Build Me a Sunset
Build Me a Sunset
A Q&A with Ari Hest
By Geoff Gehman
Ari Hest’s musical career has been a slo-mo yo-yo between yin and yang. He celebrated his independence from a major label by writing, recording and posting a song each week for a year, then let subscribers help program his sequel CD “Twelve Mondays.” He juggles projects with three quite different female singer-songwriters, performing Brazilian jazz with his wife Chrissi Poland, who was soulful enough to win the Apollo Theater’s notoriously tough Amateur Night. Last month he donated his guarantee for a gig to ALS Worldwide in honor of his inspirational high-school baseball coach, a monk with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Hest’s new record. is another yang-yin affair. “Silver Skies Blue” (Cleopatra/Wildflower) is a collaboration with Judy Collins, the vaunted song stylist’s first album partnership with a fellow composing vocalist. Her watercolor-wildflower voice blends beautifully with his balanced, bucket-seat baritone on eight tunes they wrote together and three of his solo numbers, including “Strangers Again,” the title track of her 2015 collection of duets with such distinguished males as Michael McDonald and Don McLean. While Collins met Hest at a festival four years ago, she’s been a spiritual member of his family for a good 40 years, ever since his music-making parents married to her love anthem “Since You Asked.”
Hest, 37, will chat about his unusual union with Collins, 77, during his July 29 debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. During a recent phone conversation he discussed his debts to her, his baseball mentor and his cantor mother.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that stuck to you like glue?
A: Probably “Believe It or Not” [the 1981 pop theme for the TV sitcom “The Greatest American Hero”]. Apparently, when I was a little, little kid, five or six years old, I would sing that incessantly. My parents both smile when that gets brought up in conversation, although I think at the time it was annoying to them. It was one of those things that probably stuck too long.
Q: Was there any Brazilian jazz in your upbringing?
A: There was, to a certain extent. My dad did not make a very good living playing music and he was a little afraid that my brother and I would get turned on to what he liked. We had piano lessons early on but we didn’t know everything he did in the music business; he was protecting us to a certain extent. He was a sax player with a big affinity for Brazilian jazz; he especially loved the [Antonio Carlos] Jobim stuff that [saxophonist] Stan Getz played. I didn’t really take an interest in the records he was playing at the time, nor did he impose them on me. Maybe the Brazilian jazz he listened to influenced me to explore guitar playing. But that was a total accident as opposed to some of the other pop music I was turned on to in high school.
Q: I’ve read that Neil Young is one of your musical heroes. Did you get turned on to him in high school?
A: At first I was attracted to guitar players who were very percussive with the instrument, who would do some unorthodox stuff. I was more into the vein of Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews; it was less about the songwriting and more about the cool guitar playing and the voices. In my early 20s I started to really listen to and admire a well-written song from the melodic and lyric point of view. That’s when it occurred to me that you didn’t have to have a giant chord vocabulary to write an amazing song, that Neil Young could create a cool song—“Old Man”; “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”–with a simple chord progression and an amazing melody and lyric. Neil Young was all about: How cool a song was that?
At the same time I was listening to Ron Sexsmith a bunch. Then I got a little more into the Americana world with Steve Earle and Patty Griffin.
Q: Did Judy Collins play a key role in your young listening years? Was her “Wildflowers” album in heavy rotation on the Hest family stereo?
A: My parents told me the story that their wedding song was [Collins’] “Since You Asked.” So Judy was a staple for them, someone they’d come back to, someone who was personally important, someone more than just an icon.
Q: How soon in your relationship with Judy did you tell her that your parents married to “Since You Asked”?
A: Not immediately; I thought it might be a little strange introduction. I didn’t want to come off as too much from the fan’s standpoint. I wanted her to respect me for what I do now. Obviously, my parents have a bigger appreciation of her now that I perform with her.
Q: What was the best tip about singing you received from your cantor mother?
