Just as lock down began I interviewed Glenarm songwriter who now lives and works in Nashville. Now, a few months later, Ben has sent out the second song and title track off his soon to be released EP Sweet Wild Lily. So I thought I'd ask Ben about the song, the EP and how he goes about co-writing songs.
Last time we spoke was near the start of lockdown. How has life been since?
On a personal level, things are fine, Steve. Family and friends have stayed healthy and everyone seems to be doing as best they can. I think we spoke last back in April and my routine hasn’t changed much, to be honest. The limitations on travelling mean of course that I can’t tour for the foreseeable future so that has been a major adjustment. My work life, like so many others’, has shifted to the virtual space of Zoom. I do all my co-writing via that medium now, something which is fine with writers that I had an ‘in-person’ writing relationship established with, but it’s something I’m reluctant to do with someone I don’t know particularly well. My biggest frustration is not being able to get back home to Ireland since January. That is very difficult and a big challenge. That has been the toughest aspect of this year without a doubt.
You are obviously in Nashville. Do you sense a difference of experience than your family back in Glenarm?
I think it’s similar on many levels. We’re all doing our very best to stay safe, healthy and responsible. Family on both sides of the Atlantic are doing what they can to stay within their bubble. What does make this experience contrasting is the political climate in the US at the moment. That atmosphere has made the pandemic in the US political and it has intensified it all here.
And what about the music? Did your Shelter Session in anyway help your creativity?
The Shelter Sessions were vitally important for me in helping me stay creative and active musically. This will be my 34th week of performing them (every Thursday 8.30 pm UK / 2.30 pm US central) and they’ve given something to focus on and I really feel we’ve cultivated a sense of community on there. By “we” I mean all those good people who tune in every week. It’s been a creative anchor for me in these times and has given me purpose and reason to perform once a week, albeit in a virtual space. I’ve also enjoyed re-learning songs, both my own and covers.
Is the new EP evidence of that?
I’m sure that the Shelter Sessions have contributed to my being creative in the studio for sure. I’m a believer that for the songs and the inspiration to arrive the writer has to show up and be prepared to do the work. So the Shelter Sessions have been part of me showing up to do the work.
Arguing With Ghosts is one of your many many co-writes. Let’s talk about that. First of all, how does a wee boy from Glenarm get to write with Nashville writers of the quality of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters
Haha! Well, it all comes down to community. Gretchen asked me to open her UK and Ireland tours in 2013 and we have become close friends and frequent writing partners since then. Gretchen introduced me to Matraca at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville in March 2014 when the three of us did an ‘in-the-round’ together. That was a very memorable night, especially since my parents were here visiting. A couple of months later we headed over to Matraca’s and wrote Arguing With Ghosts. That’s the beauty of being part of the songwriting community in Nashville.
Can we talk about Arguing With Ghosts in particular. How did that session start? Is it blank sheet or does one of you have something on the table?
It started like most of our collaborations, with a strong cup of coffee and conversation about what was going on in our world. Matraca was chatting about how Nashville was becoming somewhat unrecognisable from the city it was when she moved here due to all the development. That was the jumping-off point. From there we just fell into conjuring up a character who was struggling with the passing of time and how that causes the familiar to change and dissolve. But it was the conversation about the city changing that inspired the song.
As far as I recall I had the bones of the melody idea and I played for Gretchen and Matraca and they liked it and we just developed that as we went along.
The process in collaboration is always quite similar in my experience. We all throw out lines, some may be dumb, some might be keepers, and we just follow the flow. That’s the exciting thing about co-writing - you just don’t know where it’s going to end up. And some days the muse is kind to you and some days it’s not. Thankfully that day in Matraca’s house the muse was kind!
It was quite a quick write as I recall as I think the song arrived in a few hours. I listened recently to the work tape we made that day and it was interesting to see how the song has evolved over the six years since it’s arrival.
Is there ever a sense of you bringing an Irishness to the blend?
If I bring myself wholeheartedly to the blend then undoubtedly I bring an Irishness to it. I think the Irish have an inherent sense of poetry and melody in their blood. It’s there if we want to dig into it. I think it may lean more to the melancholy but I feel it’s a sweet melancholy.
When you record a song that Gretchen has already released is her version in your mind, haunting you or inspiring you to bring another angle?
I love Gretchen’s recording of the song. Interestingly I think the character that she gives voice too in her version is a different one to the one who occupies my version. As a singer, you want to stay true to the character but also stay true to your voice as an artist. It inspired me to bring another angle in that I always felt a male voice would bring a different feel to the song.
