Episode 24: Hagar Ben-Ari, bass player for the 'Late Late Show with James Corden'

She's opened for Prince and The Rolling Stones. And with just two days notice, she got the job of a lifetime.

Hagar Ben-Ari is an Israeli bass player who stumbled into one of the most sought-after gigs in television. As if that wasn't enough, she's also opened for Prince and The Rolling Stones. So how did a girl who grew up in a small town in Israel end up hanging out on a nightly basis with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks? You're about to find out.

In this episode, we chatted about:

  • Her musical upbringing and how she used to harmonize with a telephone ringtone
  • How she got the gig at James Corden's show just two days before it launched
  • Her favorite part about working on the show
  • Her longtime girl of opening a music academy for girls
  • And much more...

Just a quick note: We recorded this interview shortly before the corona outbreak, when Hagar was still going into the studio to tape the late night show. Earlier this spring, James Corden and the band started working remotely from home, with Hagar and her bandmates video conferencing in to play music each night.

Transcript

Welcome to Our Friend from Israel, a podcast brought to you by FromTheGrapevine.com. I'm your host Benyamin Cohen, and each month we'll have a conversation with an intriguing Israeli. They'll come from all walks of life actors, artists, athletes, academics, archaeologists and other newsmakers.

On today's show, the bass player for the band on “The Late Late Show with James Corden” – Hagar Ben-Ari.

Hello, everyone. Hope you're doing well. We're back from our extended hiatus with a whole new batch of episodes. We're kicking things off this month with our chat with Hagar Ben-Ari, an Israeli bass player who stumbled into one of the most sought after gigs in television, not to mention she's opened for Prince and the Rolling Stones. So had did a little girl who grew up in a small town in Israel end up rubbing shoulders with celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks on a nightly basis? You're about to find out.

Just a quick note, we recorded this interview shortly before the corona outbreak when Hagar was still going into the studio to tape the late night show. Earlier this spring, James Corden and the band started working remotely from home with Hagar and her bandmates video conferencing into play music each night. We had a great conversation and I hope you enjoy it.

James Corden:

You have no idea the amount of tweets I get every show after every show going yeah, can you introduce me to the bass player. So ladies and gentlemen Hagar is our bass player and we're so lucky.

Benyamin:

Okay, cool. So I want to make sure I pronounce your name it's Hagar Ben-Ari. Perfect.

Hagar:

Were you born in Israel?

Benyamin:

No, my dad retired there from America. I'm actually from Georgia, Atlanta, Georgia. And now I live in West Virginia. So I'm on the East Coast.

Hagar:

Oh, nice.

Benyamin:

You're in LA right now?

Hagar:

Yeah, yeah. But I was living in New York for a long time.

Benyamin:

Okay. Thank you so much for for being with us. We're recording when I think it's morning where you are and I know morning is not always the best time to talk to musicians. Not sure they normally they stay up late at night.

Hagar:

But it's not too bad. It's 11 am here, so it shouldn't be too early. It is for me though.

Benyamin:

And you had some coffee or?

Hagar:

Exactly. Yeah. Before coffee. I wouldn't make any sense. I would just be mumbling.

Benyamin:

But you're on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” which is on after midnight, but you you don't record it that late at night. You record it earlier in the day, right?

Hagar:

Yeah, yeah, we recorded at five.

Benyamin:

Yeah, so you're home for dinner and you could go to bed if you want to?

Hagar:

I wish I fell asleep early, but it's like I don't get to all the interesting stuff I do till nighttime like writing music and -- I don't know -- it's just like a slow progressing thing or getting up in the morning is traumatic every day. It's just brutal and I feel no hope for anything. I don't know why I'm not a morning person. I wish I was and it just gradually the day kind of gets better and yeah, and then I work at night.

Benyamin:

So I want to talk about you working for “The Late Late Show” and all the fun stuff you're doing now, but before we get into that I want to learn more about you and how you ended up where you are. So could you tell me a little bit about … Where did you grew up in Israel?

Hagar:

I grew up in Givatayaim, which is just outside Tel Aviv.

