The award-winning musician talks about his biggest hits, his creative process and why he vowed to never write another love song.
Ben Arnold plays at Grace Winery on Sept. 11
by Melissa Jacobs
With his rocking, raspy voice and honest but often cheeky lyrics about love and life, Ben Arnold has been a fixture on the local indie music scene for more than two decades. He’ll bring all of his songs to Grace Winery on Sept. 11 for a special, outdoor show from 3 pm – 5 pm.
The good thing about being a Philadelphia music icon is that you have legions of songs in your repertoire. The bad thing is that you may no longer like them all. Cringing at a question about “Sugar And Water,” Arnold dismisses the rocking song. “Do you like that one? I’m meh about it. It’s a reference to simple syrup, which is part of a mixed drink. There are better songs on that album.”
Indeed, “Eggs,” “When I Marry You” and other tunes pepper Arnold’s 2007 Nevermind My Blues. The album’s title track still meets with Arnold’s approval. “I just played ‘Nevermind My Blues’ on a European tour,” he says. “I was trying to play at least a few tunes from every record. It was a two-hour solo show. So, I revisited records to find their redeemable qualities. I played ‘Nevermind My Blues’ and ‘Timeless.’ In fact, I played ‘Timeless’ every night.”
Arnold’s recent jaunt through Denmark and Germany was his first European tour since the pandemic. He’d been in Germany when the country went into lockdown in 2020. Returning was a creative full circle. “People were dying to hear live music,” he says. “I wanted to see if I could carry a two-hour show by myself. It was a wonderful experience. It was spiritually fulfilling in every way.”
Legions of fans feel the same way about Arnold’s music. The early days of his career were spent in Philadelphia’s then nascent singer-songwriter scene, powered by WXPN, Philadelphia Weekly and other indie rock supporters. Arnold’s first album, Soar, was a critical success and led to his record deal. “In the early ‘90s, I’d been in a series of small bands playing small clubs,” Arnold says. “If I had a big break, it was when I got signed by Columbia Records in 1994. I put out my first – and only – record with them in 1995.”
Much about the world has changed since then – including technology – but Arnold says that his writing process remains mostly the same. “We used to go through Radio Shack cassette decks and record what I call scratch tapes,” he says. “That evolved into a Walk-Man, which evolved into a phone which evolved into my current recording set-up.
“Basically, my work flow is the same. I get an idea, record a demo for myself and listen back to it. I’m an intense self-editor. I rip myself apart, sometimes to a fault. I don’t finish songs that I don’t deem qualified to be on a record. I keep them, though. I have a bunch of songs that I may work on in the future.”
Arnold is always writing. “I have hundreds of melodies in my head,” he says. “But I don’t know which embryos will become songs. Seldom – yet sometimes – a song comes together all at once in a blaze of glory. Usually, I do some writing, then arrive at a point where I have a thematic thing to work with. I work well when I have an overarching theme, either musical or lyrical.”
Love is a theme he dismissed a while ago – or so he thought. “In 2015, I put out Lost Keys, my love letter to all things Philly Soul and Stax. After it came out after I said that I was never going to write another love song. And then I did.”
Turns out, love is an inescapable theme. “I like writing rolling lyrics,” Arnold says. “I like tunes that have a stream of conscious, more poetic feel to the lyrics. I love wordplay. It’s probably my favorite part of writing. I piece things together and hopefully they make sense to someone other than me.”
Ben Arnold appears at the Inn at Grace Winery on Sept. 11 from 3 pm – 5 pm. Click here to purchase tickets. The Inn at Grace Winery, 50 Sweetwater Road, Glen Mills, PA.