Behind the Music: Interview with Ben Abraham

‘I’m always going back to the narrative of a song, asking myself how every element or production choice best tells the story.’ 

With his latest single ‘War In Your Arms’ being nothing short of stunning, we chatted with award-winning singer-songwriter Ben Abraham to find out all about the track he nearly didn’t keep, his forthcoming album via Atlantic Records, and the impact of music streaming on all-round success. Go grab a cuppa and discover more now!

Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. When did you first know that music would be a huge part of your life? I was born into music. My parents were famous singers in Indonesia in the 70s, but by the time I was born they had left that life behind and were working in a church. They still made music and raised me and my siblings to sing and play instruments. Music-making was never a conscious choice for me, but I think because it was such a fact of my life it took me a long time to understand that it was what I was called to do. I didn’t really take it seriously as a career option until my mid-20s.

What are your biggest musical/non-musical influences? My musical influences include Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Radiohead, and Donny Hathaway – all for different reasons. Peter is an all-around influence, Kate a huge inspiration on my writing and arranging, Radiohead I’m just a massive fan of, and Hathaway sings with emotion in a way I can only dream of doing. I also grew up listening to a lot of Chicago and The Carpenters so classic songwriting is a big part of my DNA. As for non-musical influences, I studied screenwriting before I was making music, and film has had a huge impact on the way I approach my work. I’m obsessed with wanting every aspect of my music to be narrative – which I’m sure has annoyed some of my collaborators! I love a good hook as much as the next person, but I’m always about going back to the narrative core of a song and asking myself how every lyric, melody, instrument, or production choice best tells that story.  Great filmmakers know how to use every aspect of screen craft to propel the narrative and I find that stuff super inspiring. I can give you two examples though there are many!

Wes Anderson is a master of mise-en-scene, and his use of production design and colour grading to express the inner worlds of his characters in The Royal Tenenbaums is wonderful – as is Hannah Beachler’s Twitter thread about her work on the set-design of Black Panther. Everything you’re seeing on screen has been chosen to tell an element of the story – whether it be the main narrative or the subtext. That stuff is so inspiring for music. How can every note, every consonant, every instrument, not only carry the song but explore the subtext?

Michael Haneke is an Austrian director who knows how to control screen language to manipulate an audience. His film Cache (English title was Hidden) plays with the way we create meaning between shots to great effect. That kind of storytelling is super exciting to me. It’s (to quote film critic Roger Ebert) not just what a story is about, but how it’s about it. It makes me want to challenge myself as I write songs to not just fall into old patterns but ask how the craft can be subverted. I feel like maybe Thom Yorke writes songs like Haneke makes films too, though I haven’t thought that through enough to fully stand behind it. I also love the work of The Dardennes Brothers, Chloe Zhao, and Zal Batmanglij. I could talk about this stuff for hours ha!

‘The danger of getting immediate audience data can be that you start to think of songs as ephemeral social media posts, hoping at best for immediate traction.’

Who is involved in creating your music and what do they bring to it? I don’t love co-writing as a general rule but I did end up co-writing half the songs on my new album. I’m pretty careful about who I collaborate with on my work though because I find it can really get in my head if I work with the wrong people. Luckily, all of the co-writing experiences for the album were with friends and in really relaxed environments. Not one song was written ‘for the album’, rather they all came out of organic moments where I just wanted to jam with people I liked and write whatever came about – it was a great learning experience. I know how to write a song by myself, but I found the scope of my work expanded through co-writing. As for the production of the album, it took a really long time to find the right team because I’m so sensitive to collaboration. I wanted to make sure I could find someone who not only brought out the best from the music but would be able to bring out the best in me as an artist.

I ended up with the dream team of James Flannigan as the producer and Jason Agel as the engineer. James had worked with some big pop-acts like Dua Lipa and Marina in the past but had also done beautiful work with Matt Maeson and Jack Garratt so I knew he’d be able to navigate my mainstream/indie sensibilities. Jason’s credits are just as eclectic ranging from John Legend and Beyonce, to Kanye, Bjork and Serpentwithfeet. I had met some great producers on the search but some of them had such big personalities I knew I’d get trampled on in the studio. James and Jason were really sweet dudes and really safe as collaborators – they’re a complete tour-de-force and it was such a joy getting to work with them. 

You recently released your incredibly powerful sounding single ‘War In Your Arms’. What’s the story behind it? Ha! It’s another long-winded story. I feel bad for rambling but since you asked… The song began in a light-hearted way, with the chorus written while walking through the city after I saw a street performer. I felt sorry for them and tried to imagine what kind of song I’d want to sing if I had to get a crowd’s attention. I then sent a memo of it to my friend Helen and we finished it in an afternoon. At the time I didn’t think it was a song I would keep and so we made a piano and vocal demo and sent it around to people. Kelly Clarkson really wanted it, as did Calum Scott, and I even have a beautiful version with Stanaj singing it. Ultimately though, when I signed to Atlantic they asked me to keep it.

It wasn’t until I went to record it that it occurred to me how perfectly the lyrics fit with the story I was telling with this new album. When I think back on the day we wrote it, I don’t remember it being especially profound. Helen and I are both thoughtful songwriters so none of the lyrics were cynical or throwaway; we definitely wrote to the emotional truth of the story we were telling. But it’s not like either of us were intentionally drawing from our lives at that moment as we wrote it. Art is funny like that sometimes, you can make something you don’t think much of until you revisit it years later and realise it’s perfect for that moment in your life.