A: It wasn’t so much about singing. My mother was very hands-off about the melodies for the first songs I created; she didn’t comment much about the music. She was much more hypercritical early on about my lyric writing. She grew up listening to a lot of Dylan, so her standard for lyric writing was pretty high. She was not harsh, which was a good thing. She would say: “I think you can do a little bit better.” She helped teach me the importance of lyrics with creativity and depth, which was a valuable lesson. Musically, I can come up with something useable every day. But lyric writing takes me a lot longer to get to the heart of what I want to say.
Q: Did your song-a-week mission in 2008 emerge partly as a way to free your creative ya-yas after the end of your four-album stint with Columbia Records?
A: I was frustrated. Lucky for me, they let me out of the deal without much of a hassle. They gave me the rights to my second album, which was a bonus. When I left Columbia, I was sitting on ideas that were half baked or so close [to completion], so I had a head start [on the song-a-week project]. That helped me get through the first 20 to 25 weeks. What I learned, ultimately, is that the most important part of the process is that songwriting really is like a muscle. If you work long enough you start to create a…
A: Yes, exactly. It is like a callous. The longer I worked on writing a song every week, the easier it came to me; it felt much more natural. The hardest time of that year was to write the songs after weeks 15 to 20. I was kind of out of the old ideas and I still didn’t have the creative muscle to power through and churn them out, which I did at the end. Now it’s gotten more difficult to churn them out.
Q: Do you have a colorful story or three about letting subscribers help you pick a dozen of the 52 songs for your album “Twelve Mondays”? Did you have a semi-friendly stalker who gently hinted that “If you don’t put this tune on the record I will make your life miserable?”
A: No, there wasn’t any kind of stalker situation. What I told my subscribers is that you are the sculptors of this project. Our tastes must have been pretty similar because only three of their songs were not even close to the ones on my list. Not that I didn’t like them; it’s just that I didn’t think they had the power. I think the subscribers really got a lot out of the project, and I did, too.
Q: Every project has a defining time, when you find your comfort zone and enter your wheelhouse. What was the defining time for you and Judy while writing and recording “Silver Skies Blue”?
A: Early on, when I came to her home studio, I’d say: Let’s start playing a tune and see what happens. Or: Let’s see what happens when we put a little poetry to music. That was a little tougher than when she came with musical ideas that were pretty concrete. That’s when I took a hands-off attitude. I tried to edit a lyric here or there, or bars of music in different spots, but there was no major surgery. It was the same with her when some of my ideas were really strong and she helped define them. Everything became easier when our roles became defined.
Q: Can you put your finger on a song you wrote with Judy with the most surprising history, the most circuitous trail?
A: Our most collaborative song was probably “Let You In.” I had the melody and the guitar line and the verses. We wrote the chorus together and she wrote the bridge and we did it all in one session. Not surprisingly, it was one of the last songs we wrote. By then we were getting the hang of it.
Q: Do you want to take a stab at describing how your singing blends with Judy’s? The mix is easily elemental, with her voice more airy and yours more earthy.
A: We definitely have a nice sound together. We both have a tendency to hold out notes for a long period of time; those long head notes are one of the defining points of her singing style. Those are nice moments when I’m one third below her, whatever it is. I also appreciate the moments when we’re letting each other breathe alone, when I’m not touching her space and vice versa. I really wanted to work around what she does best; I didn’t want to shove her out of her comfort zone. It was important to give her space; she has such a clear definition of how she should sound and she’s had so much success at sounding so clear.
Q: It must be extremely satisfying to be Judy’s first stem-to-stern singer-songwriter partner on a record, to go where not even Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan have gone. It must be extremely gratifying to hear her say that she’s glad you walked into her life.
A: I’m surprised that I’m the first one, seeing that she’s been in the music business so long. I guess the opportunity just never arose. She’s been really sweet to say over and over again that she’s glad it worked out between us. It’s hugely flattering.
Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when you felt like abandoning your living and your calling?
