Interview with Ben Arthur

While no one would deny that there’s an incredibly strong relationship between music and literature, it’s safe to say that few artists have explored the creative conversation between the two as interestingly as Ben Arthur. While he has previously recorded six albums and authored two novels, his If You Look for My Heart project actually combines those two worlds into one beautifully interconnected piece of art.

If You Look for My Heart tells one story through two different filters – an album and a book. You can certainly choose to enjoy one without the other, but taken in combination they allow to the story to unfold in richer and fuller ways. For the full experience, be sure to download both the album and the eBook.

I had the pleasure of asking Ben Arthur a few questions about If You Look for My Heart (as well as his next project Call and Response), but first he wanted to greet everyone directly:

“Just wanted to say hi to the NoiseTrade community, and thank anyone who's giving my work a listen/read, and opening up a line of communication between me and you. I know it's a loud, distracting world, and I appreciate you spending some time with the work I've been doing.”




Alrighty, on to the interview!

NoiseTrade: If You Look for My Heart is an interesting dual-medium piece that is told through an album and a book. Is it two separate stories that have intersecting elements or is it one singular story told two different ways?

Ben Arthur: Thanks! It was definitely a lot of fun to work on. Both the novel and the album tell the same story, but from different angles and with different points of emphasis. (The eBook is actually a single aggregated work, with the songs embedded in the text.) But while the album and novel are intertwined conceptually, they aren't dependent on one another – you can listen to the album like any other album, and you can read the book like any other book. Hopefully when you listen/read to them together, new elements of each shine through, characters and story lines and motivations shift around in new ways.

NT: Did the book and the songs get written simultaneously or did the project initially start out within just one of them?

Arthur: The album and the book were very much developed together. In fact, they changed one another as they went along. Lines in a song would nudge the narrative and story lines in the book made me write new songs.

NT: Are the special guests on the album (Rachael Yamagata, Aesop Rock, Bobby St. Ours, DJ Big Wiz) used as character connections to the book or do they just provide a different sonic coloring to the musical portion of the piece?

Arthur: Rachael Yamagata actually appears briefly in the book at a performance, which was fun to write - I'm a huge fan. But mostly the other voices on the album allowed me to fold the songs into the story without being too self-referential. I didn't want a character saying, "Hey, this Ben Arthur cat, what a singer!" or anything awful like that.




NT: The idea behind your next album sounds absolutely amazing. It’s titled Call and Response and it includes your “answers songs” to both other songwriters (Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones) and also other authors (Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro). What sparked the idea for Call and Response and how did you go about deciding which songs and short stories you would respond to in song?

Arthur: Well, when you think about it, all art answers other art in one way or another. But the framing allowed me to really focus on that source of inspiration in the songwriting and even gave me the chance to collaborate with some artists that I really idolize. Co-writing songs with George Saunders and Jonathan Lethem was a big thrill for a fan like me.

NT: In January, you’ll have the opportunity to perform the song(s) you wrote in response to Joyce Carol Oates directly to Joyce Carol Oates at a Poets and Writers Live event in San Francisco. Is this the first time you’ll have done this and what are your thoughts on how she’ll respond to your response to her? 

Arthur: Yeah, this is definitely a first for me. I'm excited and nervous. And grateful for the opportunity -- Poets and Writers Live is a really cool event, and this should be equal parts exhilarating and terrifying...my favorite recipe for a good show!

NT: Bonus question… Do you have any favorite “answer songs” by other individuals and if so, what makes them a good “answer song” in your opinion? 

Arthur: Well, "Southern Man"/"Sweet Home Alabama" is the standard (did you know they actually sing "southern man" in one channel at around the :55 second mark?), but my favorite answer song fact that I've run across recently is that "This Land is Your Land" was originally an answer song to "God Bless America." The original title was evidently "God Blessed America for Me." Weird and awesome.

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