Ari Herstand is a lot of things to a lot of people.
He’s the leader of 70s funk project Brassroots District. He’s an actor with credits in shows like Mad Men. He’s the author of the best-selling book, How to Make It in the New Music Business (which I’ve read and can personally confirm as being incredibly helpful). He’s the CEO of Ari’s Take, a go-to music industry blog and accompanying online school for indie musicians. He’s a solo artist with thousands of shows and a decade-long catalog to his name.
Yeah, it made me tired just writing all of that. It’s got to be tiring sometimes living it.
When you’re juggling that much, you need a steady place to stand. For Ari, that place has been songwriting.
Ari’s always used songwriting as a processing tool – as a means of putting meaning into the multi-faceted story of his life. For the past seven years, he’s refrained from personal writing (you’ll learn why below). But when a long-term relationship fell apart, he was disoriented and shaken, and he needed a way to work through the rubble back to his foundation. And so, amidst all of the initiatives, achievements, and the juggling, he turned again to songwriting.
He wrote. A lot.
He spilled his guts out in 40+ songs. He processed. He pared the list down to six. He and producer Justin Glasco brought them to life in the studio.
The result is Like Home.
Like Ari’s return to songwriting, the record is a journey. It’s the story of wreckage, recovery, and progress, ordered chronologically along the path from heartbreak to hope.
Title track “Like Home” is devastating.
She feels like hope
But you feel like home
Ari sings over plucked indie-folk guitar, crystallizing the difficulty of moving on from the powerful feelings of love, safety, and nostalgia. But the record – and Ari – moves forward bravely, one step at a time.
Third track “Drifting” is a turning point – atmospheric, ethereal, floating weightless between two destinations. By “Guard,” Ari’s ready to risk a new relationship, although “Birthday” has him reminiscing again – birthdays do that to you, after all.
But I think my favorite track is “Half Way”. It doesn’t exactly finish the journey (it only gets to the turning point, as the title makes clear), but it does build hope. The final chorus is arena-ready (although the world probably won’t be for a while), and it’s boosted by powerful harmonies from Annabel Lee, an up-and-coming artist whose vocals represent hope, and, who not coincidentally, is now Ari’s fiancé.
It’s a fitting end to an emotional roller coaster. Like Home loops and winds beautifully downhill and up, eventually returning back to the beginning – next to a person who makes the world stable, and in a place that feels safe: songwriting.
For all that Ari does, it’s still one of the things he does best. For his own soul and for yours, that’s a good thing.
You can listen to Like Home on Spotify, and you can follow Ari’s other endeavors at Ari’s Take. Then, come back and read the full interview here.
Hey Ari! Great to talk with you. So, I want to get the context on Ari Herstand as an artist from the ground up – because it’s been a long time, man. Your last album was in 2014, and then you had the book, and now it’s been six years since you’ve released music under your own name. Where is Ari as an artist at now?
For sure. And I like that you prefaced it as “Ari the artist,” because I do have many different tentacles off of my work, and obviously Ari the author or Ari the businessman is very different from Ari the artist, which… that’s something else that I just am constantly dealing with and battling with myself, this constant existential crisis that I always have. Because I feel like I can split myself in two and I can be the artist and be the businessman, but I can’t do that at the same time.
So, I flip on and off this business switch and artist switch frequently. But, to answer your question, I’m going to start with what’s more recent and then work backwards a little bit.
I am inherently an artist at my core and what I realized working on this new record was that I was using songwriting as a tool to process what I was going through, and that is something that I’ve always leaned on. All my solo releases have come from a place of me just trying to figure out my shit.
I have a therapist and he’s super helpful, but I realize that he’s all head. And when I talk to him, we work stuff out, and things become clear, and we create a game plan, but that’s still all head. And then when it comes to my heart or it comes to just internally, when I need to figure that stuff out, and I realize I can only really do that through songwriting.
