Q&A with Ari Hest

When you’ve only lived through a couple decades or so, and been consciously aware of good music for one of them, it’s something special to watch an artist evolve at the same time you do. We skate the evolution rink, each time around hopefully passing faster, stronger, more sure of who we are what we need. We get a little more grossly aware of how we’ve changed, and if we’re lucky, we accept it and we use it to our benefit. But I think no matter how old we are, and whether or not we are in sync with our musical influences, we adopt artists and songs as audible blips in the history of our lives—songs and albums become the cautionary tales we did not heed, the more eloquent expressions of our feelings, and even the stories that we tell to each other. Ari Hest has been one of those artists for me—a returning guest on my life’s soundtrack.

The first time I heard Ari Hest was at a show on the third floor of my college bookstore; I was a freshman, just getting my legs under me—and in some ways, so was he. Hest was touring on material developed during his years in college, when music was more of a hobby than a lifestyle. He sang songs like “Come Home” and “The Upper Hand,” which boasted a cavalier hope and youthful buzz—they showcased multiple dimensions on the acoustic guitar (strumming melodies while still extracting percussive sounds), smooth crooning, generous ooohs and ahhhs, and the meat of his sound being served up in boyish falsettos. “When you saw me, I was kind of starting to figure out my sound. I think I was still heavily influenced by the people I listened to back in college. You know, I knew I loved music, I knew I loved to kind of experiment with chords, not do the norm… it was interesting covering all the bases by myself.”

But it’s his newest full-length album, Sunset Over Hope Street, that Hest claims most accurately embodies his sound. “I feel like there’s been a growth in the type of person I actually am, which is more reserved than the music I was making back [in 2003]. The Break-In was more towards the way I am now, but still not quite developed yet. So the stuff now sounds, I guess, a little more me…but it’s, it’s like a quiet energy. Little by little I think the records are taking a shape that makes sense.” And “quiet energy” is perhaps the simplest and most accurate way to encompass the album’s 11 songs. Having journeyed from a more upbeat persona to the quieter side of 52 Weeks, the end product holds its own, and most importantly, Hest is comfortable in it. “I’m not frantic, I’m not belting notes, I’m not, you know, ‘rocking’ really. But there’s still an energy to it and it’s not just like super quiet singer/songwriter stuff either. It’s got its own kind of thing.”

Part of getting to this sound and to the strange yet comforting feel of the newest album came from one of the biggest challenges in his career, signing with Columbia Records. It proved not only a major stepping stone, but also a turning point in his career and the music he’d be proud to share. It was a curious career decision, especially considering that signing to Columbia usually means a pathway to radio play and bigger venues (think John Mayer). “I didn’t think I was going to be a musician growing up, and I went to school for communications and didn’t think this music thing was going to be anything more than a hobby. And then all of a sudden it got serious when Columbia came along… I signed thinking ‘I’m going to try this out and see how it goes.’ Then I think it learned a lot from the process. As much as it was tough to see how I was looked past by the label and not supported, at the same time it was almost a blessing. Because, you know, had I been very well known for music that I was not so comfortable with, it probably would have been bad. And I never had aspiration back then or now of being a big pop star, it really didn’t cross my mind.”

These days, specifically in the past couple of years, we’ve seen a wave of young artists forgo management teams and labels, opting for outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and Kickstarter to help propel their songs onto TV, ipods, and venues from Brooklyn to Des Moines to LA. In some ways, it seems unfortunate that Hest would even have considered signing to Columbia, as generally, artists in his arena are not part of the infamous label laws—the hushed (though at times belted from the rooftops) talk of the record labels controlling artists’ visions. Asked why he would ever sign, Hest says, “I signed with Columbia because I was an excited 23 year old kid. I’m shocked when I hear about an artist who has really come forward with something compelling at such a young age, and just takes it all in stride—it’s amazing that people can know themselves so well, so young. You know, I just, I don’t know what I was doing back then; I was just trying to have a good time.”

