How DIY Guru Ari Herstand Rediscovered Himself Through Songwriting

As a DIY icon, a successful entrepreneur, a commanding performer and a world-class songwriter, Ari Herstand has made quite a name for himself.

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35 years old, Herstand has a vision (and a work ethic) reflecting an exciting change in the music industry: the rise of independent artists. In 2012, he founded Ari’s Take, a music blog devoted to educating artists of all backgrounds on how they can find success in the ever-changing and difficult-to-navigate world of professional music. With a corresponding book, a podcast series and a variety of other altruistic, community-encouraging projects, it makes sense why Forbes crowned Herstand the “poster child of DIY music.”

Yet, for as much advice as he was giving other artists on how to channel their expressions into successful careers, Herstand himself stepped away from songwriting for a few years. Devoting himself to his funk band, Brassroots District, he avoided writing any type of personal songs out of fear of hurting his then-partner. 

That changed a few years ago when, after 11 years, Herstand and his partner broke up. Hurt and not sure what to do, he turned to his old faithful friend: songwriting. Putting the pen to paper, Herstand quickly chugged out over 40 new, incredibly personal tunes. On April 9, he finally released the end product of this creative explosion: Like Home, a beautiful, intimate and moving six-song record. 

Herstand hopped on the phone with American Songwriter to talk about this new record and share some insight into his efforts to help other artists on the road to success. Cheerful, charismatic and palpably passionate, he opened up about his personal and professional journey, sharing invaluable wisdom along the way. Read our conversation below:

American Songwriter: The past year has been a historically tough one for musicians up and down the line. What has this time been like for you? How has it been putting a record together in the midst of the pandemic? 

Ari Herstand: When the pandemic hit and tours and everything got shut down, I feel like people fell on a spectrum between two extremes. One end of the spectrum was people who just sat home, watched a bunch of Netflix and didn’t know what to do, they kinda just let things settle a bit. On the other side of the spectrum, people went into turbo mode, kinda started panicking and took on way more projects, ramping up their work schedule. I was on the latter half of the spectrum.

The day our mayor shut down Los Angeles, me and a couple friends kicked into high gear and decided to launch a live-streaming music festival in order to try to help these venues and touring artists get through the pandemic. We called it the “UnCanceled Music Festival” and we had venues from all over the world partake. In 10 days, we had over 1,000 shows and raised over $100,000, all of which was donated to music venues, musicians and MusiCares. 

Right after that… well, I would ordinarily say that I “jumped right into the studio” to record my new record, but I didn’t really “jump into” anywhere except for the second room at my place! I had already been planning on making this record—literally the week Los Angeles shut down, I was supposed to start working on it with my producer. We pivoted and put it on hold, changing the entire production schedule. In the past, I made records by getting into the studio with musicians. We’d lay the foundation down fairly live. But obviously, we couldn’t do it that way this time.

AS: This was also a challenging time for you personally—how did that impact the record? 

AH: I felt a strong pull to get this music out there. This record is extremely personal to me—I spent all of 2019 and the first few months of 2020 writing it. At the time, actually, I wasn’t even planning on writing a “record,” I was really just writing because I needed to write. This is a breakup record—I got out of an 11-year relationship and I was rocked by that. I needed songwriting for myself, I needed it to process.

So, when I started writing after the breakup, I wasn’t thinking that it would be “for” any project or record or anything, it would only be for me. I needed it. And honestly, I’m so grateful that I have songwriting to use as a source of comfort and solace. It helps me process my emotions in a way that nothing else I know of can do—I have a therapist and he’s awesome, but he’s all head for me, it’s just tools. Songwriting is the only thing that’s a direct channel to my heart. So, I spent 2019 and some of 2020 writing, and I ended up with over 40 songs. Then, right before the pandemic hit, I realized “You know, there’s a story here.”

AS: Turning to songwriting in that moment of grief was a bit of a revival for you. What was your relationship with songwriting like prior to your breakup? 

AH: Well, let me give a little perspective; my previous album, Brave Enough, which came out in 2014, was another personal record for me. I’ve always turned to songwriting when I needed to process how I was feeling. Oftentimes, I turn to it in places of pain, whenever I’m at a low point. So, most of that record was the challenges and struggles I was going through with my partner at the time. Now, I think everyone can understand and relate to the fact that if you’re in a relationship, there are going to be some ups and downs. There are going to be struggles, there are going to be points of contention, there are going to be little tiffs that you get into. Most of the time, you get into a little disagreement, you talk about it and you move on. Then, you forget about it and don’t really think about it again. 

The problem is: if you’re dating a songwriter, the songwriter might go into the studio, pull out a guitar and write a song about that fight. Now, that fight has been immortalized. That’s what happened with my Brave Enough record. I immortalized the most challenging parts of our relationship. When it came out, it was extremely painful and challenging for my partner, as you could imagine. It nearly broke us up then, but it didn’t. I felt awful that I had hurt her so bad by releasing music that was airing our dirty laundry. I felt so awful that I stopped writing personal songs completely. I stopped writing.