My recording is more stripped back production-wise, but that wasn’t an intentional thing to make it different from the sonics of Gretchen’s original recording. The stripped backed quality came from the sense that the character who was coming through in my voice had a rawness and a different kind intensity that they were wrangling internally with.
I did change two lines in my version. The original version has the lines “I’ve still got my mother’s eyes” which I changed to “I’ve still got my father’s eyes.” And I also changed “drinking coffee” to “drinking whiskey.” I was inspired to do this as I felt that this is what was more true to the character that was being expressed in my version. Naturally I ran these changes past Gretchen and Matraca and they were very supportive of it.
What would you hope the listener might get from the song?
It’s a contemplative song so I hope the listener might have a contemplative experience while listening to it. I think the song can conjure up some strong emotions and I hope that if it connects with the listener then they will be moved in some way.
So Arguing With Ghosts is just released BUT is the EP is coming in November. What other delights can we expect on that?
Yeah, it’s funny Steve, I never planned to put any solo material out in 2020, but it’s been a year that blows plans apart so here we are! The EP, which is will be digital for now, is called Sweet Wild Lily and there are four tracks on it, one of which of course is Arguing With Ghosts. There are two brand new songs I wrote this spring/summer called Fireflies Dancing and the title track, Sweet Wild Lily. The other song is called Broke Down, and I’ve been trying to record that since 2013 believe it or not (another co-write with Gretchen), but I always felt we didn’t capture it in the studio. This time though we got it!
Arguing With Ghosts isn't the title track. Tell us about Sweet Wild Lily. Sounds like a sister of Carla Boone to me?
It’s true Steve, I feel that Lily and Carla are indeed sisters, cut from the same song cloth. When I was writing Sweet Wild Lily I felt the kinship between this character and the one in The Ballad Of Carla Boone. Lily and Carla look the same to me in my mind’s eye. Something is alluring for me in these two - something fragile - they’re both finding their place in the world.
Where did she come from in your imagination?
Lily is more than likely a composite of a bunch of people I know. Maybe though we all have a bit of Lily in us, I mean, who hasn’t been lost, who hasn’t been entangled by the world, who hasn’t gotten stuck in the story we tell ourselves? She feels real to me personally because I can relate to her. I liked giving some images of spaciousness in the opening lines through the images of the waves and the sky because there is a freedom that she has lost but she wants to find it again. And I do think that I was wanting to drop in again to the character of Carla Boone. I wrote about her in 2006 and she was the title track of an EP that was essentially the start of my career. With Sweet Wild Lily being the title track to this new EP I feel too this is mirroring Carla in 2006 release. It might seem odd to say but when I released Shorebound in 2018 that felt like the end of that chapter and now Sweet Wild Lily in 2020 begins something new for me.
You've self produced this one. How was that? And is that the future?
I’ve loved taking the reigns on production. It felt like I had to step outside my comfort zone and mix up the way I’ve been recording for the past decade or so. I think it’s vital for artists to do that as it prevents getting us too safe and comfortable. And I wanted the responsibility of making the final call on stuff. I’ve been working with the brilliant engineer Dylan Alldredge, who also owns Skinny Elephant Studio where I record, so between the two of we’ve steered the ship on production.
I intentionally wanted to take my time with this EP so we've just been working on these songs a few days a month since June. I’ve been inspired by this slower pace of working as right now I’m in space where I want to let the music breathe and let the songs find their way in their own pace, instead of committing hard and fast to the final sound.
It’s just been Dylan and me in the studio during the sessions. The process was that I laid down the songs with acoustic and vocal and then built everything around that.
Colm McClean has played all the guitars even though he is in east Belfast and we are in Nashville. I’ve loved sending Colm the tracks and some loose guidance, and then letting him add his magic in his own time at his home studio. He then sends the tracks back and Dylan and I fish through them and put it all together. I have been excited about this way of working. We’ve had a few guest singers, Kim Richey, Gretchen Peters and Megan McCormack come in and also had drummer, Evan Hutchings play.
As for the future…who knows what the path is for production. But I will say that I’m liking how this approach feels right now.
Any other wee teasers about the rest of the EP?
The EP will be out in early November, but there will be two singles before the release - Sweet Wild Lily and Broke Down. The final song is one that I wrote in Oxford, Mississippi this summer, called Fireflies Dancing. I’m excited about this EP and even though it’s so cliched to say, I genuinely feel it’s a good as anything I’ve done to date. The sound of it just fell into place so easily and seems to be at ease with itself. I guess that’s what we’re aiming for in life too.