Benyamin:

Everybody I talk to, they're always like, everything is right outside of Tel Aviv.

Hagar:

Yeah. Literally like I could walk to Tel Aviv so it was it almost like living in the city.

Benyamin:

And it was music a big part of growing up. Were you always interested in music?

Hagar:

I've been interested in music since I can remember. Like, it's something that I was kind of born with. I was looking for it. I remember I used to hold the phone to my ear like the landline. And you know, there's like a dialing tone. Yeah, I would harmonize it. It sounds so weird, saying it out loud. But I remember my dad once tried to make a call. He just heard this weird sound and try to figure out what is that. But he he was really happy because he's actually a musician too. And an amazing guitar teacher and he figured: Oh, we should like go and get some music lessons because I clearly am drawn to it. Once I am switched to the guitar, and I play a little bit of guitar like classical guitar, I was very drawn to blues, and jazz, which is what we used to listen to growing up at home. And there was this high school. I don't know if you heard of this high school in Tel Aviv. It's like this High School of the Arts. It's similar to LaGuardia in New York like in “Fame.”

Benyamin:

Yeah.

Hagar:

It's an amazing Institute. Basically, you audition and it's maybe it's hard to even get in and people come from all over Israel. But once you get in, you get to spend half of the time doing whatever art you're studying. So three days a week, I would study music.

Benyamin:

You grew up in Israel and then you said around 2003 you moved to the US, is that right?

Hagar:

Yeah. After I spent a bunch of time in Europe, for like three years, because I was working with Noa. I started working with her. I was like 19 years old, I think. And we toured Europe a lot. I think that was something that made it very clear that I wanted to move somewhere and experience the world and play music outside Israel as well and experience different kinds of places.

Benyamin:

So you toured with her and then what happened next?

Hagar:

I just basically moved to New York. And with no plan. I just I saved a little money. I saved a little money touring with Noa and I got to New York. I didn't really know people. So I had a few people that I knew. I had a place for three weeks which was this little window of time to find a place to live. But no cell phone. It was a different era in 2003. I had to go to internet cafes to get on Craigslist, which is this website people were saying that's where you find apartments. Maybe today I wouldn't go there, but then use like pay phones to call people and and take the subway and make all these mistakes going to the wrong direction. All this stupid, like, just really get to know New York is I'm looking for a place to live. And it was interesting to sort of start from nothing, and kind of figure out the place.

Benyamin:

It sounds like a fish out of water story. When somebody from another country comes and they don't know what's going on.

Hagar:

Yeah, it’s different now. But when I moved, you couldn't just open a bank account. You couldn't just get a cell phone. Like if you don't have a social security number or credit history. Like, all these things you need. And then the thing that was incredible was just I found out it was just like this network of Israelis, other Israelis that moved, just like me, and started a new life in New York and they would really help me out. A friend of mine, he got a second cell phone on his name just for me, and I would pay the bill and then another friend opened a bank account, like all these things, just to get started.

Benyamin:

So you were able to get on your feet.

Hagar:

Yeah, exactly.

Benyamin:

So did you start looking for music work when you first arrived like session work or jamming with bands. What happened then?

Hagar:

Yeah, I started going to jam sessions and I found New York to be a place that really embraces you if you come ready to go for adventure, just ready to play music with anyone. So that's what it was like. I just kind of played with whoever wanted to play music with me and started doing small shows, picked up a tour here and there. And it sort of very slowly grew and grew. It was hard, you know, but it was also a beautiful experience. Like you kind of throw yourself out of your comfort zone and you meet new people. And you make friendships that are very special because like people that experienced you as you're just very vulnerable and trying to figure out a new place.

Benyamin:

When did you make it in New York? What were your some of your first big gigs in New York?

Hagar:

I don't know if it’s big, but I did a tour with the Boys Choir of Harlem, like a Christmas tour early on, and it was such a fun experience. I was in a funk band called the Pimps of Joy Time. I was touring with them for a while. I was doing a bunch of little things, some TV shows with Gloria Estefan, which was exciting and, and then I started I a tour with Moby. I think that was a moment where it felt like that's a bigger tour and I saw myself wanting to do more of that rather than those like van tours. Touring is hard, you know? After a few years, I was ready for a nicer tour. So I don't have to sit in a van or sleep into them.

