"Vulnerability is such an interesting space for a performer..." - hmv.com talks to Ben Abraham
Australian singer-songwriter Ben Abraham unveils his debut album Sirens today (you can preview and purchase it on the right-hand side of the page) and we spoke to him to find out all about how it was made...
When did you start work on Sirens? Have you been collecting songs for a while? Or are they recent tracks?
"Sirens is a collection of songs that were written in my first 8 years as a musician. I began songwriting as a response to things happening in my life and in the lives of my friends over that time. It means that each song on the record is tied to a particular story or experience."
"The earliest song was written when I was about 21 and the last was at 28 and the track list is pretty much chronological. It means that to listen to it from top to bottom you get a glimpse at my evolution as a writer in those establishing years. I didn’t realise it when we were making it but on reflection it occurred to me it was a kind of ‘artistic-coming-of-age’ project for me."
You worked with Gotye, Jono Steer and Leigh Fisher on the album, what were they all like to work with?
"Incredible! I grew up in a musical family so finding community through music is a huge part of what draws me to that artform. I’ve worked really hard to build that sense of community in Melbourne and Wally (Gotye), Jono, and Leigh have been a really important part of that. Jono did live sound for me for years and has a wonderful ear for sound engineering. Leigh is a percussionist who plays the drums with a kind of musical sensitivity and inventiveness that I find really rare in musicians."
"Wally is one of the most generous and intelligent people I know and he is a straight up genius when it comes to music. Observing his process both as a writer and performer has been quite formative in my understanding of being an artist."
Which of the songs on the album took the most work to get right? And which came together most instantly?
"‘To Love Someone’ was a real challenge because the initial idea of just having a horns ensemble didn’t quite work and sounded hokey. Completing it involved a lot of problem solving through mixing and arranging other instrumentation. ‘Songbird’ was also a nightmare for me because the song was written on piano and, as a piece of writing, has such a different feel."
"I fought to put it on the record but that involved some heavy rearranging to make it fit the aesthetic of the rest of the work. I still don’t love my vocal performance on it. ‘Somebody’s Mother’ was surprisingly easy. Until we got in the studio, I had only ever performed it with a single guitar and voice."
What’s the song on the album that you’re most proud of?
"I think ‘Speak’ might be the best song on the album but for my own reasons I’m especially proud of ‘Songbird’. The meaning of the song is important to me because it was written as a gift to a friend who I witnessed go through some really big challenges in life. Since the song is about encouraging my friend to cut loose and sing, I wrote in references to some of her favourite songs. The opening line, for example, was a nod to ‘In My Life’ which is her favourite Beatles song."
"Melodically it was also more interesting than anything I had written before and I think it has more adventurous chord changes and harmonic ideas than I had employed before. After finishing that song I remember thinking “Cool. I’m growing.”
What kind of album is this lyrically? Does it have a unifying theme?
"I’m always more interested to hear what other people see as the thematic through-line for the album. Because the songs were never written with any kind of release in mind, the narrative emerges more when you look at them as a young writer documenting his 20s rather than a fully fledged artist with something specific to say or explore. In this way I think much of the album’s atmosphere and lyrical content is full of longing. Longing for the past, for love, for home, to be heard etc. That was definitely me in my 20s."
Who are some of your favourite lyricists?
"I have always loved James Taylor’s ‘everyman’ quality. His songs never feel pretentious or overwritten. There’s a line in his song “Something In The Way She Moves” that flaws me with its simplicity. He sings ‘And I feel fine any time she’s around me now/ And she’s around me now almost all the time’. It’s so direct and earnest and truthful. And structurally it’s almost palindromic or something. What a lyric."
"I would just as easily say Thom Yorke’s lyrics (which are possibly the exact opposite) are just as artful and inspiring to me. I don’t know quite how to write like that but I always pay close attention to what he’s doing."
When did you decide on the title of Sirens? Were there any other titles in contention?
"For a while it was going to be called Windows And Arrows and then it was going to be called Olive Branches and Avalanches. Originally that opening track was just going to be instrumental with the choral ‘ooohs’ leading into “Time”. It wasn’t until I was driving around listening to a mix one night that I started singing over the top and the lyrics came to me in the car. As soon as I got the line “they were only Sirens” I knew that was the album’s title."
What are your plans to take the album out live?
"I’ve managed to perform the album in multiple live versions so far! I self-produced a big Melbourne launch when it first came out and played with a seven piece band in a beautiful, 100-year-old theatre. I have also performed it solo with just single instruments, and now I’m touring it around the US as a trio."
"I like hearing the songs take on different arrangements each time. The one thing I do at every show, is play the track listing in chronology so that the album’s story is told. It’s funny being a 30 year old, singing lyrics you wrote as a 21 year old. You definitely feel vulnerable – like you’re showing everyone old journal entries or something – but I think vulnerability is such an interesting space for a performer."