Ben Abraham chats with Essentially Pop about his new single, his upcoming album and its influences on the eve of tickets going on sale today for two exclusive live gigs at Omeara, London.
EP: Ben, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. I have been listening to the new single ‘War in Your Arms’ and I love it. Its five years since your first album, in which time you’ve written for some big names in the music industry and had some big hits. Do you think the experience of writing for other people has changed you as an artist and how you approach song writing?
BA: I feel like I came out of the first album experience…well, I almost feel like it was an artistic coming of age. I think I remember while I was writing it and making it that I was overwhelmed the whole time.
If you’re a singer first, you go into new environments almost thinking that you’re not a real musician, you’re at the mercy of the people that you’re working with and as a songwriter I was a little bit like that. ‘I’m not super talented, I don’t know what I’m doing’ whereas I came out of the first album thinking I can write, I do know what I’m doing. So I would say, these songs that I’ve been doing now, I do it present as an artist.
I know how to write a song now, how to tell a story and certainly that has been bolstered by the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to write songs with other people and then when big artists like The Chicks endorse what you’re doing and things, you’re then also ‘I think I can write a song, I think I can do this’ and so I think the biggest difference is the confidence. I feel like I write with more of a steady hand so to speak.
EP: I really feel that in the new song. It sounds a little insulting to say but it feels more complete as a song…
BA: No, I think you’re right…
EP: …it sounds like a really complete song, a whole experience. It feels like it has a great arc lyrically and in production too, when compared, maybe, to your early stuff which I love.
BA: I think you’re right. I listen back to my older songs and they’re some of the favourite songs I’ve written but there is a bit of bloat to some of them and I think I wouldn’t do some of those moves now as a songwriter. I feel like I know how to write tighter and cleaner now and yes, in a more complete way.
EP: It’s funny isn’t it that with song writing the artist becomes tighter and more compact whilst in other arts, like book writing perhaps, when authors become popular and they lose, or discard, experienced editors, their books will become a little more bloated and indulgent.
BA: Thank you. I mean, look, with the writing I would say I certainly just knew. We knew what we were writing as we were writing it; we didn’t know that it was a big song in the way that it is but every moment we were determined about what each moment of that song was. I will say the production was a real surprise win.
For a long time, the song was just a piano vocal that I’d written with my friend, Helen Croome, she’s an artist called Gossling, and we, we being me and the guys at Atlantic, spent a long time looking for producers. It was actually a bit of an ordeal because we felt like the song was such an important song on the album and we thought: ok, we can use this song as a bit of a calling card for producers that we meet. Let’s give them the piano demo of the song, get them to produce it up and if it’s amazing then this is the producer we’ll use for the whole album because I really wanted to make an album in a kind of traditional way where there’s one producer for the entire thing which it turns out is not that common these days.
I have ten versions of ‘War in Your Arms’ from all different people giving it a different go and it’s so interesting listening to them now, there’s so many different ways that the song could have gone and places it could’ve landed. James Flanagan, the producer that has done this one; the moment we heard what he’d done, we were like, oh my god, not only is this the song but this is the album. This is what we’re trying to do. I would just credit so much of the dynamic of the production to his skill, I mean I love when I listen to it, I think he’s the kind of producer that knows.
They say that you’re supposed to do this kinda stuff in a very Swedish way of writing. I don’t ever really think about this when I’m making but when you reflect on it, try to put something exciting every thirty seconds, change something every thirty seconds, add some kind of hook. I don’t think he’s consciously done that but that is the way he’s produced this particular song, every section there’s some moment that happens that just builds the momentum and makes it really exciting.
EP: The single really feels like it has a perfect arc, starting small and then transitioning into something slightly more gospel like with real depth in the production and a Jack Garratt like back beat really building . It matches the subject matter of the lyrics too. It’s great that a producer has managed to really tie into the lyricism with his take on it. It feels like everyone is pulling together towards the same goal. Some of your older songs felt like a real bare bones style of production but this one feels like you have put the flesh on the body.
