Ari Herstand: The future of music is in good hands

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Last Friday night, a small living room on 6th Street in Dinkytown was getting all the attention. Ari Herstand, 27, a poofy-haired singer-songwriter with a flair for social justice was making his return to the Twin Cities, a place he called home for seven years, by hosting a living room concert.

Writing his own songs based on personal experiences, Herstand’s lyrics ring truer than most. He wrote his song “Christian Dear” five years ago on a day when his then-new girlfriend was on the beach with her ex-boyfriend. Fast forward five years and Herstand’s song “Maybe” encapsulates the struggles of being on the road for up to three months at a time away from his girlfriend of five years.

Aside from showcasing his love life, Herstand’s songs target important social justice issues. He advocates for gay rights (“Do Ask Do Tell”) and the Occupy movement. One of his most prominent songs is “Last Day” which was picked up by the television show, One Tree Hill for an episode. The night of the episode’s premiere, Herstand invited all of his guy friends over to watch. During a tragic death scene at the end of the show, his song played, leading he and his friends to be the only members of humanity jumping up and down in excitement during the scene.

About 40 fans packed into listen to Herstand’s two-and-a-half hour concert, split into an acoustic set and a live-looping set. In the first set, Herstand showcased songs from his soon-to-be-released new album, Brave Enough, which he produced and recorded with an all-Minnesota supporting cast. The second set highlighted Herstand’s specialty, live-looping, a style that brought him to #11 on the iTunes singer/songwriter charts in 2011. His backbone is his acoustic guitar and singing; however, he accents these with his trumpet, keyboard, vocal percussion and occasionally some tambourine. With his live-looping equipment, Herstand is able to layer these different instruments into his live performances, eventually reaching the climactic moment where the sounds all blend together, dazzling the crowd.

After a breathtaking night, I can honestly say, the future of music is in good hands.

The Mac Weekly: So you grew up in Madison and Shorewood, WI? Tell me about that.

Wow, it’s amazing that you know that. I guess, Wikipedia? Do I have that on my Wikipedia page? Not many people know that I grew up in Shorewood. My brother’s like this web genius and years ago he created a Wikipedia page for me. And he’s like, ‘Oh, Ari, by the way, you’re on Wikipedia.’ And I’m like, ‘What’s Wikipedia?’ This is like, before people knew what it was. I went to Shorewood for elementary school, and my family moved to Madison right before seventh grade, middle school and high school in Madison. Then I moved to Minneapolis to go to the U. I went to the U for a year and then transferred to McNally Smith, this music industry school. But I lived here for seven years. It was basically where I got my start playing music. There’s definitely a special place in my heart for the Twin Cities because of that and because I started playing. … I got to know the whole local music scene and kind of just became part of this community here. It’s always great coming back. The snow welcomed me back this time.

What is it about the Twin Cities community that sticks out to you and makes you keep coming back?

Well, because this was my home base for so long, it’s very familiar to me. I still have a lot of friends who live here. … Really, Minneapolis is such a great music scene. … When I first started playing out, there’s this club called the Steak Knife … I would play there a lot. It was kind of this small bar place, and then the Varsity Theater was opening up and I lived right near there in Dinkytown, and so I would walk by the Varsity Theater everyday from my job at Erbert and Gerbert’s, the sub shop, and I’d walk home every day past the Varsity and one day I just kind of walked in, talked with and met the owner, and then I set up a show there, and I really promoted it and got a ton of people to come, mostly University of Minnesota students. And then I just kept playing there. I did a monthly gig there, then a weekly gig there. As I was growing, the Varsity was growing, so we kind of grew up together. I’ve actually played the Varsity Theater more than any artist in the world. There aren’t many musicians that play the style of music that I play. It’s not very acoustic singer-songwriter focused. I would go out and see so much music, and all these bands which I was seeing were very different styles from what I was doing, which influenced me to play all different kinds of music and experiment with different styles.

Are there any specific bands that have influenced you?

I actually came back to Minnesota [from Los Angeles] to record my new record. I worked with a Minnesota producer, a Minnesota engineer, all Minnesota musicians, and we recorded it here in Minnesota in a studio here in Minneapolis and also in Northfield. It has a very Minnesota feel. One of my favorite drummers of all-time who’s in the Minneapolis music scene is Dave King. His most popular band is called The Bad Plus. They’re a progressive jazz group. The band I fell in love with was Halloween Alaska, and they’re an indie-electronica-pop thing, and I saw almost every one of their shows.