Now, on the artist side, you’re right, I haven’t released a body of work as the artist Ari Herstand since 2014. However, I took a little detour…
Exactly, Brassroots District. So, the backstory on that – when I released my 2014 album, most of that record was about the challenges I was going through with my partner at the time because I was processing. That’s how I did it.
And then, when the record came out, it destroyed her. It was so troubling and upsetting, and I fully understand why she was troubled by it because I was airing our dirty laundry publicly. That was devastating to me because I cared for her deeply and loved her, and was trying to explain to her that I didn’t do it to hurt her, I did it because I needed to for myself, to get through it. But that because of that, I was like, “You know what? I don’t want to turn to songwriting anymore to process my emotions because it’s going to hurt her.”
That’s when I came up with the Brassroots District concept. I’m like, “You know what? I love funk.”
I grew up on Motown. My mom’s from Detroit. I had just taken a trip to New Orleans to write the book and in New Orleans, I was out every night seeing funk, soul, brass bands. And so I came home from that trip so energized, and I’m like, “This is what I want to do.” And I can write this kind of music, which isn’t personal to me.
It was almost like writing for a character. So I thought that I could satiate my songwriting artistic needs and my performance needs through this project, but I could also protect the relationship that I was in and protect myself, and so I separated the two.
It sounds good on paper.
Sounds great on paper. I think you know where this is heading. I was working the Brassroots District thing, and it was going great, and I was loving it, and then her and I broke up after 11 years and I was in this crazy spiral of just not knowing which way was up.
And I started songwriting again and I realized that was the only way I could make sense of it.
And directly following the breakup, for about a year, I just wrote and wrote and wrote. 40, 50 songs, something like that. I don’t know, I lost track. It was just all coming out. But it was so helpful and therapeutic for me to go through that process and that’s when I realized that I needed songwriting for myself, just to process for myself.
Yeah. So talk me through the transition from the writing to the album. Because there’s a step from processing via songwriting to having this finished album. Is that transition in itself therapeutic, too?
It’s very different. So the writing stage is actually very difficult for these kinds of sounds.
Writing Brassroots was very different. That was fun. Usually I’d be with my producer in studio and we’d be getting high and sipping on tequila and just writing the fucking record. And we’re just dancing around the room and we’re talking about creating these fantastical moments, almost like animations in our head of what the storylines could be. That was such a fun experience.
But writing this was so different.
This was painful to the extent that one of my best friends, the day after I spent the day writing and he was coming over for dinner, I opened the door and he’s like, “Hey, Ar- Oh. Are you okay? What’s wrong?” Like, instantly he saw it and knew I was just in it. I spent the whole day writing and I was… I’m in it.
Was the recording process the same way?
That process was interesting because this is the first time I made a record where I wasn’t with the band in studio together at the same time.
The story of 2020.
Because of COVID, right. So I teamed up with Justin Glasco, the producer – he was The Lone Bellow’s drummer for many years, he worked with Andrew Bird for a while and he’s in the indie folk realm. And so we met right before lockdown and had a couple sessions, and we clicked, and he got the vision, but then lockdown happened. So we basically made the whole record like this, over Zoom and using modern technology. His studio is 15 minutes down the road, but we never really saw each other in person.
He recorded from his studio, I recorded from mine, and the technology that we’re using was like we could literally listen to the session that we’re tracking in in real time. He’d be on the drum kit and in real time I could just yell, like, “Go to the ride!” And then for the bridge, he’d go to the ride, so it was like I was in the control booth. I was hitting the talk back and shit.
So that was really cool. Yeah, recording it was actually pretty enjoyable, ironically, because we weren’t in studio together like I normally do records and yeah, it was fun.
I feel like I’ve evolved as an artist and as a singer to the point where I can now deliver vocal takes and I know how to channel the song and deliver a take that is authentic and is rooted in the meaning of the song without actually having to go there emotionally anymore.
Do you feel like you had to “go there” emotionally earlier in your career?
Yeah, in previous records, I did. I mean, my last record, my Brave Enough record from 2014, in studio my producer forced me to go there. And I fell into a deep depression for the month that we were tracking vocally.