You’ve written for other people and you’ve toured with a really eclectic array of other incredible artists, where do you see your musical style. Do you feel the need to appeal to any particular genre at all? Do you consciously try to blur the lines?
BA: That’s a really good question because it’s really changed actually. Years ago, when I first started out, I just wanted to be a really great singer songwriter. My parents are musicians and my Dad would always have this mantra where he said “if you can’t play a song on one instrument it’s not a good song”. Like, if you need all the bells and whistles and things, you probably didn’t write a good song.
That’s probably because we grew up listening to Chicago, his favourite band of all time, with Peter Cetera. We’d listen to a lot of The Carpenters, and James Taylor and Carole King, so I think there was a bigness of song writing that I grew up around and then, coming up in Australia, I think I was so intimidated by a lot of cultural things but my music around the first album evolved a bit where I thought I was probably more going for a Sufyan Stevens career. If you’d have asked me that question 7 or 8 years ago I probably would have said the dream is to be like Sufyan Stevens, and I think there’s a gentle texture to his work that I was trying to do but I don’t really think it came naturally to me, and when I met with Craig Kallman at Atlantic to talk about coming and signing with them and he’d heard ‘War in Your Arms’ and things and I went in and said I really like Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush and Sufyan Stevens. He said ok, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush I get but Sufyan is gentle and when I hear your music there’s a bigness to it.
All of that is to say that years ago I would have shied away from a suggestion that I could play a big stadium, I would have laughed and said I don’t think that’s ever ahead for me; I think I’m gonna be a small venue guy. But, listening to Craig Kallman and letting them A&R my records, letting them help me expand my vision I can now, Aussies don’t talk about this so it feels weird to me, but I can hear a bigness to the songs and I think that maybe I could play some of these bigger rooms. So once upon a time I would have said don’t talk about me the way you’d talk about Sam Smith, or Ed Sheeran, or Adele. I’m the quiet guy in the corner, and now I feel like actually I would love to play with those people and thought of amongst that echelon of artist where a big song can fill big spaces.
EP: There’s an artist I love called Tom Walker, who I think you’d enjoy, and he had a massive breakout single called ‘Leave a Light On’ . I remember seeing him at my favourite festival for new artists, Barn on the Farm, and he played a one man version of it and I followed him to several tiny venues.
Eventually, when the song became big, it was recorded with a big production but the version that makes me think of you is a version where he plays it with a strings section orchestral production that really emphasises the cinematic quality of the song which I think would be amazing with ‘War in Your Arms’.
I thought wow, imagine this with an orchestra and gospel choir. It’s interesting you mention the music of Peter Cetera because I can hear shades of his delivery in the range you use when you sing, effortlessly moving into falsetto almost….
BA: (laughing) …my Dad would be thrilled!
EP: …and I get that influence with you….
BA: … it’s dramatic vocals that you don’t often really hear nowadays. Sam Smith is that kind of voice. You don’t often hear that melodrama in that vocal range like Peter Cetera and a lot of eighties artists.
EP: The funny thing is, and I’m a bit older than you, my musical education from my Dad started in Country music and then that moved on to the big voices of the eighties. I loved Styx with Dennis de Young and Tommy Shaw, Jim Steinman and therefore Meatloaf, Reo Speedwagon with Kevin Cronin. All sorts of powerful range but I loved the drama of Steinman’s music and production. Big choral, cinematic production. But, we’re moving way away.
Just about the time the music industry was sitting up and taking notice of you as an artist, people were starting to appreciate the quality of your writing, your personal life, and please excuse me…I don’t want you to drag up things you don’t want in the public domain, had a bit of a major hiccup. Was it difficult to enjoy the success that your music was garnering against the backdrop of personal pain? Or was it a good way to compartmentalise, handle things and in that way was it cathartic? Did it maybe even provide inspiration, grist to the mill?
