It’s hardly shocking why major labels gravitate toward fresh, young artists: It’s easier to work with a blank canvas. The wider their eyes, the easier to shape.
In Ari Hest’s case, that meant another in a string of adult-pop crooners from Dave Matthews to John Mayer.
Columbia Records released Hest’s third full-length album, “Someone to Tell,” in 2004, as he was embracing the guitar, and becoming enamored of Matthews.
“I was intrigued by the way he played guitar and his voice,” Hest said. “I thought he had a uniqueness that I hadn’t heard in many other people. Early in my career, you could tell that I was very influenced by him in the way that I played and that I sang. I hadn’t quite figured out my own thing yet.”
The New York native sold in the neighborhood of 20,000 CDs of his debut EP and first two albums. His hard work paid off in major-label attention, but the relationship soured. Columbia wanted Hest to keep imitating Matthews; he wanted to move on.
“They wanted me basically to be like John Mayer as much as I could, and I was never really interested in that,” he said. “It was a good time for me creatively, because I started to listen to things and appreciating songwriting in a way I hadn’t before. My music changed while I was with them for the better, though not for the better for them.”
He celebrated his departure by recording and releasing a gargantuan amount of music in the form of 2008’s “52 Project.” Every Monday for an entire year, Hest posted a new song on his website. In 2009, he polled fans on their dozen favorites, then reworked and re-recorded them, releasing the effort as “Twelve Mondays.”
With this year’s “Sunset Over Hope Street,” he continues to stretch his craft; the album’s lush warmth stands as Hest’s most sophisticated sound to date. To switch things up, Hest took many of the songs he composed on guitar and transposed them to piano.
The experience was such a revelation that at least half the songs for the forthcoming album were written on piano. Hest’s also planning on revisiting string arrangements because he so loves the sound. But one thing will remain the same: He continues to pen peculiarly personal music, because that’s the only way he knows how to do it.
“It’s very hard for me to write things that don’t involve me in any way,” he said. “There’s no way to get yourself completely out of it. At least the way that I write.”
Photo by Deborah Lopez