Next Up at SXSW: Ben Arthur

Web host finally showcases and panels up for March

Next Up at SXSW: Ben Arthur
by Christopher Auger-Dominguez

“Next Up” begins its South by Southwest campaign this week with the inaugural profile in a series of music festival previews. First up, New York songwriter Ben Arthur, who I met last year in Kansas City at the International Folk Alliance Conference. He had me from the first song.

“What inspires you?” I inquired.

“You mean other than all the coke and high-class call girls? Um, my charity work.”

“Tell me a secret,” I begged.

“I look dead sexy in a wet suit,” joked Arthur.

His music feels like a mix of singer-songwriter and classical music. Arthur’s released six studio albums and shared the stage with Dave Matthews, Toots & the Maytals, Bruce Hornsby, and Tori Amos. This year, he finally plays his first official SXSW showcase – Wed., March 18, Stephen F’s Bar – and also hosts a SXSW panel.

You might have heard Arthur as the host of the syndicated web series SongCraft Presents in coordination with Acoustic Cafe. Arthur cohorts Al Houghton and Mike Crehore, who run Dubway Studios in NYC, asked the singer if I had any ideas for a series, and the song-in-a-day format stuck.

“It’s definitely not an easy project,” says Arthur. “The clearance rights alone are next to impossible to deal with, but it’s deeply, deeply satisfying and incredibly fun. Essentially I walk into a studio with no idea what I’m going to do, I meet an amazing artist – often someone I idolize – and I walk out with a brand new recording of a brand new song.

“And usually a friend for life!”

On Sat., March 21, Arthur and Acoustic Cafe’s Rob Reinhart panel up about songwriting.

“SongCraft has been partnering with the syndicated radio program Acoustic Cafe at South by Southwest for three years running,” explains Arthur. “It’s a huge thrill to write songs under such immediate, intense pressure. We need to not only write and record a great song, but also be ready to perform it the next day in front of an audience of strangers.

“A few weeks later, the song airs on 90 stations in the U.S. and on Voice of America worldwide. Keeps it exciting.”

In April, Arthur releases Call and Response, a collection of songs by artists responding to another artist’s work.

“Some tracks respond to songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Atlantic City,’ and some to short stories. I even had the opportunity to write songs with the original authors of the short stories, like Jonathan Lethem and George Saunders, which was a real thrill for a lit geek like me.”

Arthur’s branching out. Ford is sponsoring a “big multi-format project with Acoustic Cafe and SongCraft, and the show’s also being premiered as a television program on PBS in Kansas City. We’re hoping to expand that this year.”

He was 15 watching “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard on MTV when he made the decision to make music his life’s path. He says he was heavily influenced by the songwriting of James McMurtry.

“So far my life is exactly, totally like how I imagined it would be watching that music video – lasers, beautiful women, stadiums,” laughs Arthur.

“At the end of the day, like any artist, you do the thing that you’re passionate about, and you hope against hope that people will run into your work, and that it will touch their hearts.”.

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Ben Arthur, SongCraft, Acoustic Cafe, Rob Reinhart, James McMurtry, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Def Leppard, Tori Amos, Toots & the Maytals, Dave Matthews, Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen

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