BA: I think I was quite good at compartmentalising it . I think because I was a little older when it started, ‘Sirens’ came out when I was 27/28 and I think because I was a bit older I do remember laughing at the kind of irony that professionally things had never been better and yet personally things had never felt so chaotic and uncertain. I remember meeting that with a kind of intellectual view of seeing the comedy in it.
There were some terrible times, but also I’d never made money from music before and things like that were going on. Also, I grew up with a big family and a good community of people around and so not to downplay how difficult it was personally but I think I was just able to compartmentalise so that when I was showing up to work I was able to appreciate that it was amazing and then stepping away from the stage or from writing and seeing that this is a lot to walk through and probably because of that the songs that came from this new era means I look forward to telling the full story closer to the album coming out.
EP: As a songwriter, inspiration is key to what you do. So may artists that have gone through periods of pain and upheaval have managed to find it a cathartic process of putting the music out there and putting their feelings into their lyrics. As you said, you’re a little older now. Did it help you process the pain?
BA: Absolutely, in a way that music had never done for me before. There were songs, and there are songs on the record that kind of became refuges. I remember staying in my room once just having a bit of a panic attack about some stuff that had happened and just going through my phone and listening to one of the demos and weirdly finding comfort. Maybe like going through a diary. I was listening to the songs and just wanting to cry but at least I had been able to push all of it into the work that I’d just made. Absolutely.
EP: Didn’t that make it harder. When you write a diary and get through those difficult times with the process of committing feelings to paper and words, the diary is your personal space. When you commit that process to song writing, you’re opening that diary to the whole world. Is that a leap of faith, does that make this song and this album feel more personal, and maybe more of a risk?
BA: Absolutely. There are songs on the album that I remember when I sent them to my management and A&R, I felt very vulnerable beyond the typical artistic insecurity of it being a good song. I’m fine with that. I’m sort of fine with someone hating the song but with the subject matter of some of them, maybe they don’t hear the story when they listen, but I know what its telling, I felt vulnerable. That was because I’d actually found a way to be vulnerable in the writing, in a way that I hadn’t before. I don’t know if that made it more difficult, it made it different and I think maybe once this album is out I do feel that I’ll have exposed my private diaries to everyone. Moving forward, I think maybe I’ll be fine with that sort of thing, I don’t know.
EP: Because of that, are the stakes higher with this album?
BA: (long, thoughtful pause) In what sense, what do you mean ‘are the stakes higher?’
EP: …well these are songs about real life, about personal things that happened to you …does that make it more important that its successful or does it remove the pressure because it’s so personal that the success is less important than the process?
BA: I thought that was what you were asking…you know what’s weird, it’s actually freeing because I sort of go uh (breathes a big sigh) I’m fine with this, I love it and I also know that I told the truth. If all else fails, I showed up and I did what I was supposed to do, I created what I wanted which was to distil my life into my work and then did what I’m supposed to do as an artist which is work with my team, an amazing group of creative professionals, and make what I think is really great music. So, it actually weirdly liberates me.
EP: I thought you’d think that the fact it’s so personal might help someone listening get through the hard times, connecting to something in your songs, and that you’d feel that would be job done as an artist. Obviously commercial success is important too but whatever happens there are positives.
BA: It would be nice not to live in debt to a record label for the rest of my life and I hope that it’s a success but artistically, as far as I’m concerned, it’s already a success.
EP: The new song ‘War in your Arms’ is about how trying to hold on to love can almost start to feel like something akin to violence in its intensity. Was the story of the song something you wanted to share or do you want to keep it back for album release to tell the story as a whole?
BA: Let me think…. because some of it I want to save for the album as it will make more sense. At the very least what I would say is that a big theme of the album is about being in a relationship with someone or something, some part of your life that you want so much but you, at some point, realise it’s not a healthy relationship and the commitment to loving is actually hurting you. What I like about ‘War in your Arms’ is when I wrote it, I’ll be honest, with my friend Helen I didn’t think it was a song for me. We were just writing a song based on a relationship that had gone wrong and I was in the middle of things breaking down in the relationship I was in. So, it was honest in the sense that two writers who are skilled were writing a song about that subject matter.
