First, let me get one thing out of the way. Ari Hest is one amazing singer-songwriter. I saw him perform the other night on a tiny stage at the Room 5 Lounge on La Brea Avenue, and for 90 minutes or so, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. On top of his talents, he’s also really good-looking — he has the kind of face that can look good after three days of partying and no sleep.
His show is gimmick-free. He gets up on stage with his jeans and guitar, makes a few witty comments and then, with his gritty voice, sings poignant songs on the same themes we have heard for generations: love, loss, pain and conflict.
In “Just as Well,” he begins: “The pen tip is dry/’cause she never puts the cap back on/expecting that it won’t be too long/before he comes back/she feels alone/and though she knows she’s not the only one/she never thought the day would come/when she’d give in.”
This is from “Leaving Her Alone”: “Stay/I could’ve chosen to stay/at least the world wouldn’t look so gray/here, here is an empty room/filled with an empty man/who dreams of her/whether or not I want to.”
It all felt so familiar. There were hints of Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens or any of the classic troubadours of the past. How could something so familiar feel so fresh and riveting?
After his final encore, I decided I just had to meet this guy. So I asked my friend Monica, who looks a lot better than I do, to approach him and see if she could arrange an interview. Seeing some reticence on her part, I didn’t waste a minute and just pushed forward and stood near him, waiting for him to finish indulging two adoring female fans.
When he finally turned toward me, I took no chances: “Hi, I’m with The Jewish Journal and I’d like to talk to you about your new album.” (One thing I know about musicians: They’re always working on a new album.)
It worked. He introduced me to his agent, who gave me a time and place when Hest would be available. I grabbed it. Who cares if I had to squeeze him in the next morning between an MK from Shas (Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, the “Charedi rebel” making waves in Israel because of his tolerance) and picking up Yossi Klein Halevi at LAX. Because of the tight timing, I knew I couldn’t waste too much time with shmooze and small talk, my specialty. So on my way to Groundwork Coffee Co. in Hollywood, I tried to think of something deep I could ask him.
I was also feeling somewhat guilty that there would be no Jewish content at all to this column, save for Hest’s Jewish-sounding name.
So I thought of something. At his show the previous night, he introduced a song by saying, “I’m not the religious type, but this next song is about spirituality.” Bingo! Here was something deep and, possibly, even Jewish. I could work with that.
My comment to Hest, though, when we sat down for coffee, was that I didn’t really see any spirituality in the song, which was titled, “A Good Look Around.” So, what did he mean by spirituality?
The song, he told me, was from a rough time in his life, something he didn’t really want to get into. He did say that the spiritual part came when his dark moment was “interrupted” by the spectacular beauty of nature while on a hike in Colorado. This compelled him to “thank God for that beauty” and write a song about gratitude.
“Thank God”? Talk about a Jewish opening.
Well, as you might imagine, I couldn’t resist bringing up the overwhelmingly predictable question of whether he felt any connection to his Jewish roots and to the Jewish tradition. Hest is so polite and sensitive that I had to ferret out his answer: He’s not comfortable with the notion of “belonging” to any one group because it suggests he doesn’t belong to other groups, and as far as walking into a synagogue and praying, he’s not comfortable with the idea of reading “the same book that everyone else reads.”
His answers fascinated me because they seemed to embrace two extremes: universality and uniqueness. He belongs to the whole world, but his art — his “book” — belongs uniquely to him. He doesn’t mind expressing his unique difference through his art, but the idea of expressing his difference through ethnicity or religion was not an attractive proposition to him. He didn’t say this, but it was as if he felt he had to “earn” that difference.
What a thought. Earning one’s difference.
None of this stops Hest from having his “spiritual moments.” He prays often, he says, in his own way — and guess what: His mother is a cantor in a synagogue in Great Neck, N.Y., and he occasionally accompanies her.
Maybe the most Jewish thing about Ari Hest is simply when he says, “If there’s no drama and conflict in my life, I can’t write good songs.”
Oh, and before I forget, his new album, which he previewed at the show and which will come out in a few months, is full of good songs.