Ari Hest

Taking A Major Label Step Forward

With the release of his major label debut, "Someone To Tell," Ari Hest continues the logical progression of a career built on hard work and a do-it-yourself ethic that has endeared him to fans around the country. After two independently-released albums, "Come Home" (2001) and "Story After Story" (2003), as well as an EP and extensive touring, Columbia Records was fortunate enough to add this talented singer/songwriter to its roster.

Born in the Bronx, Hest's story is in some ways typical. He grew up in a musical family, started playing piano, and later guitar, here and there, discovering music during his teen years. Going to college at NYU, he started to become more serious about music, recording his first demo and using it to get local bookings. As his time in school was ending, he began to record seriously and, with the help of a strong online presence and an enthusiastic on- and off-line group of fans he calls the A-Team, he gained more attention and a reputation as a solid and promising performer.

Signing to Columbia Records in 2003, Hest assembled "Someone To Tell" with a combination of new music as well as tracks and re-worked songs from "Story After Story". The twelve tracks are a combination of soulful, straight-ahead storytelling and radio-friendly pop that showcases both Hest's soaring baritone voice and excellent backing band. The album's early tracks hook the listener with catchy drum grooves and an upbeat tempo, setting the mood of tones and rhythms that comes to a gentle, moving conclusion with the final track, "Someone To Tell".

Chorus and Verse interviewed Hest in the midst of a Midwest and west coast tour supporting "Someone To Tell," which includes his first television appearance on "Last Call With Carson Daly" and a taping for ESPN's "Cold Pizza". Hest took the time during this exciting and hectic period in his life and career to share his thoughts about the changes over the past few months, and how he hopes they'll play out in the future.

When you signed to Columbia Records back in March, you wrote a message for your fans, posted on your website, that were "both excited and nervous" about making such a big commitment. You also seemed to a worry a bit that some long-time fans might not approve of the decision. Now, several months later and with your major label debut complete, how do you see your decision now and how do you look back on your feelings back in March?

I think it's too early to tell whether or not Columbia will turn out to be what I want it to be. At that moment in my life it was the right decision and that's what matters. My fans have been cool about the change. I'm sure it helped that the music was not altered from how I, and my fans, like it.

Can you describe a little bit about how the major label selection process went down? What have been the biggest differences that you've noticed going from being a very successful independent musician to trying to equal or exceed that success with Columbia?

I was approached by Columbia and some other labels back in the summer of 2003. They liked my independent record, "Story After Story," and heard I had a bit of a buzz happening, so they started coming out to the shows -- especially in NY and LA. Since signing with Columbia, my days are a little longer 'cause of all the promotion that goes on with the record, but I still do what I used to do, and that is tour like a madman.

With all of the changes in music distribution over the past few years, and the Internet and iPod allowing musicians to deliver music straight to listeners, do you still think that the major label system is the future of the music industry? Do you still think it's essential to have the support of a major to become truly successful and widely-known on a national level?

Wish I could answer that one, and so do a lot of other people. I do think those technologies you mentioned will continue to grow, but I don't know how important labels will be down the road. I do not think, by any means, you have to be with a major to gain popularity. There's a whole lot you can do on your own. I just got to a point where I thought they could help, and I liked what I saw from them.

Switching to "Someone To Tell," the CD jacket indicates that the album was recorded between August 2002 and March 2004. Why was the album recorded over such an extended time period? Was it basically complete when you signed with Columbia, and were there any changes or additions made to it after you signed?

Really what that time period refers to is from the beginning of the "Story After Story" recording 'til March 2004. There are a good number of tracks taken from that record and remixed or slightly revised. The newer songs were completed in 2004, after I had signed.

Your bio mentions that you started out as a shy kid who turned to music as a way to communicate with the world and, later, that you didn't enjoy your early live performances before you were so frightened on stage. How have you dealt with such feelings in a profession that forces you to be very public and emotionally open, and are you more comfortable now when on stage?

I'd be lying if I said I never get nervous, but yes, it is one of those things that happens with a lot of experience. I do feel more at home on stage than ever. I think, though, that people can tell I'm kind of a laid back guy, and quiet, even though I feel at ease up there. It's just a part of my personality that took a little more time than the rest of me.

Do you have any pre-show rituals that you do to prepare yourself for a performance? Do you like to be by yourself before show time and do you find yourself nervous and anxious to get the show started or are you content to wait it out until it's time to get on stage?

I like to rub the top of my stage manager James' shaved head lately. Really anything to ease any anxiety that comes up; Yoga, Ms. Pacman, James' head.

Your songwriting tends to be very personal. When you write, you do consider your lyrics autobiographical, so that every "I" is a direct reference to yourself, or do you remove yourself to almost a third-person perspective on the topic?

On the new record almost all of the songs are autobiographical. I wasn't good at removing myself at the stage of my writing when I created the record. Lately I've begun to explore themes outside of my own head, and I think it's good for me to stop thinking about myself every once in a while.

Are there times when you write something that's too self-revelatory and you feel the need to muddy it up a bit?

No. I'd kinda feel like a hypocrite doing that, so I don't go there.

You're currently on a tour of the mid-west, but you've made your mark in your native New York City. Can you remember where you played your first paid gigs in the city? Do you think there's an advantage to trying to get noticed in an area where so many musicians competing for attention, and what do you think it takes for an artist to be successful there?

I had a band called "Speak the Sound" in high school. We were pretty bad. We played a bar called Crossroads, on the Upper East Side, for a bunch of our friends. It was hard, even when I went solo, to gain a following here in NY, and I actually had to leave town and tour a bit before I started to really build anything substantial here. Weird how that worked out.

Do you have any idea when you'll be performing in New York City again? Are you going to be taking a break after you finish your shows in California in late October, or are there plans for additional dates?

The next NY show will be Tuesday, November 23 at Irving Plaza. I'm really excited to play there again.

You just taped your first national television appearance for "Last Call With Carson Daly". What was that experience like, and does it feel different performing for the cameras in a studio setting?

The experience was quite painless, actually. I felt calmer than I thought I would; probably because I have the best band I've ever had right now playing behind me. The cameras weren't even there while I was playing. I recall focusing on a couple of different peoples' ankles from time to time, and that kept me focused.

Do you generally enjoy the media appearances and other publicity that surrounds promoting an album?

It's essential. I think it's great that I can use the media to my advantage to help me promote. The radio shows are cool because you get to try out new ways of playing the songs stripped down.

One of your songs, "They're On To Me," is included on the compilation CD in the latest issue of "CMJ New Music Monthly". With your music getting out to a whole new audience, have you started to notice a difference in the crowds at your shows or the opportunities that are coming your way?

Slowly the crowds are getting a bit bigger. People are starting to spell and say my name right, too. Heist just didn't cut it for me.

Now that you've signed to a major label, have appeared on TV and radio, and can tour the country supporting a successful album, do you still have any dreams or goals that you're looking to achieve in your career? Do you consider yourself to be "successful" at this point, and where do you hope that your career progresses from here?

I try not to think about long term goals too much. I grew up more idealistic than I am now, and I think taking things day by day helps me stay positive. I'm happy with the way things are going, but cautiously optimistic.

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Matt Mrowicki

Matt Mrowicki founded Chorus and Verse in 2001. He is a rock star designer and technologist, Internet professional, content creator, and entrepreneur specializing in web development, IT consulting, branding, social media and online marketing.