A: I’ve made a living mostly touring but there have been moments, even in the last couple of years, when I had small crowds in cities I had played nine or 10 times. It gnaws at you that the room you began playing 10 years before isn’t full and you wonder why. Perhaps it’s because I’m doing everything independently; there’s no music machine behind me. You’re thankful that you can make a room in nine or 10 cities come alive. But, still, you feel that your audience hasn’t grown that much, that you haven’t progressed much.
I have musician friends who moved on to something else because their spirit was broken. Some are happy; some are not happy. One of my goals is to keep a positive attitude no matter what. Another goal is to find new ways to find a break. I found that break four years ago at a festival when I happened to be on the bill with Judy.
Q: What was your most rewarding time in the music trade, when you felt joyfully privileged?
A: There have been many rewarding times but the ones most meaningful to me are when people say my music has somehow changed their life. They tell me they were really sick and they listened to my songs in the hospital and now they’re better. There’s definitely an ego in doing what we do but the best feeling is if we know that our efforts are also making an impact on others. That’s great, that’s amazing, that’s a heavy concept.
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you release them into the world. What songs of yours have had the most surprising, revealing journeys? Has “The Weight” helped relieve listeners of the burden of sorrow?
A: I’m thinking of “Bird Never Flies” [first line: “How can I turn away from your gun?/How can I stay here where others would run?”]. “Cranberry Lake” resonates with a lot of people for some reason [first line: “Build me a sky/Build me a scape/Build me a rice house/On Cranberry Lake”]. I think they get a lot of comments because they have an uplifting spirit, a positive sound.
Q: I love writing and reading about mentors. One of your mentors is Nick Jiavaras, who coached your baseball team at Horace Mann School in Manhattan. How has “Coach J” shaped your life?
A: Baseball was my whole life growing up; that’s all I wanted to do. Actually, I loved baseball and basketball. The basketball coach was very buddy-buddy; he was almost a member of the team. Coach J was a little more distant, but not in a dictatorial capacity. He commanded respect from the way he spoke and acted. It was a joy to play for him, and it’s been a joy to keep in touch with him during his years in the monastery [on a Greek island]. He’s kept this amazing attitude through his illness [Lou Gehrig’s Disease]; he remains this positive light for a lot of people; sorry, I’m getting a little choked up. His positive attitude, once again, is just amazing; it puts everything in perspective. When I have a problem, I think about how positive he is and it doesn’t seem so big.
Q: I like to end Q&As in a lighter, funnier groove, so here goes nothing: “Snow” was the breakout tune for Bluebirds of Paradise, your duo with your wife Chrissi Poland. Ah, but what do you really think of snow? Can you really envision yourself living in a place without the white stuff?
A: I’m a little more relaxed about snow than Chrissi. She’s small and she gets cold very easy. Every time winter comes around in New York she asks me: Where can we go where you don’t have to wear your jacket or parka? Let’s just say she had a big hand in the writing of [“Snow”].
Ari Hest: The Scoop
“The Break-In,” his 2007 Columbia record, was produced by Mitchell Froom, who has done the same for the likes of Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt and Pearl Jam, one of Hest’s favorite bands as a teen.
He scored “Dream Riders,” a 2008 documentary about a father and a son trying to become friendlier while bicycling across America.
He wrote the song “Less” during a workshop assignment to write a song where “less is less.”
He and singer-songwriter Rosi Golan are partners in the duo The Open Sea.
Nick Jiavaras, Hest’s baseball coach at Horace Mann School, shares more with Lou Gehrig than Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Jiavaras also lived in Manhattan’s Riverdale section and graduated from Columbia University. His father and Gehrig were high-school classmates. And Jiavaras roots for the New York Yankees, Gehrig’s team and Hest’s favorite team.
Judy Collins has joked that she needed to be the first woman to record Hest’s “Strangers Again,” before Diana Ross or Taylor Swift.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He thinks that folks would be healthier and happier if they practiced the following request in Ari Hest’s song “Cranberry Lake”: “Tell me a story/With a surprise at the end/Build the suspense/And then kiss me instead.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.