[King] was my dream drummer. Over the years, I was like, ‘Someday I want Dave King to drum on my record.’ And, we got him. We didn’t tell him what to play. We just said, ‘Go. Just do it.’ The bassist we brought in was Jonny Lang’s bassist, Jim Anton. Lang’s also like a hometown hero and blues legend. Then Jake Hanson played electric guitar. Joey Kantor played keys on it. He plays in Rogue Valley now, and they sell out First Avenue. And Chris Koza is a local hero also and one of the top Minneapolis singer-songwriters. He and I co-wrote a lot of the songs on this record.

How was the transition from the Midwest to L.A.?

It’s still evolving, and I’m kind of growing into this transition because when I moved there I was on the road touring most of the year. When I went out to L.A., [making music] was the only way I knew how to make money. I refused to get a day job. I was like, ‘I know how to make money playing music and music is going to be my career. So I’m going to figure out how to make it work no matter what.’ I did work at Starbucks for years before that. That was the last day job that I quit in 2008. When I moved to L.A., I didn’t know how to make money there because nobody makes money playing music in L.A. unless you’re a superstar or on the road or freelance. I’m not a freelance player, I’m not a superstar, so I gotta hit the road. I didn’t really get to know L.A. As soon as I started to make some great connections, I hit the road again for two months and lost it all. When I got back from recording this record and my tour last June, I made a decision that I need to stay in L.A. If L.A. is going to be my city, I need to make it my city. That’s when I started acting. I got an acting agent and started doing TV shows and commercials and movies. I used to act back in the day, and I hadn’t acted for eight or nine years, but that’s something I can do as a creative outlet to make some money. I started this blog, Ari’s Take, when I got back from the tour also. Over the years, because I’ve been DIY, so many musicians would hit me up asking me advice and questions. It got to a point where almost every single week another band was hitting up to me for advice. I tried to get back to everyone, but eventually it was too overwhelming, and I was like, ‘Let me just put all the information that I learned from doing it all online.’ Then when people would come to me for advice I’d be like, ‘Go read this article that I wrote.’ That started to pick up steam. I started writing for CD Baby, Tunecore, Reverbnation, and ASCAP. Then I started taking on some clients, just consulting them on how to do it and slightly managing a few people, just doing what a manager would do for a month. What I learned being in L.A. is most creative people there do a million different things to basically make up the full pot of money to pay all of your bills. It’s very different from the Midwest or anywhere else in the country. If you’re talented, you’re going to make it. If you’re not, you’re not. And making it isn’t superstar making it. Making it is surviving.

What are your goals for the future?

At the end of the day, music is still my main focus. That’s my number one. Everything that I do somehow supports my music. When I got into acting, I thought, ‘It will only help the exposure to my music.’ So if I get a big TV show or movie, it will only bring more people to me. That’s the focus. Sure acting’s fun and it’s great and I love it. When I started acting I got all the acting books that one who studies acting in college would read. I don’t like half-assing anything. When I do something, I really do it. So I got an L.A. library account, and I got like 15 books. I read more books in the last eight months than I’ve read in the last eight years. Literally. Then I started writing my own screenplay. One of the reasons why I haven’t released my new record yet is because I’m going to turn it into a movie. Being in the acting community inspired that. I found a really healthy community to be a part of and to really inspire me and challenge me to do things outside of my comfort zone that can take me places I never thought that I’d go.

In terms of your music career, where do you see yourself right now? Are you striving to ‘make it big’?

My goals are constantly changing. Basically, my overall goal is to have enough money to grow in what I want to do and to fund the projects that I want to do. Sure, I would love for this record to explode and sell millions and millions of copies and become the next Adele 21 record and sell out arenas all over the world. That would be nice. But that’s not the goal, necessarily. The goal is to put out quality content, be it acting, music, or movies.

I know for a lot of your music you make a connection to the social justice issues that are important to you. Could you describe this connection?

My dad’s a social worker. My mom has a Master’s in guidance counseling. Growing up, we would go to homeless clinics to feed the homeless. I was taught very early on to take care of those less fortunate and to look out for our fellow person. Race isn’t an issue. Sexuality isn’t an issue. Religion and everything, we’re all just brothers and sisters. We’re all humans. We should just look out for each other. That’s something that’s been really important to me, to make sure that any kind of influence I can have is used for the greater good of advancing society in a direction that is productive and healthy. Gay rights is one of the issues that I have adamantly taken on. This is something I believe in so strongly that I don’t care if I lose fans because of it because I care more about being a movement of change in our country to help progress society in the direction of equality. I’ve written a few songs that have very obviously been pushing a message of love and equality. On my last record, I had a song that was like, ‘It really comes down to love.’ That’s the most important thing in life, and that’s what we learn as we grow older. At the end of the day, be passionate about what you believe in.