We’re teaming up with Music Ambassadors Macon to put on a special house show with Ben Arthur this Sunday at the location that was used for the film adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Ben’s literate songwriting is a perfect fit for the spot, and he’s even treated us to an early preview of a song he’s written for the occasion, appropriately titled “Wise Blood.” In advance of the show, we talked a bit about songwriting, the role of place in the creative process, and Bob Dlyan’s Nobel Prize.
You’re a songwriter but you’ve also written two novels. Tell me about the process behind that and what the differences are between songwriting and writing in a longer format.
I feel like there’s not a lot of difference in the fundamental drive. It’s just different forms of art, and it’s a different skill to do well. They look different in the work process. In writing, whether journalism or short stories or whatever, there’s some waiting – there’s a ton of just waiting – waiting for the next tour to start or waiting the manager to get back you. For me, I love having a lot of different projects going so that when I enevitably run into problems, either externally or creative blocks which occasionally come up where I just don’t know what to do next, I can just pivot to something else and amuse myself with that until I come back and maybe have a little more clarity.
Do you think there are any particular subjects that are well-suited for one versus the other?
No, I don’t. I think you can write about anything any which way. I do think compression is really the key with songwriting, compression and suggestion. It’s ideas that are clear maybe to you as a writer, and the song might sound different to someone else because usually you’re just so compressed and so suggestive rather than explanatory. With a novel or a short story, you have more space to say what you need which can be really scary. I think it’s one of the reasons that a lot of songwriters – really people – avoid novels is you really have to be clear about what you’re saying. It’s much, much more comfortable to say something mysterious that is meaningless to anyone but you. I think you can make art about anything.
Speaking of art, I was reading a New York Times article that you wrote that said all art responds to other art. That leads into my next question about your your latest album. How did how did that come about? Where did the idea for these answers songs come from?
Answer songs are certainly not something I thought of. There are answer songs all over. For example, “Sweet Home Alabama” was an answer to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” and I think “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie was a response to an Irving Berlin song. It’s not only interesting to me, but I had a fun way of tying my my interests together in literature and music. But it’s also a really cool cheat because the thing that I run into when I’m trying to do something new is just the universe of possibilities, the black hole that is a blank computer screen. Whereas if you’re responding to a piece of work that you love, there’s a much more bounded reality that you can exist in and respond to. So it’s an easy way of getting around my own inhibitions creatively.
So you’re playing in the South for the show. I assume you’re well familiar with Flannery O’Connor and Wise Blood. What do you think about the experience of playing in this setting?
I’m so excited. I’ve never actually been to Macon. I’ve been through Georgia a bit on various tours here and there, played Atlanta a couple of times, but I’d never been out to Macon. I’ve always wanted to. Tim Regan-Porter has been a friend of mine for a lot of years and has been telling me about how much he loves it, and I have been looking for an excuse to get down there forever. So I’m excited. And tying it into Flannery O’Connor’s work was his idea and something that I leapt at. In fact, I’m about to go into the studio to start mixing the recording of the song that I wrote in response to Wise Blood.
You also do a series called Songcraft Presents. How did that come about?
Me and a bunch of my partners had been looking for a project to do together. And we originally thought of doing a podcast that was about the creative process songwriting-wise, but we thought it would be more fun to put our collective money where our mouths were and put ourselves in a room and write a song right there and then and bring in different artists to feature in a given week. Obviously it would be really boring if it was just me and the guys every week. We had the chance to go to South By Southwest a couple of times and do it down there, and we worked with Rob Reinhart at Acoustic Cafe, which is a syndicated radio program that airs on like a hundred stations for about two million people. So we did some projects for them, and then that led to some projects for Subway and Ford Motors. It’s just been a really fun project, and in fact we just got our third Emmy nomination for our second episode on PBS.
Nice. We do a lot of that sort of stuff, taking bands to different locations around town, places that probably wouldn’t be seen by the everyday person. Do you think there’s a sense of place tied to a certain type of songwriting?
Always. Wherever you are and whoever you are at the moment that you are writing will inevitably lead into the song. I’m working with Susan Orlean right now. She wrote a book called The Orchid Thief that was made into [the film] Adaptation. In the book, there’s a sense of loneliness that came out a lot in the movie, and Susan was saying the other day when I was interviewing her that the book really has the seeds of her upcoming divorce in it. And if you read it, you do get a sense that there is something going on in her that’s making her pursue this story and stay in Florida. It’s fascinating. I find place and the way it sprouts up through things to be extraordinary. This project we did with Ford, you would not believe the amount of times that either the setting or or just the road comes through in the song. Lera Lynn wrote a song about coming home from being on tour. Other folks wrote about California or wherever we were at that particular time. It’s an incredible thing, and I love experiencing a different place, because does get your juices flowing.
So what’s next with that? What do you see the future of that series looking like?
I’m not sure. We’re greenlit to make a series for PBS, but do need to figure out how to pay for shooting things. Video is not cheap, trying to figure out a way to make the show, and make the show that we imagine and the way we imagine it and actually get people paid as a musician. The last thing I want to do is put another musician in a situation where it’s like “hey, you gotta do this for free or for publicity or whatever.” We really try to make sure we put something in everyone’s pockets when we do this. With that responsibility comes great power – or no, the other way around [laughs].
I have to ask this because you have experience in songwriting as well as writing novels. [Bob] Dylan recently won the Nobel Prize for literature, and there’s been a lot of reaction on both sides of that. What do you think about the prize?
I think the the broader and the wider that we embrace art, the better. And I think to pretend that what Dylan is doing is not worthy of being called literature or great art is silly. I think fundamentally, any time one of these prizes comes out, there are some people who think that people they admire – or maybe even themselves – should’ve gotten it instead. There are a lot of extraordinary people who have not won a Nobel Prize. So it’s a fair frustration. I don’t think you can look at Dylan’s body of work and think it’s not worthy of the deepest respect. I like that Leonard Cohen said it’s a little bit like pinning a medal on the side of Mount Everest. It’s not something that’s going to move the mountain, but it’s worth doing just the same.
Really looking forward to the show. We’ll see you on Sunday.
Looking forward to it. See you then.