Ben Arthur | Lake Success

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Lake Success

by Ben Arthur

"Ben Arthur has the looks and hooks of John Mayer" -Rolling Stone
Genre: Rock: Adult Alternative Pop/Rock
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1. Lake Success
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Album Notes
Physicists will tell you that a perpetual motion machine is impossible. But what about a perpetual motion art machine?

This is a question that has fascinated and occupied 46-year-old singer, songwriter, and novelist Ben Arthur for decades. “All art responds to other art,” Arthur wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, concerning the fine line between stealing from, and being inspired by, the works of other artists.

It’s not news that artists take inspiration from numerous sources, even literature, and the serendipitous journey of any piece of artwork can seem profound after the fact. But Arthur takes an especially expansive view of literature as muse, and his wide-ranging forays into storytelling are - like his music - deeply resonant and heartfelt.

This is laid bare in his latest project, SongWriter, a podcast that explores the connections between the written word and the lyrical. SongWriter features a dozen episodes with many of Arthur’s literary crushes, including Roxane Gay, Joyce Carol Oates, Susan Orlean, Patricia Lockwood, and Jonathan Lethem.

But Arthur also spotlights quieter voices. In one episode, Arthur interviews Aura Hernandez, a mother who took sanctuary in the Fourth Universal Unitarian Church in Manhattan after U.S. immigration officials moved to deport her. She describes what it’s like to live for months in the 120-year-old Gothic church and tells how she must remain there because her ex-husband promised to kill her if she ever returned to Guatemala.

Hernandez’s unusual and moving story inspires a song from Brazilian songwriter Denise Reis, which Reis recorded in a live performance in the church with Aura and an audience of supporters. Arthur also weighs in with his own song “Mothers,” based on Hernandez’s experience and featuring an imagined conversation between St. Peter and a MAGA supporter. The song is on Arthur’s upcoming album, Perspective, due out this fall with Byron Isaacs of The Lumineers on bass and Dan Konopka of OK Go on drums.

Another gem in the SongWriter lineup is an episode featuring Rita Mullaney, a retired New York City police captain. Listening to Mullaney is like sitting in an Irish bar, eavesdropping on a conversation with a grizzled beat cop; it’s funny and frank and curiously engrossing. She describes an elderly woman who for decades made her home in the closet of the precinct where Mullaney worked. How she got there, and how she left, will be one of the most poignant stories you’ll likely hear this year. As with Hernandez’s story, it’s a reminder that real-life narratives can be just as potent a source for inspiration as award-winning fiction.

For Arthur, the narrative began with a blank page.

“As a young songwriter I was often crippled by the vast sea of artistic possibilities, not knowing which direction to go,” he said. “It was so much easier to start with a great story, and puzzle out how to write a song about it.”

Then one day George Saunders, one of his favorite authors, popped up as a friend-you-might-know notification on Facebook. Arthur fired off an effusive fan note. The two struck up a conversation, and Saunders invited Arthur to come to an interview with Deborah Treisman of the New Yorker magazine in 2013. Arthur told Treisman about his answer song venture, and she sent him a story by Alice Munro titled “The Bear Came Over the Mountain.” He wrote a song inspired by Munro’s story.

Thus began a series of cross-media collaborations between Arthur and luminaries of the literary world, including Joyce Carol Oates, who has done three shows with Arthur and is scheduled to do a fourth in the fall.

“The SongWriter project is really brilliant, and I’m just fascinated with his work,” Oates says about collaborating with Arthur. Another of Arthur’s projects, SongCraft Presents, aired three half-hour episodes on PBS and garnered five Emmy Award nominations.

Each art form has unique ways of captivating its audience, a “secret language to get inside people’s chests,” Arthur said. “My lifelong passion is to figure out how that works.”

Arthur knows that writers and musicians are mutually intrigued by each other’s craft. Dancers, visual artists and filmmakers are too, for that matter.

“Each of us imagines that the other’s playspace is somehow more pure, more fun,” he said, “when, really, it’s a funny window into a kind of magical thinking we have about the art forms that we’re less comfortable in.”

To hear the storytellers and artists in SongWriter is to wonder whether a perpetual-motion art machine isn’t just possible, but to some extent inevitable, constituting its own universal law of creation. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but draws energy from the things around it and, in turn, provides momentum for subsequent works of art.

At the same time, each art form has unique ways of captivating its audience, a “secret language to get inside people’s chests,” Arthur said. “My lifelong passion is to figure out how that works.”



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