Benyamin:

My father was a drummer in a band, and he always told me that the worst part was just, you know, schlepping the instruments in the elevator at these random hotels or wherever he was performing.

Hagar:

Bass players’ gear is really heavy, the amps job. I mean, wow. It's hard work. And the shows are amazing. And you get to travel and meet people. But then, yeah, the schlepping is tough.

Benyamin:

So did I read you were you opened for the Rolling Stones?

Hagar:

So that was a little later. After Moby, I also worked with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Which if you don't know them, it's really amazing band and we opened for Prince a few times. Yeah. And the Rolling Stones week was with Grace Potter. That was 2015, so it was just right after I started doing the James Corden show.

Benyamin:

So you're living in New York and you're doing all these different gigs. And then how did the job at “The Late Late Show with James Corden” come about?

Hagar:

I first heard about that gig from a friend of mine who, I guess I heard about it from different few different people.

Benyamin:

Did you know about James Corden before this?

Hagar:

So I heard that James is going to take over “The Late Late Show,” and then I checked out where he was. And I knew about Reggie Watts, the bandleader So, I heard that he was going to be the bandleader and I remember thinking, “I'm gonna watch that show because James is so talented and Reggie as a bandleader seemed just surreal.”

Benyamin:

Did you have any desire at that point to move across the country to the West Coast?

Hagar:

It definitely came as a surprise. I just started doing Kinky Boots on Broadway, the musical. That was my first experience doing a Broadway show. And I had an amazing time doing it. I think it was a month before I actually heard from Reggie. I got an email from this guy Steven saying: Reggie is putting together a band and I want to recommend you and would you be interested in moving to LA for the show? And I've worked in TV before in Israel. I used to be the bass player at talk show, which at the time was the biggest talk show, kind of a Jay Leno kind of a show. So not too different, actually from James Corden either. I sort of had that experience and I knew I wanted to work at a TV show again. I knew that I like that. I like the job. I find people that work on shows are often very grateful to be there, joyous people to be around. It's fun to make a TV show. And it allows you freedom that you never have touring. You know, when you're touring, it's like your whole life is that one gig that you're doing. It's hard on relationships, it's hard on any kind of routine. So, yeah, TV, is kind of a day job for a musician. It's so rare,.

Benyamin:

I hear movie actors say that in interviews a lot also, that they enjoy getting a steady gig on a TV show because it's steady hours, It's in the same location. They can have breakfast and dinner with their children. And they say it's one of the best kind of jobs to have.

Hagar:

Yeah, and that stuff changes as you mature. I mean, in my 20s I wanted to be on the road. I didn't want to be in a relationship. I didn't want to cook my own food or worry about making the bed. It was fun. But it was very clear at some point I felt that I'm definitely ready to switch -- although I do miss the touring a little bit the shows the shows are amazing. So that day was a month before the show. I first heard that this friend was recommending me to Reggie for the show. And it was really weird because the same day I got an email from the keyboard player, musical director of Beck. That Beck is putting together a band and maybe I'm interested maybe I can come audition or something. And it was the same day – two really big opportunities that might happen, might not happen. I was just sort of trying for both things and see what happens. After that, I only heard from Reggie days before the show started. So I didn't even think that was going to happen. Like two weeks before the show, he emailed me about looking for a bass player. And we got together and played. And then, yeah, two weeks later, I was doing the show.

Benyamin:

Wow. And so you moved out to LA and you just you took a leap of faith?

Hagar:

Yeah, yeah. I moved. I literally packed for two days because after getting after getting together with Reggie, he, he basically was interested in you know, hiring me. I was so happy, you know, regardless of the adventure of packing and moving really quickly. But he also said I want to fly you to LA to play with the band just to make sure everything gels because it is we're going to spend so much time together. It has to be right. I was like, great, let's do it. And so he flew me over to play with the band on a Thursday. Just before the first rehearsal of the show on Monday. So I technically got the gig two days before the show started. I flew back to New York, packed for three days and flew back to LA. It was a surreal experience.

