Self-taught musician Ben Arthur sees rawness as advantage

A fan of the novelists he calls “the Johns” — Irving, Cheever and Updike — Ben Arthur writes grim an
Ben Arthur broke onto the music scene in the late 1990s, playing small clubs in Charlottesville, Va. He’ll play Friday night at Moon and River Cafe in Schenectady.
Ben Arthur broke onto the music scene in the late 1990s, playing small clubs in Charlottesville, Va. He’ll play Friday night at Moon and River Cafe in Schenectady.

Categories: Entertainment, Life & Arts

The metal-pop of Def Leppard may seem an unlikely inspiration for Ben Arthur’s one-man-scale post-emo musings, but Arthur is all about belying expectations.

“ ‘Pour Some Sugar on Me’ was the first video I saw when we finally got MTV in my podunk hometown [Harrisonburg, Virginia],” he said, “and there was something about it that just grabbed me. It was another couple of years before I actually picked up a guitar [at 14], but it stuck with me for some reason.”

Without formal training, Arthur started playing in bands. “I was in a band called the Wallflowers before Jakob Dylan was,” he recalled, and another called Fun Turned to Tragedy — “bad band, terrible name,” he acknowledged. “Not to sound too pretentious, but this stuff can’t really be taught,” he maintained. “In some ways, the more training a singer or songwriter has, the less interesting their work becomes.”

Arthur said: “No one wants to hear the caterwauling of a rank neophyte — except, that is, on the first few episodes of ‘American Idol’ every season. But generally, you’re looking for something more raw and real.”

Though his own voice is smooth, it has heft and depth, and sense is more important to Arthur than sound. “To me, an expressive voice — like John Prine for example — is just as interesting as a technically proficient voice. This isn’t opera: It’s about the communication of ideas more than pitch, timbre or whatever.”

Bleak but beautiful

A fan of the novelists he calls “the Johns” — Irving, Cheever and Updike — Arthur writes grim and emotionally dark songs, difficult feelings cloaked in pretty pop melodies. “We have plenty of Disney and ‘Leave it to Beaver’ out there in the world, and that kind of art is really not that interesting to me.”

Ben Arthur

WHERE: Moon and River Café, 115 S. Ferry St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 382-1938, www.moonandrivercafe.com, www.benarthur.com, www.myspace.com/benarthur

Arthur started challenging and charming listeners with his bleak but beautiful songs and such prickly covers as Neil Young’s “Ohio” in open mike nights in Charlottesville, Va., after entering the University of Virginia. (In June, he returns to play the Little Grill there, where he made his debut.) One night, he shared the stage with another struggling Charlottesville musical novice. “Dave [Matthews] played with me at a Mexican restaurant,” Arthur recalled. “He was very drunk and we sounded like crap.” However, Arthur earned $300 for his first professional gig and opened Charlottesville shows for Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin (one of his favorite guitarists) and Bruce Hornsby.

Arthur released his first album “Curses and Rapture” in 1997; followed by “Gypsyfingers” in 2001; “Edible Darling” in 2004, featuring Dave Matthews Band violinist Boyd Tinsley and sometime-Matthews cohort guitarist Tim Reynolds; and “Mouthfeel” last fall.

Uniting songs, stories

“Edible Darling” was the breakthrough. When its songs got major airplay, Arthur said: “I wondered if they all just meant to play Ben Harper and got confused.” This may be more realism than humility, as his songs stare down death and desolation, often after seeming to embrace them. The song “Tattoo” from the album considers, then rejects, suicide: “Like Abraham, one day I awoke and realized that along with the will, the hand and the knife, the throat was mine.”Like many a songwriter before him, Arthur has written a novel, scheduled to be published late next year or early the next. With the working title “Ballad of a Burning Man,” it depicts “a television producer who gets caught cheating on his wife and his efforts to worm out of taking responsibility for it.” Although none of its ideas or characters grew from a song, Arthur said, “My new project is a concept novel/album, where the songs are intertwined with the story and vice versa. Very, very fun.”

He may try out some of its songs at the Moon and River Cafe on Friday. “There’s a new song called ‘Burnham Wood’ that I might give a shot at,” he said, explaining it’s “kind of tongue-in-cheek angst pop.”

He supplied a sample line: “Love like Burnham Wood, and no less thorny . . . passion like Internet porn, a vacuous horny.”

He said he would play “whatever I feel like playing, and whatever it seems like the audience is looking for, or a compromise between the two.” Tonight, he plays for 900 high school students in Michigan. “That should be good and terrifying,” he said. But who will be more scared: the solo performer unafraid to write and sing of bitter, bleak topics and face a big crowd alone, or high school students expecting tamer, troubadour fare?

Ben Arthur

WHERE: Moon and River Café, 115 S. Ferry St., Schenectady

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 382-1938, www.moonandrivercafe.com, www.benarthur.com, www.myspace.com/benarthur.

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