like hearing songs where the artist is brave enough to say what they mean, to put their cards on the table. (Which isn’t to say I don’t like the lyrics on, say, OK Computer. I do. But it’s a different thing, and I’d love to hear Thom Yorke write a true love song.)
In art generally I like to see contradiction. In motivation, in action. I like voices and characters that/who are difficult or disagreeable but still sympathetic. I like complication.
Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?
I love my friend Parker Paul’s songs. His voice is so true and pained/painful, and his lyrics are so beautiful without being overly ornate.
Aesop Rock never fails to impress. His album None Shall Pass is a masterpiece.
My brother’s band, Balthrop, Alabama is a blast, particularly live. I played a show with them in the city over Christmas and they have such enthusiasm and such a sense of the theater of live music that it’s just a pleasure to see them do their thing.
Listen to some Ben Arthur:
And of course, pick up a few albums while you’re at it…