Benyamin:

What was that first night like on the first show?

Hagar:

It was interesting. We, it took a little little bit of time to figure out. Reggie Watts, he's an improviser. And the whole concept for the band was we're going to improvise the music during the show. We're going to write the music, we can talk to each other and we had headphones so we can hear each other. And he's just going to be like saying something in our ears and that's what we're going to play out to commercials. Like he wanted it to be live. He was improvising. And then we started doing it. We did some test shows, and we realized that we're just talking and James is trying to talk. Yeah, there's too much going on, at first had to figure out how we're going to be a TV band, but sort of, in our own unique way, because it's more improvised. We don't play covers so much. We just write our own music. And every night, at the end of the show, James says Reggie takes take us home. And we just improvised for three minutes. I feel very lucky to get to be creative doing a gig like that.

Benyamin:

Many people know James Corden from the popular “Carpool Karaoke” segments, which is musically influenced. Who would you like to see as a musician who would be your dream guest to be a “Carpool Karaoke” guest?

Hagar:

Good question. I wish Anderson Paak would do a “Carpool Karaoke.”

Benyamin:

James comes across as a very authentic, sweet, nice, funny person. Is that the way he is in real life as well?

Hagar:

Yeah, James is very funny. He's really fun to work with. And he makes us laugh during rehearsals just constantly.

Benyamin:

How much rehearsal goes into a nightly show like that?

Hagar:

It depends. Normally not too much. But if we have a normal show -- monologues, some jokes, and then he brings out the guests. So there's not too much to rehearse, we get together at 2:30 and rehearse, take a break, and we shoot the show at five. But then we do occasionally do very ambitious segments where he would, like, for example, we do this thing we call Role Call. We would have an actor like Tom Cruise, or Tom Hanks was the first one to do it. They would reenact all of their movies in five minutes. And so that takes a lot of rehearsals.

Benyamin:

You had to do the music for each of their movies.

Hagar:

And the transitions, it's a lot to rehearse. And it's always amazing. I would all come together because we don't have that much time. Yeah, because the show is every day. So it's like, try to squeeze in rehearsals the morning before, the same day and just do it.

Benyamin:

Lorne Michaels, the producer of “Saturday Night Live” -- his famous line is something like, “The show goes on because it’s Saturday night at 11:30, because that's when it goes on and so you have to be ready no matter what. So it’s similar with your show. You’re going to practice and practice, but at five o'clock the cameras are going to be on.

Hagar:

There's nothing like a deadline to make things happen.

Benyamin:

Do you get starstruck by meeting all these famous people? You mentioned Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise.

Hagar:

Occasionally. I mean, we've shot almost 600 shows. So at some point, you get a little used to just sitting there and working with all these people who are also working. I occasionally I get starstruck, like we had Oprah. I'm just going to work and there is Oprah and she's really nice. Or Paul McCartney, you know, what a nice guy. That’s something I never thought I would experience. It's humbling and you try not to make a fool of yourself and you still do.

Benyamin:

I saw that famous video on YouTube of Christoph Waltz, the actor has a crush on you.

Hagar:

It’s the most ridiculous thing. It was fine. It was flattering. It was just fun.

Benyamin:

So what kind of side projects are you working on when you're not on the on The Late Late Show? Are you working on any solo projects?

Hagar:

I've been spending some time writing music, so I'm working on my music. And we were also working on an EP with Reggie and The Late Late Show band, which is Tim Young, Guillermo Brown, Steve, Scalfati and Reggie. And then the producer Jon O'Hara is gonna mix it. So we're just experimenting with this. We haven't we started recording, but we haven't released anything as a band. And we really want to use this platform of The Late Late Show also because we write so much music together.

Benyamin:

If you and I were to have a conversation and five years from now, or 10 years from now, where do you hope to be?

