As the calendar page reads October 3, 2020, the world is rolling and tumbling in a vortex of darkness and light, of terror, and triumph over it. Music has the power to speak to our deepest fears and highest heart longings. Songwriters are heroes to me since they have the ability to paint word pictures and allow us to explore our full range of human emotions. Ben Arnold is one who uses his superpower to soothe souls and stir action. He is also a Philly local talent whose music came to me via WXPN a member-supported station that broadcasts from The University of Pennsylvania.
When I heard his song called My America, I knew that this timely piece needed a wider audience. It speaks to the vision of what our country could be if we were able to transcend hatred and valued both diversity and unity. It is anthemic in the spirit of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Joan Baez whose peace and social justice laced tunes inspired the pacifist/activist I became.
Was music always a part of your passion and purpose?
My mother had been a semi-professional singer in her early 20’s, got married, and had three kids. So, for her, life took over, and music became a passionate hobby, if not the career she may have dreamt of. I’m sure she did, as she was never really a woman driven by practicalities.
I’m sure I absorbed and inherited a great deal of what she lost along the way. From a very young age, I’ve had not only the affliction of being constantly aware of the melodies in my head but also the harmonies to accompany them. I’ve also always possessed the desire and will to figure out how to make them into something of style as well as substance, then go out and try to get some kind of audience to listen along. I was a choir kid, a failed theater geek, a teenage rock and roll fan, and an appreciator of all things music. I love math and history and English which is subversively a part of the songwriting path, although I never tested well at any of that in an academic setting. I’ve always enjoyed the social and collaborative aspects of playing in a band. I’m a natural-born control freak and I guarantee some would say I have an ego to match. Music consumes 95% of my brain and my soul every waking day. With the exception of a fairly long detour into the restaurant business as a means to survive, it always has. That said, I was fortunate that even when I was cooking, it was an art and I was, even then, surrounded by fellow music freaks.
What is your songwriting process? Do you write them or do they write you?
My songwriting methods have varied and morphed, progressed, and pivoted so much over the years. Almost like members of Congress. It could be argued that I have always written from a place of emotion and integrity. Inspiration comes from so many areas of your life. It’s difficult to pin down. I love to write when I’m in pain as much as I do when I’m elated. I try to write from an informed place if I’m writing anything that is in the realm of social commentary or historical context. I would consider myself a pretty versatile writer. Over the course of many years, I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to write music for a range of differing projects. I’ve learned how to write “to” them. When I’m writing strictly for myself, lyrically I am usually coming from a central theme and trying to work my way out. Whether it be the style of music I want to write within or the lyrical place I’m exploring.
Every writer has, every now and again, a nugget that just arrives at your doorstep, wrapped with a ribbon. I’m thankful for those few songs. The vast majority, however, come from an idea, a title, a theme, an instrumental riff…and the rest I rely on craft to work them to completion. I have a very constant flow of ideas in progress and sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the time to sit with an instrument, pad and pen and get it down. Once I get the main form together, and if I’ve got that far and not tossed it, I usually become obsessed with getting a bare-bones idea of what I think it should eventually sound like produced, down on “tape” as it were.
As a member of the band U.S. Rails, what is it like to blend talents into a big soup pot bubbling over with various flavors?
We’re a very democratic band that actually appreciates what each other brings to the table. It was built on that foundation. I couldn’t be more fortunate to work with these extremely talented guys. We all share a deep respect for each other’s talents and have known each other for so long that we kind of operate very differently than we would in our own worlds. There are so many years of artistic trust woven into our tapestry. Everybody intuitively knows what their role is, musically as well as administratively. We work fast and cheap and this leaves us with very little time to ponder and pick, which is a kind of very workable parameter to live within. That all said, we’re a band. We’ve had some great fun and mischief as well as a couple of good knockdown, drag outs. I am pining for all of that as we speak.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I’ve never been down with this question. Only because my influences are so far-ranging and so tied to certain periods of my life. And, here’s that ego again… I like to think I have an original voice which is a mash-up of so many flavors I’ve tasted. And from that, they kind of get regurgitated over time in a different stew. Tasty, huh!?