But his turn around time was instant; Hest knew what he wanted to do, and that simply being to make music. In 2008, Hest introduced an ambitious project: write one song a week for 52 weeks and make it available for download to fans. The project was inspired by his experience working with Columbia and the impression that it left upon his career as a musician. “Around [2005] I was scheduled to start working on my next record and you know, there were just a lot of reasons for pushing everything back all the time. You know I was ready, songs-wise, I was ready to work with somebody. But for some reason they wanted me to wait, and that’s a big reason why 52 was an interesting thing for me—it was the opposite. I’d finish with a song [and we’d] put it out and let people hear it right away… something Columbia never would have gone for.”

52 Weeks of songs, one after the other, is not only ambitious, but as a writer, it can be exhausting to create on demand. Yet Hest pulled it off and even made an album of 12 (12 Mondays), noting of the process: “Yeah, there were more times when I was worried what I was going to write about. Not very often did I get to Friday and think, ‘I don’t have any kind of musical idea’ what am I going to do? Musical ideas come to me much easier than lyrics do. I found myself scrambling for things to write about, I’d say maybe a quarter of the time, and then the rest of the time I felt pretty good about what I did.”

Not only did Hest have the creative knack to execute 52, but the timing was right, too. “You know, it was a time my life when I was willing to majorly block out all the other crap in my life and just focus on this. You know, I was sharing an apartment with a couple people so I didn’t have a lot of rent, I didn’t have to get any kind of extra income elsewhere by getting other jobs. There was nothing like getting in the way of me creating—that was a lucky thing. If I ever tried to do that again, you know, if I had family or something, that might get in the way—that’s the wrong way to say it. But you know what I mean… it would take priority over 52 songs.”

Sunset Over Hope Street also unfurls a side of Hest that we seldom see, and he seldom shows, making a sort of political, or at least very socially charged statement on “Business of America.” While the singer has certainly had his foot on both sides of the line, descending to melancholy states and re-emerging to give touching and frank accounts on love and happiness, he has rarely, if ever, ventured to a side that could be construed as angry. “What made me angry? I had a shoulder injury a couple years ago, that I went for an MRI for…I asked my insurance company ‘can I go for this? Will you pay for it?’ and they said yes.” After following through, Hest began to receive notices probing him on his previous health, eventually leading to harassment by the hospital six to seven months later. “It was such a nightmare. You know, I am a believer that you can’t turn your back on people, no matter what side of the fence you’re on, it’s not human; and that’s kind of where I’m coming from with that.”

The expectation is that Hest’s songs, much like most of those in the singer/songwriter realm, tell a story most akin to his biography or that of those around him. “Business of America” describes a painful ordeal and “Swan Song” is about a dream that he had, yet a lot of this new album serves to tell us about the man that Hest is becoming and what holds the most real estate in his mind these days. “A Way Back Home” resonates Hest’s feelings towards the ever-increasing pace of the world we live in and our ability to (or sometimes aversion to) keep up. “That song really grew out of a frustration with just being bombarded by different types of media and advertisements. And from a professional standpoint, you’re having to be so heavily involved in social media. Now, I’m a person who likes to be private—it’s the wrong way to go if you want to do what I do. Even the quiet musicians tweet; they talk about what they did for breakfast, what they did that day. It’s too much, in my mind, to be consumed with that stuff because I just want to be focused on music. But it was broader than that; it was really a statement about a shortage of open spaces, of nature, of natural things. All you see around you when you walk out, especially in New York, are ads—ads on clothing, on sidewalks, on everywhere. It was more about a way back home, a way back to something more simple.”

Sunset Over Hope Street surveys what happens at the end of a decade’s worth of being a musician and looking forward as more and more artists come to the scene. “I think, if anything, it’s an album about transition. Hitting the 30s, wondering if I’m just going to be a touring musician the rest of my life; you know, just things you have to start dealing with after you start losing your hair. Those kinds of things… they start to matter more, therefore you start to write about them.”

Here now, at the beginning of a new decade, it seems that simpler is in fact, not stranger, but more becoming.

-Beth Yeckley, March 28, 2011