I definitely want to get back to teaching. I had a really good experience. Around 2013, I went to Israel. I stayed in Israel for six months. I kind of took a break from New York and from touring and there's a really great school called Mizmor. And I was teaching girls. I was teaching improv and just different ensembles working with them on their music and it felt like … basically what I think I wanted to have growing up. All of my teachers in school were me. It's a weird thing to not have women musicians as role as role models. I was working with these girls who were very shy at first. They’re very insecure, like the atmosphere was very masculine. And we had this amazing rapport. We just connected right away and all of them started writing a bunch of music, a bunch of them picked up the bass. I don't know how in six months, it was one of my best experiences of my life. And it's something that I want to do here, to maybe start my own music program and help women find their way. I think it's probably true for many different professions, but definitely music.

Benyamin:

Yeah, I was interviewing a business school professor in Chicago, and she's an Israeli woman. And she was saying similarly in her field, not a lot of women are getting their PhDs and becoming professors and she's also trying to get more people and to be a role model herself for those in the next generation. Sounds very similar to what you want.

Hagar:

It’s interesting how, just by your presence, you’re making a change in their lives. You don't have to be this special person. You just have a career and you're a woman. They look at me like, oh, you're in New York doing all these interesting things. So maybe I can do it, too. That's one of my dreams to work with women and just maybe do a school just for women. I definitely think about that often. Otherwise, I write a lot of music. And another dream of mine is to get into film scoring.

Benyamin:

Oh, wow.

Hagar:

Yeah, being in LA also, it's just where many movies are being done here and made here and, so I'm working on music and scoring, and maybe get back to touring at some point.

Benyamin:

So before we end, there's a question I like to ask all the people I interview, and that is, is there any question I did not ask you that I should have asked you.

Hagar:

Let's me tell you my favorite thing about working on the show.

Benyamin:

Okay.

Benyamin:

So what's your favorite thing about working on?

Hagar:

I don't know if it my favorite thing, actually. But so every show, James does a monologue. And then he says, roll the titles, and he goes to sit at his desk. And then he has some funny segment like emoji news or some silly thing the writers come up with, right? And then sometimes in that moment, he sits at his desk, and he looks at Reggie and he starts just a random conversation about something. And there are some days where I see James looking at Reggie about to talk to him and he has this silly expression on his face. And I just recognize that it's like, oh, it's one of these days where they’re just gonna sit there and it just gets so silly. I don't know why that's my favorite kind of humor when they just look at each other and say stupid things. And it's just like, I sit there and I can't stop laughing, like I try not to laugh at every silly thing he says because I'm on camera and I feel ridiculous. It just humor is important to me and I love silly jokes and I just get to enjoy them improvising, just like be the audience and watch that.

Benyamin:

Hagar, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. It's been really fun talking with you. And I know you gonna hopefully wake up soon and and get to the studio.

Hagar:

Yes, we're actually off today but normally that would be the timeline.

Benyamin:

Okay. Well, thank you so much. It's been it's been great talking with you.

Hagar:

Thank you, Benyamin. That was fun.

Benyamin:

All right, take care.

Hagar:

Bye bye.

Benyamin:

Our Friend from Israel is a production of FromTheGrapevine.com. Extra notes from this episode can be found at OurFriendFromIsrael.com. Want behind the scenes access to the show, including sneak peeks of future episodes? Join the Our Friend from Israel Facebook group. Subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes, Google Play or your favorite podcast app. If you haven't already, please leave us a review on the iTunes Store. It only takes a minute and when you do, it helps others discover Our Friend from Israel. Our show is produced by Paul Kasko. Our head engineer is Everett Adams. Our theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel. You can visit our website at our OurFriendFromIsrael.com to find more episodes of the show. And if you have an idea for a future guests that we should interview, send me an email at [email protected] I'm your host Benyamin Cohen, and until next time, stay safe out there.

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Episode 24: Hagar Ben-Ari, bass player for the 'Late Late Show with James Corden'
She's opened for Prince and The Rolling Stones. And with just two days notice, she got the job of a lifetime.