It’s like method acting.
Exactly. And there’s different styles of acting, and some people swear by the method method, and other people can just flip it on and off and they have the craft of acting where they know how to deliver an authentic, convincing performance that resonates and is honest and is truthful without actually having to emotionally take themselves and their entire being there.
And actually, between releasing Brave Enough and now, I was an actor.
Right, I’ve seen that.
I was on, I think, 10 TV shows – like Mad Men and some movies and commercials and shit. And so I think I learned a little bit of how to deliver an authentic, truthful, convincing performance without actually having to terrorize myself or force myself to feel it.
I could just be the artist who is channeling my art through this medium to deliver a truthful performance. And so when I got in the vocal booth this time around, the goal was to deliver a truthful, honest, resonant vocal take without actually having to go there emotionally. Because it was no fun the last recording process of doing that, let me tell you that.
I’ve always thought that one of the really cool things about making a record is the community that’s involved with it. When you’re going through the songwriting phase, it’s like you’re working through stuff by yourself. But when you’re making the record, you’re bringing out your own stuff with other people.
And even if that’s via Zoom, the process of being with other people is still therapeutic. So it’s interesting how the record is so much about the loss of community for you with one person, but maybe the process of making the record was therapeutic in creating community.
Absolutely. And to Justin’s credit, when we were figuring out how we wanted to produce these songs and how we wanted to develop them and record them, we had all these conversations in advance of laying down even the scratch tracks of the direction.
Yeah, it’s really collaborative.
Right, we used a lot of reference tracks. I mean, because what he knew me as was he knew the Brassroots District project, so he was like, “Are we making a funk record?”
I’m like, “No, we’re not.”
But we also talked about the meaning of the songs so we could create these productions that matched the vibes and the feelings of the songs.
Right, I can definitely hear that. I think there’s a real flow to the record both thematically and in terms of production.
“Like Home” to me feels most similar to some of the stuff from earlier in your catalog, in terms of production. Then “Drifting” is a real turning point where you have that atmospheric soundscape that’s capturing the theme of drifting.
It’s almost like an up ramp, and closing with “Halfway,” it’s like hope is back, with an almost arena-rock ending chorus. I can see the way you guys were able to weave the production into the themes of each song.
Thank you so much. Yeah, that was definitely the intention. I mean, these songs are placed in order intentionally, and I’m glad you picked up on that, because that’s exactly why I placed them in that order and how we developed the productions.
What was the process of paring things down like? If you had 40 songs, how’d you get to these six?
Yeah, so I used to play out at the Hotel Cafe’s songwriter showcase called Monday Monday. It was honestly some of the best emerging songwriters in LA… I remember Theo Katzman would do this frequently, JP Saxe was doing this regularly with us, Rett Madison. This was just a place where we were all testing out our songs.
So every time I did a Monday Monday, I tested out three new songs, and I would feel the room and get a sense of how people were reacting and responding and how the song felt when it was out in the room. So I got a pretty good gauge on which songs were resonating, how people were reacting, but also how I felt playing them.
What do you feel like are some of the high points of the album for you? (You can talk low points, too, if that’s the place it goes.)
Well, honestly, “Halfway”, the last song… There’s a hopefulness to this record and…
It’s interesting how hopeful the record is, given the subject matter.
Yeah, I’m a naturally optimistic person, but it was painful to write most of these songs. Except “Halfway”, which was exciting to write.
And a fun little story behind that, that was the last song I wrote for this record. I wrote that mere weeks before lockdown, a week before I made the move on the girl I’m singing about, who was one of my best friends at the time, who is now my fiancé.
Ah, that’s awesome, man. Congrats.
Yeah, so there’s kind of a hopeful ending. That happened all in under a year. I mean, we were really good friends for a couple years, I started to have feelings for her, and I wrote that song after seeing her perform. She’s the artist Annabel Lee. I wrote the song after seeing her perform one night, we hung out that night, I wrote the song the next day, and a week later we kissed for the first time. And then nine months later, we were engaged. And she’s singing on it.