Seriously, I try to challenge myself to steal essences of that which I’ve loved although I’ve also been willing to shamelessly steal just for the sake of seeing if I can get away with it. I love melody, I love harmony, I love emotionally played music, not mathematically perfect playing. I’m a fan of wordsmiths but not to the point of sounding like someone quoting an encyclopedia. Or a bible.
I was a huge fan of the music that blasted from my sister’s 16-year-old bedroom (Beatles, Stones, Dylan, CSNY, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Carole King) as much as inspired by the music I was turned onto in high school (The Clash, Talking Heads, Burning Spear, Bob Marley, Grateful Dead, John Cage, Bowie, it goes on and on…) and the music I heard working in kitchens with my very multi-racial co-workers. And time goes on and you start working backward and trying to figure out what was inspiring all of them, and the list becomes endless. I’m inspired by true artists, not pop stars.
Did growing up in Philly impact your professional trajectory?
Without question. Short, often told story…..I lived in Rochester, NY until I moved here at the beginning of 9th grade. I originally attended the oversized George Washington High School where the only class I attended was choir. I failed out, went to summer school and my mother had the brilliant idea to have me audition at the brand new Philadelphia HS for Creative & Performing Arts. It was there that I realized the world was so much bigger than I had ever known. From there, the options became wider and, at the same time, more focused than I had ever imagined. There were more colors than I had ever seen, the streets were inviting and more dangerously fun, I was constantly artistically challenged and I started to believe that there really was a way to make music my life.
How did My America come to be?
Honestly, as many of my songs do, in musical terms, it just started as a walk-down chord riff in 6/8 time that felt pretty good to play around with. I was standing out back of Ardmore Music Hall waiting to do my bit at an In The Pocket gig. The Philly show band thing I’ve been doing for some years with a whole lot of players from the area started by Dave Uosikkinen of The Hooters. And I had been thinking at the time about how it seemed lately, the day to day, mundane things in life felt tainted in some subtle ways by the current mood of the country. This was a year ago!
Feels like a decade. And then frankly, I just had some time on my hands over the summer, as you can imagine and my friend Barrie Maguire to help me out recording a song for the fuck of it. Not for a record per se. So I pulled out this one which had been getting some nice reaction when I’d play it live recently. I knew the lyric and the chord progression was simple and relatable pretty instantly. This one of the songs I talked about earlier. It just sort of arrived at the tips of my fingers from a very real and somewhat scary place.
What would you like listeners to be moved to do after hearing it?
I don’t even know how to begin to write a song that purposefully moves people into “action”.
It’s definitely a song in the moment. That was intentional. It was, however, MY emotion. But
I do hope I’m mirroring a genuine, universal emotion. I’m disgusted with our version of Democracy right now and I know I’m not alone. If it makes people stop and think for 3 minutes about the mess this country is in and it moves them to, at the very least get out their vote, on time, in person, or by mail, then it’s done its job I suppose.
If you could wave a magic wand and our country would experience healing, what would it look like?
I don’t have a magic wand, unfortunately. We’ve taken such a deep dive into this enormously complex, dark mire of muck I can hardly imagine it right now. Let’s start with voting out this fear-mongering, racist, lying, self interest-driven, and flat out dangerous administration and then take a breath for a couple of days. Maybe put on our masks and go have a socially distanced picnic in a neighborhood park. Complete with live music. Then get down to the very difficult work of trying to repair some of the great progress we’ve made that’s been shattered like a New Years 2020 champagne glass. I’m hoping clear heads, creative minds, science, and spirituality prevail. I believe it can and I believe we can overcome and move forward. It ain’t gonna be easy. Honestly, I’m truly afraid things will get much worse before we reach any better understanding of each other and how to support and live together for eternity on our tiny planet.
Photo credit: Andy Bilinski
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