Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Ari Hest returned to the stage of The Ark in downtown Ann Arbor Friday night, performing a 24-song set that was one part promotion of his new album "Sunset Over Hope Street," released March 1, and one part throwback to some of his older material — going back as far as a song the 31-year-old musician wrote about his then-girlfriend when he was 17. Hest shared the stage with Doug Yowell, an extremely talented percussionist who garnered some cheers of his own from the crowd, and even a few laughs when he suggested one of Hest's new songs was going to be featured in an upcoming porno release. "I'm pleased and just ecstatic actually," Hest said in response to applause from the audience early on in the show. "I've played here a couple times and it's been great, but this is the best applause I've gotten and I'm going to try to keep it up."
Hest shared the story behind "Until Next Time," the first song off his new album. "The first song on the album is a song about people you meet, who you don't really talk to very much. You just meet eyes with them, and then you walk by because you're too busy to talk to them, which happens a lot in New York. Or, for whatever reason, you don't get to talk to them, but they make a lasting impression on you, and you think about them all day long and you wonder if you'll ever meet them again."
Hest confessed he wrote the song "I've Got You" several years ago thinking he could one day sing it as a duet with singer-songwriter Norah Jones. "When I wrote this song, I was very much into — and I still really like her — Norah Jones. I was listening to her first album. I love her voice, and I thought we'd sing well together one day. And I wrote it eight years ago when her first record came out, thinking that we'd one day sing it together, but we never did. And for eight years I've been singing it myself. But this is our song."
Hest talked about having doubts. "I thought at the end of the year 2008 that I had come to probably the high point I would ever come in my career. I had finished this massive song-writing project that a lot of you guys know about it. I won't get into it. I thought that was it. How could I top that? That was like incredibly grueling. Fun, but crazy and totally took over my life in a good way. And I didn't know if I'd ever be able to top it. And I almost quit. I had done some math teaching before to fourth graders and I really liked it. I'm serious. And I thought maybe I'd go back to that. I didn't know what else I'd do. I did graduate from NYU. I am smart.
"But I decided, based on a ton of people just telling me like I should not quit music, and then eventually coming to terms with it myself, that there's nothing in my life to me that means more than music. Not even necessarily playing it. Just hearing it. It means so much to me and I don't want to give it up. So I wrote this song that's about that. It's called 'How Would I Know.'"
"I must confess, I've had a little bit of wine tonight," Hest said partway through his first set. Yowell then messed up a percussion loop before going into the next song and had to do a second take. "It's the wine," Yowell joked.
"Here's a song about some drunk people that woke me up," Hest said before playing "Morning Streets."
"This is a song written about someone that you wish the best for, even though they're not in your life anymore — not to be a downer," Hest said of the title track of his newest album.
While sharing the story behind the song "Broken Voices," Hest confessed to having trouble concentrating. "I have a brain that — lots of things come into my brain all at once and it's hard for me to focus, which is something that if you ask musicians do they have that problem, every one of them will say yes. So if I'm in a restaurant, if I'm in a conversation with somebody, generally there's something else going on in my head — a melody, something that's very hard to tune out. Unless we're talking about music or baseball or ... I don't know. There are other things. But it's difficult. So this is a song about being scatterbrained."
Hest shared the story behind "Come Home," the title track of his first full album released in 2001. "A great time to write songs is while you're on an airplane, because there's nothing to do. Especially in 1998 when I wrote this song, going back from Spain to New York City after visiting my now-ex girlfriend, who was studying in Spain at the time. And I took out the barf bag and wrote this song."
Hest said of the night: "I keep bouncing back and forth and smiling a lot, so obviously something's going right."
Hest shared the story behind "When And If," a song he released in 2007 about a man who writes a letter to his wife, telling her that he's fine and that he can't wait to come back home to make up for lost time.
"When I tour the states, I go to San Diego somewhere toward the middle of it. We're doing like 50 shows in the states, or something like that. It's funny — meeting a lot of European people lately, they always refer to it as 'the states,' and I never did before meeting them. Now I think of this country as 'the states.' It's weird. It's my country.
"Anyway, I go to San Diego, and San Diego has this place called The Casbah. And I soft rock — or I quiet rock — The Casbah. 'Soft rock' has a bad connotation. Although, I really like Michael McDonald. I cherish his entire catalogue.
"So in The Casbah, there are armed forces people that are stationed very close to the club that come to the show and they talk to me about going off to war, wondering if they're going off to war. Some of them want to go and they're excited. Some don't. And I wrote this song about someone who's there and wishes he was with his wife."
Hest talked about life on the road. "Doug and I will be traveling for the next X-amount of months. We do not know when the tour is going to end. It's kind of fun to think about the fact that we just have no idea when we're going home."
"Thank you for making this the best Ark experience and the best Ann Arbor experience," Hest said before playing "Dead End Driving," one of his last songs of the night. "I have to say, this is the third day of, like I said, a very, very long tour, and it's just the two of us in a Ford Explorer and we're trying to drive everywhere. And it's shows like this that make us want to continue to play."
Hest ended the night with an unreleased song called "Something To Look Forward To." "This is a song written right after the record was finished, the new record. And I think it'll be on the next one. I guess it's kind of a jazz moment. My parents are both musicians. My father's a jazz musician. And I think whatever genes he gave me — whatever jazz genes — came out in this song."