That’s a great frame for the rest of the project, right? Because it’s like these things happened – the first five tracks – to get me to this place.
It’s pretty chronological, yeah. The first four are about getting through the breakup. And then we have “Guard”, which is about my dating mishaps of just falling way too quickly for someone who was mildly interested in me.
But then it’s a hopeful outcome with Halfway, so yeah.
Good stuff, Ari. Okay, let’s look forward. What are you most excited about this year?
Well, I’m mostly excited to release the album. The last two years of my life has more or less been working on this, so I’m excited to release it. And to play live again.
Are you going to tour it?
Fingers crossed we have live shows again at some point. But I will probably not tour it. I will definitely play locally in LA.
I mean, where I’m at in my career and life, I’ve developed Ari’s Take into a full company. I feel like I have found a calling that is necessary for the greater music community and that I need to show up for them in that way.
I almost feel it’s my duty and responsibility to show up for the musician community out there, because I’m in the unique position of being one of the only working musicians who has written about what the new music business is all about. I feel like a lot of musicians are looking to me for support.
Does that feel like a burden at all?
No, because I’m extremely passionate about that. I am a teacher at heart. I actually went to college freshman year to be a high school band director. I was a music education major.
I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I don’t know which was the detour or which was the main road, to be honest, because I started on this road to be a teacher, then I jumped off, I’m like, “Nope, I need to be a musician and a performer.” Now I’m back in running an online school and I’m like the teacher again.
I would never call it a burden because I have a choice in what I want to be pursuing, and I’m very fortunate in that.
And the Ari’s Take side of everything I do is extremely meaningful to me. I’ve seen the impact of Ari’s Take and the book, which is honestly much greater than my music has every impacted anyone on that scale. Yes, people have tattooed my lyrics onto their bodies and that’s a pretty fucking big impact. I’m not belittling that at all.
No one’s done that for the book yet, yeah.
So that’s amazing, and yes, my songs have been placed on TV shows and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, all the stuff that I’ve “achieved” with my music. But I have never felt the same scale of impact with my music that I do with the book and the teachings.
I think you really tangibly get to see how people are impacted with that stuff. Okay, last question for you. I always like to ask people: what is your best tip for other songwriters?
Write what is meaningful to you. Don’t write what you think people want to hear.
Ah, follow up question to the last question. How have you seen that play out with your own writing? Brassroots was meaningful too, I know, but maybe in a different way?
Absolutely, very meaningful. I fucking love the stuff we wrote for Brassroots. And I didn’t write it because I thought people wanted to hear it. The jury’s still out if they want a throwback 1970s funk soul band. I don’t know. But I wrote it because I fucking love funk soul music and because it was meaningful to me, so that was a lot of fun. And there’s a difference between writing what you think people want to hear and following production trends.
Because when I mention that sometimes to people, they’re like, “Well, if I only wrote what I want, then I wouldn’t have a career and no one would care about it.
It’s like, no, you can follow production trends and you can work with the craft of songwriting and still make it meaningful to you. Where songwriters, especially emerging younger songwriters, get caught up is they chase. They chase what they think is trendy or what they think people want and it’s like that Steve Jobs quote, that the customer doesn’t know what they want, they have to be shown what they want.
So you can follow production trends and make whatever song you want sound current, of the moment, if that’s your goal, if that’s what you want. And you can always improve your craft, but I would advise against chasing too closely to what they think that people want or expect or even chasing the trends.
Because it’s like if you’re going to want to write a song that’s going to pop on TikTok, by the time you finish it, TikTok is going to be passé. Or the song that you thought would catch on TikTok caught three months ago, and now people are over that style or that… and so it’s like the songs that catch are typically by the innovators, and then you have the copycats in that moment, and then a few months later or a year, whatever, it’s passé, it’s over.
So I think as long as you’re making music that’s meaningful to you, you can be proud of it and stand by it no matter what happens.