The song was shipped around to people and very nearly went to Kelly Clarkson and a couple of other people and it wasn’t until later when I was in the midst of writing the other songs on the album, some of which are very personal, that Craig Calvin from Atlantic called me and said I think you need this in your album and when I revisited it in the context of the album I was writing and immersed in, it perfectly told the story that I needed to tell on the album and what I like about it is that on one level it’s about a relationship between two people and then for me it works on a deeper level as well.
EP: Is it important that you connect with your audience on a personal level? ‘Satellites’ has a real stripped back feel with lyrics that are heartbreakingly honest which make me think its important for you to connect…something beyond a memorable hook?
BA: Yeah, I think so. I think that about all my music. I think that’s why my music is very emotional, maybe not much fun……maybe that’s the next album (laughing)
EP: The pandemic has been difficult for artists everywhere. Has it been difficult for musicians because you lose that chance to try out new music with a live audience and get that real feedback on a new track? With that in mind, who was your sounding board?
BA: I think it has made it much harder but I got lucky because we finished the album in 2019 and so I did have the chance to play some of the new songs before we hit pause with everything. Some of them I’d played at shows with the producer and engineers I worked with; I tried the songs in a room, so I had the chance to do that a little bit. That’s a huge part for me, with the music I make and the way I make it, having that audience there and playing songs for them is a huge part of hearing what works and feeling how an audience reacts to it. I didn’t have to sit in a studio speculating as much as some others; I don’t know how people have navigated that…I’m not sure.
EP: With the album finished in 2019, how have you resisted the urge to dabble with the songs?
BA: I’m pretty good at finishing and getting on to the next one but I can’t wait to be able to get out and play it but conceptually now anything I write will be for the next one.
EP: So, with that in mind, are you still writing?
BA: A little bit, yeah. Thematically and stylistically, I already have a taste of what I think the sonic world is going to be and I have a vision. I know what the next kind of story of the next album is going to be, which is kind of fun, and because it’s so different, I’m not going to have that experience where I’m thinking anything else should be on this new album.
EP: So away from the artists you listened to growing up, who has influenced you for this album?
BA: Definitely for this album, as I’ve gotten older, as I mentioned before, Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. Kate Bush’s album ‘Hounds of Love’ is my favourite album of all time. I could talk for hours about how much I love it and when the album comes out there are things specifically about ‘Hounds of Love’ that I’ve drawn from and used in making the album and then Peter Gabriel just as a general artist ….’So’ and ‘Us’ are my two favourite records of his but everything he does; his live concerts, his approach, the way he incorporates other artists and other voices and stuff. I just love everything about the way he approaches music.
And then I would say my influences are more specifically Donny Hathaway who is a huge influence on my singing, James Taylor is a huge influence in the way that I think about songs, things like that. My favourite band is Radiohead and I think you can hear that in the music. Then as much as I say Donny Hathaway is an influence on my singing, I’d also say Thom Yorke is a huge influence in the way that I approach a song because he’s such a gifted storyteller, vocally. They are the main albums that I would listen to.
As I get older, I don’t know why this is, I listen to less and less new music and I do keep going back to Radiohead, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. With ‘Hounds of Love’ its mind blowing. The album feels so dense and then, when you listen to it and break it down, at any point there’s only four things going on, but there so intricate and brilliant…she produced it herself, it’s kind of maddening (laughing). I could talk about it for ages…the subject matter, the things she chooses to write about, the way she plays characters with her voice when she sings; it’s so exciting when I listen to that album and other albums as well. I love how weird ‘The Dreaming’ is but ‘Hounds of Love’ is just the best.
EP: On a personal level, are there any plans to tour the UK at all?
BA: I hope so, I love the UK, I really love it.
EP: Well Ben I can’t wait to see you sing these songs live and wish you every success with the album. It’s been brilliant chatting with you.