Singer-songwriter Ari Hest is something of a self-made musician. He learned a little piano as a child and taught himself how to play guitar at 15. Shortly after, he started writing songs and performing. While in college at NYU, Hest produced two EP’s on his independent record label, Project 4, and decided to make a career out of his musical enterprises. Now the artist is releasing his fifth studio album with Downtown Records, Sunset Over Hope Street.
A child to musical parents—his mother, a cantor, and his father, a former jingle writer and sax player—perhaps music came to him quite naturally. But during college, it just made sense.
“I put the books down and started playing more,” he said. Still, it’s his talent that has brought him this far. That, and his affinity to explore and experiment with music.
Sunset Over Hope Street is the Riverdale, Bronx native’s latest release in four years. Before this, he’d worked on 12 Mondays for a solid year. It was the culmination of a project where he’d recorded and released a new song to online subscribers every week for 52 weeks; 12 of these tracks were selected by fans for the record.
Another project, The Green Room Sessions, was recorded on Hest’s personal laptop solely using Apple’s GarageBand to include acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, harmonica, and percussion to accompany his vocals. Such ventures of artistic expression are what make Hest a very unique and innovative musician.
His manager, Michael Solomon agrees. “Ari […] brings the rare combination of songwriting, performing and profound musicianship together with a sense of creativity and fearlessness which allows him to try new and adventurous projects. […] He is a true visionary.”
Meanwhile, Sunset Over Hope Street shows Hest at his finest and most structured. It’s a mature record with a distinct vocal sound and firm instrumental background that explains Hest’s four year hiatus, over one of which was spent working on it.
“I took my time with it,” he said. “I think my taste has changed. I think I’m a little more cognizant of what it takes to arrange my songs.” Hest also said he’s gotten better at editing and weeding out “songs that really don’t make a difference.”
No wonder Hest calls Sunset Over Hope Street “an album about transition.–Musically speaking, personally, politically.” The album is about things Hest said he’s observed and noted in himself and in others. They speak volumes about anything from relationships to politics and change in the world.
“I think the most natural thing for me to write about is seeing people go through something and talking about it,” he said. “I kind of need to hear about things that are going on that are either interesting or happy or sad or angry or hopeful, all these different factors kind of just add up to writing songs that have more meaning.”
And his songs certainly do have meaning. From the title track, which he described as “a song about learning to let go of someone emotionally that has left you,” to my personal favorite, “Swan Song,” which he said is the only one written out of his imagination. Though it was based on a strange dream he had, he said it might be about global warming. Its lyrics seem to prove that: “The earth below/Drowns in sorrow/Unprepared for/The sudden distress.” => “Swan Song
Lyrics aside, Hest’s solid vocals are firm and edgy yet gentle. He has a voice close to folk-pop artist Matt Kearney’s, and set to jazzy music akin to Frank Sinatra’s era, his works sound like modern classics. On this record, the two features are married almost perfectly. Just like music critic James Zahn commented, “[…]Hest’s vocals drive the record – a spacious affair accented by lush instrumentation and ambiance.”
Hest believes this is because he finally took a step back from the do-it-yourself approach, or trying to handle all aspects of a song. Instead, he focused more time on polishing the sounds with the help of producer Alex Wong and performing with other musicians. This evolved approach shows well even in Hest’s live performances, 29 of which he’s played since the album released in March.
Hest engages with crowds in intimate settings while getting well absorbed in soulfully performing his instrument and his voice. A video of him singing “How Would I Know” at the Mill in Iowa City earlier this year gives you a glimpse into that performance persona. His performances are thoughtful and do justice to the music, especially when Hest himself feels the energy.
“There are moments when I’m on stage when you just feel into what you’re doing and it’s almost like an out of body experience […].”
Yet he said, “The feeling of finishing a song, a well written song, and knowing that you have something significant in your hands, is probably my favorite feeling.”
Although songwriting is his favorite aspect of music, arranging songs has been a growing part of his expertise and Hest would still advocate creating music via the GarageBand type of software.
“That falls under the category of musical self exploration, trying to see whatever you can accomplish on your own without the help of others, without the help of a studio.”
Certainly attesting to being an artist for the ages, Hest looks forward to this new stage of musical arrangement.
“I do think that’s where music is headed more and more. You know, the more you can do by yourself, the better, I think, and technology allows you to do that. So, it’s great.”