On that track, you seamlessly blend an array of contrasting textures. How did you approach this part of the song writing process? This one’s an easy answer. We wrote it just on a piano, so there were no big textures in the writing. I think that’s part of why the melody moves in some unusual ways. We can thank Helen for that. She’s an outstanding songwriter and that’s one of those ways a collaborator’s instincts expanded my work.

Turning to your incredible vocals, how does the lyricism you create affect the tonal qualities that you use? Ooh, good question. I’m big on how a lyric sings – I love playing with vowel sounds and consonants. Listen to how Sara Bareilles shapes her mouth when she says certain words. It’s really interesting and compelling, and always makes me want to write words that facilitate that kind of experimentation – like in the first pre-chorus you have the line ‘I knew I had to walk away’. The sound of the word ‘knew’ feels really immediate and present when you sing it, as though the thought is only just occurring right now. By the second pre-chorus that same line becomes ‘know’ which sounds more confident, open, and resolute – which makes sense for the story. My dad always says great lyrics sing even without music. I also love singing with my Australian accent. Certain words sound different with an Aussie accent and make for interesting voice placement.

‘It took a really long time to find the right team for the album because I’m so sensitive to collaboration.’

And on the topic of vocals, the gorgeous use of harmonies really brings a sense of drama. How were these constructed? Early in the production process it became clear to me we needed a choir to really elevate the melodrama and euphoria of the finale. The album proved to be an expensive undertaking (lol!), I think because we had so much live instrumentation and needed a big studio etc, and the label was rightly concerned about where every dollar was being spent. Early talks involved trying to find ways to simulate a choir with 2 or 3 singers but I knew it needed the real thing. About halfway through production, I took some songs in to play for Craig Kallman and after hearing ‘War In Your Arms’ he basically said ‘Go get your choir.’ I went to Nashville and recorded with 10 of the most incredible singers you’ve ever heard. My friend Laura runs a group called TenTwoSix music group and tracking them is one of the best days I’ve ever done in a studio.

Turning to recording, what does one of your sessions normally involve, and how has your approach changed since earlier releases? It’s hugely changed. I know my way around a studio these days and am way more confident in what I want, what I’m looking for, and I love to take my time working on a song. Not a big fan of pushing it or rushing as I think there’s a huge virtue to just sitting in the world of a song and exploring it till you find what feels good. I know there are brilliant works out there that happened in one afternoon, but almost all of my favourite artists took their time. 

Thinking about your previous track, ‘Like A Circle’, what led to there being two contrasting versions? Like A Circle’ was a total surprise. I have always loved it and actually think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written. For a long time I tried to make it work for the album but it became clear that it wasn’t going to fit which was a bit of a bummer. One night I put up what I thought would be a really inconsequential video of the first verse to TikTok and it blew up overnight. Pretty quickly everyone was like ‘Ben you have to record this to release ASAP’. As the TikTok video was just me walking around a space singing the song a capella, it felt right to cut a version of the song that was just my voice. Ultimately though, that song happened in a hurry and I’d love to think down the road I could get a bit more time to do another version of it. Hey! it’s 2021, I think I’m allowed to just put out as many versions of a song as I want these days? Honestly, what would Lil Nas X do?

Not just your recent tracks, but all of them have led to you amassing a huge number of digital streams. To what extent do you feel that has impacted your all-round success as an artist? Honestly, I grapple with this question every day. I think since working more in LA and getting to know some big name artists it can be hard not to feel like my work is largely inconsequential based on streaming data. Of course I know that’s not true, and art tends to find its way in the world, but when you look at the streaming numbers of some of the big names out there it’s hard not to reflect on your own work and wonder if you should be doing something different. I think this is going to be an ongoing wrestling match for me as an artist in this new age of streaming. I have a friend who told me I should remove a TikTok post because it wasn’t getting as many likes and views as the previous post – after it had only been up a few hours! The danger of getting immediate audience data can be that you start to think of songs as ephemeral social media posts, hoping at best for immediate traction, and if you don’t get the streams then it isn’t worth making. But how can that be true? Everybody saw Tiger King – does that make it more important than Ammonite? Welcome to making art in the digital age!

And linked with this, there are big discussions about how much artists earn from this area of the industry. How do you think things can be improved? Oh boy. I think the biggest losers in this part of the business are songwriters. It’s bad enough that we don’t get paid for the work until it streams, but to then have the share be so negligible… There needs to be a legislative overhaul in this area – the guidelines around this stuff were established before we really knew what the internet was. It’s a shame because songwriters do most of the work for the least of the reward.

Looking ahead, what are you most looking forward to doing musically in 2021? I can’t wait to play my album live. It’s the best work of my life and it’s going to be so cathartic to get on a stage and play the whole thing through with a band. Honestly, I could give or take the audience at this point.

And finally, what are three things you know now that you wish you had known at the start of your musical career?

  • Don’t labour over putting things out. I waited way too long to release my first music, and I see so many young artists caring way too much about all the things they think they’re supposed to have set up before they put songs out. Forget all that stuff. Put your music out! If it’s good the things come to you 🙂
  • Be unapologetically yourself. There’s nothing more irresistible than an artist who’s comfortable in their own creative skin.
  • Take Sara Bareilles’ advice and listen to the little voice in your gut. Things can get super noisy and everyone will always have an opinion about what you should be doing or what must happen next. To hell with all of them. Ask yourself what you want and do that.

Thanks Ben Abraham for chatting with Listen to Discover
Photography Credits: Danielle-Levitt (in article images), Jack Gorlin (featured image)

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