As part of Paste’s ongoing partnership with singer-songwriter Ben Arthur’s SongWriter, we’re proud to premiere the podcast’s eighth episode, available for streaming and download via NoiseTrade today (Sept. 10) a week ahead of its official launch on Sept. 17. As an added bonus, we’re also debuting a new song from Arthur’s forthcoming album Perspective, recorded alongside SongWriter itself.
Episode eight of SongWriter—a typical installment of which features a writer reading from one of their stories and a musician performing a song written in response to said story—features journalist and novelist Kurt Andersen and pianist and songwriter Vienna Teng. The former reads from his 2017 New York Times bestseller Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, A 500-Year History, while Teng plays a response song incorporating piano, a looper and backwards vocals. The performance was recorded at New York City’s Greenwich House in front of a live audience.
The episode features a notable SongWriter first, Arthur explains: “Though I’ve asked songwriters to respond to poetry, short stories and memoir, this was the first time SongWriter used a work of historical analysis as its starting point.”
Indeed, Andersen’s book is focused on America’s propensity for delusion, examining the country’s history in connection with our current “post-truth alternative facts moment.” Teng’s response song uses a backwards vocal to reflect that disconnect:
It felt like it really was going to be a song about trying to have a conversation and failing; like having two very different points of view and failing to actually connect in the middle. And so I was trying to figure out how do you put two things in one song that are just completely disconnected … I thought: what if one of them is singing forwards, but then when you flip it, that’s when the other person comes in the picture. So they’re looking at this kind of mirror image.
“When you sing, you are just kind of singing whatever the truth that’s embodied in your voice is … it could be a total lie,” Teng adds. “It could be fiction. It could be someone else’s point of view. That’s kind of what the power of the voice and song is.”
As for Arthur’s answer song, “Fantasyland” is one of several from the forthcoming Perspective—about half the album’s tracks were written in response to stories from SongWriter, with Arthur also performing them at episode recording events. Jose Alcantar mixed and produced the album, which features drums by OK Go’s Dan Kanopka and bass by The Lumineers’ Byron Isaacs, who is featured on SongWriter’s ninth (and next) episode. We’ll have that for you right here at Paste.
Listen to episode eight of SongWriter via NoiseTrade here and hear Arthur’s “Fantasyland” here.