Now, fast-forward—we broke up. Everything started rushing in. I was spinning, I didn’t know which way was up, I didn’t know how to move forward. I didn’t know how to hold conversations. I didn’t even have a strong grasp on time passing by anymore. Someone would ask me when something happened and I literally wouldn’t be able to remember if it was the day before or three weeks before. That’s how fucked up I was. I realized that I wasn’t okay and I needed to figure it out. So, I started writing about it. The song “Drifting” on the record is actually about that loss of time, how time gets so warped when you’re “in it,” so to speak. 

So, it was very important for me to carve out one day each week to devote to songwriting, just for me. Tuesdays became my day. Every Tuesday—all through 2019, 2020 and 2021, so far—I turn off my phone, I tell my team I’m not available and I write. Those days became sacred for me. It’s how I processed everything. It’s also how I reclaimed myself as a songwriter and as an artist.

AS: You mentioned that you wrote upwards of 40 songs during this time. Considering how concise and intentional Like Home is, how did you approach shaping that output into this record?

AH: I was very intentional about the order of the songs, I wanted to tell a story. I’m wildly offended that Spotify and Apple Music call it an EP—that was out of my control. They slapped that “EP” term on there, but this is not an EP, it’s a full body of work. To me, it’s a full album.

But, yes, one of the benefits I have from living in Los Angeles and being a part of the community here is that there are songwriter nights around town. Specifically, there’s the Hotel Cafe, where I hosted a thing called “Monday, Monday.” Every Monday night, we’d have a curated songwriter showcase. I’d get up there and play new songs, usually three new songs. It was a safe space. It wasn’t a “show,” I didn’t feel like I had to prove myself. It’s a community and most of the other people in the room were songwriters themselves. 

So, I tested out a lot of these songs as I was writing them. I could sense in the room which were resonating, which were landing. That really helped me understand which songs were connecting with people and which ones weren’t. I was so fortunate that throughout this writing process, I was able to test these songs in public, for my peers, in real time.

AS: You mention how valuable that community support is for you—you’ve devoted a lot of your career to helping other artists, fostering a sense of community. What’s the importance of something like that?

AH: Community is the most important thing for me, it’s always been. The reason I started Ari’s Take was so I could share the knowledge I was gaining with my community.

I started my music career in Minneapolis and I loved the community there—if I wasn’t playing a show, I was out seeing a show virtually every night of the week. But honestly, one of the reasons I felt I needed to share the information I was learning was because a lot of artists from Minneapolis started quitting music when they couldn’t figure out how to make it work or they were taken advantage of by the industry. So many of them quit music simply because they didn’t have the knowledge or know-how. It broke my heart every time one of my favorite artists and peers quit music.

So, I vowed that if I learned something that I could share with my community, I would. I don’t believe in competition in the music industry—I believe that a rising tide raises all ships. Everything that I’ve learned, I’ve tried to pass along in my resources, whether that’s Ari’s Take or the podcast or the book or anything I’ve done for anyone else. Community remains incredibly important for me. 

AS: Taking this to an even larger level—a lot of your work is on the frontlines of a shift in how the music industry operates. More and more, artists are moving away from the traditional label system and embracing varying levels of independence. Do you see your work as an extension of helping artists make it on their own?

AH: 100%, that’s been my mission from the very beginning. When I said that people were getting taken advantage of and quitting music—so many of my peers got signed to record labels and then either got shelved (meaning their music was never released), were forced to make music they hated or got dropped. We’ve heard so many horror stories about how labels have mistreated artists over the years and have withheld royalties and money. Price called major labels slavery!

That was a big driving force behind writing the book. So many musicians came to me saying “I read all your articles and I’m trying to find steps forward—what books should I read? I’ve read almost all the music business books out there.” Unfortunately, most of those music business books are all written by lawyers, they don’t really have the empathy that musicians have. But, more importantly, many of them are very out-dated. People still, for some reason, cite Donald Passman’s book as the one you’re supposed to read even though it came out over 30 years ago. It’s so irrelevant today that it’s not even funny! 

Now, fortunately, my book is currently being taught at over 300 universities. It’s becoming universally understood that you don’t need a record label anymore to have a successful music career. Even the labels are starting to catch on—they realize now that if they want to retain relevance, they need to restructure their deals. They need to sometimes come up with new models—models they never would’ve considered five or 10 years ago—if they want to maintain relevancy or even maintain a business at all.

AS: How does it feel to be putting out this record now? What’s next for you?

AH: Last Friday when I released the album, I got to play a release show at the Hotel Cafe with a full band. It was one of the most magical experiences of the past year. Now, granted, there was nobody in the audience—it was a beautifully done livestream show with four cameras and all of that. 

But, just to play music with other human beings again… I was levitating the entire show. It was such a beautiful, magical feeling. I can’t wait to get back on stage again. I can’t wait to play with folks more. I can’t wait until there are people in the audience so we can have that shared, collective experience. That’s my favorite part of performing: connection. It’s the reason I perform. It’s the reason I love performing. Last Friday, I got to connect with other musicians on stage, but usually, I get to connect with the audience too. My goal for every performance is to have one shared, collective experience. Every time I get on stage, I am trying to hone-in and ensure that everyone levitates together. I know I did my job right if, after the show, we’re all on the same wave-link… and that wave-link is floating 10 feet above the ground. 

Ari Herstand’s new album Like Home is available everywhere. Watch the new music video for the title track, “Like Home,” below:

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