Ben Arthur

Ben Arthur

BandPopAcoustic

"Ben Arthur croons like Duncan Sheik if he had a pair—shoegazing, cankicking, and remorseful only in retrospect...effortlessly delivered and beautifully composed." -CMJ

Biography

When Ben Arthur ruefully sings, “The older I get, the more I realize/The best I can hope for is compromise,” the singer-songwriter is only half-serious. After all, the young veteran hasn’t toiled at his craft for more than a decade to give in without a fight. That line, from “Mary Ann”—one of the songs on his album, Edible Darling—reflects the litany of near-misses he experienced after being heavily courted by several major record labels over the years.

“I never doubted that playing music is what I wanted to do,” says the Virginia native, who laughs, “In fact, you can refer to me as ‘The ‘Artist Formerly Known as ‘Waiter’.” He says that music is what he lives for, even if at times he has had to do it while working in restaurants.

Yet from the moment the first song off Edible Darling hit radio he experienced immediate success, as “Mary Ann” came in as the #1 most added single that week. It didn’t hurt, too, that Chicago’s WXRT had come out strong on the song, adding it a full two weeks before the official add date. There was not a cut off the album that failed to get airplay, with some stations reporting 30-plus spins a week. Even now, a year after Edible Darling came out, and six months since it was pushed at radio, the album is still getting airplay.

“People kept telling me that triple-a embraces artists and not songs, but I have to say I wondered if maybe they all just meant to play Ben Harper songs and got confused,” jokes Ben.

That humility and clear-eyed honesty extends to Arthur’s lyrics. Often brooding and dark-laced, images of betrayal, sex, humiliation, faith, yearning and death float behind a super-melodic pop facade. “Edible Darling,” a pulsing blues number, is about a friend who raises pigs to eat them. Like much of Arthur’s work, it looks mortality square in the face: “The most beautiful angel/Is the angel of death/Vinegar-throated/Confused and bereft.” The brooding “Tonight” has a shamed lover pleading to stay over, but it’s also a chilling song about not being willing to go gently into that metaphoric night. Similarly, “Keep Me Around” is a morbidly tongue-in-cheek song, wherein Arthur one-ups McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four”, asking that his body be treasured even after death.

If you get the idea Ben Arthur is not your everyday folk-rock-country-blues singer-songwriter, you’re catching on.

The press seemed to get this vibe and took to it well. Rolling Stone says, “Ben Arthur’s got the looks and hooks of John Mayer.” He got similarly enthusiastic responses from publications like Hits, Marie Claire, Performing Songwriter, and Music Today. CMJ says, “Ben Arthur croons like Duncan Sheik if he had a pair…effortlessly delivered and beautifully composed.”

Maybe the critics like the duality in Ben’s music. “There’s nothing in my work that doesn’t smack of some pretty grim, difficult stuff,” he says matter-of-factly. “Most of my songs are a marriage of contradictions: bleak and difficult sentiments lurking under an upbeat, catchy melody.”

Indeed, Arthur’s lyrical poetry and delicate melodies remain key to his appeal, though he incorporates 808’s, DJ-scratching and drum machines on several of the songs, with cellos and strings underlining others. There are bits and pieces of John Lennon’s cheeky fatalism, Beck’s homespun experiments, the earnestness of Kurt Cobain, Jeff Tweedy’s seductive psychedelia, the exoticism of David Bowie.

Arthur first picked up a guitar when he was 14 and immediately began writing songs. At the beginning, he listened to Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Ozzy Osbourne, and AC/DC, none of which you can hear in his music. He went on to be influenced in his songwriting, so he insists, by Lyle Lovett and Michelle Shocked, which isn’t exactly apparent, either. In Charlottesville, where he attended the University of Virginia, he developed a local following, and eventually shared the stage with Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin, Bruce Hornsby and fellow townsman Dave Matthews. In fact, Matthews’s collaborators Boyd Tinsley and Tim Reynolds played on Arthur’s first album, Curses and Rapture.

“I prefer lush images,” he says. “I don’t like songs that are too specific, too literal. What interests me is ambiguity and mystery, the spaces between the sentences. Like in ‘Strawberry Fields’: ‘I mean, er, yes, well, no, that is, I think I disagree….’ that’s the way people talk. I’m most fascinated by the underlying contradictions in people’s motivations, the way they deal with one another.”

“Don’t hold me at arms’ length/Keep me sun-blurred and clean,” he sings in “Sestina.” Arthur’s music is alluring pop, but if you take a closer look, it’s not quite as pretty a picture, “Pick up the pieces scattered resentments/From an old explosion/Grudges and barbs/All just mummery and gypsy fingers.”

Gypsyfingers is also the name of his second independently released effort, which came out in 2003. To complement his songwriting, Arthur says he likes to layer vocals and i

Lyrics

Mary Ann

Written By: Ben Arthur

Mary Ann

May Ann stifled but sturdy
Restless and dirty
I watch her straighten out her blouse

Mary Ann picks up her coat
Touches the beads at her throat
She climbs out of my car

All your grinding gives me
Zipper burn on my dick

Mary Ann make up your mind
Mary Ann don’t waste no more time
I can’t stop on a dime
You gotta make up your mind

Maybe I’m a twist of her hair
An image in air
Maybe I’m a statue of ash

But honey, you’re not dirty
And I hope one day I’ll see
Mary Ann slipping off her dress

The older I get the more I realize
The best I can hope for is com-pro-mise

All this dry-humping
Must lead to something

Discography

Edible Darling, 2004, Bardic Records
Gypsyfingers, 2002, Chicken Butter Records
Curses and Rapture, 1999, Chicken Butter Records