Ben Ransom is a city slicker with his heart in the country – as his new single, ‘Big Country Sky’, demonstrates. I spoke with Ben recently on the occasion of his single release and started off by asking him about his musical background, which has influences from Irish folk music as well as traditional country music. I asked Ben where his interested in music started, what he’s listened to over the years and how he’s formed his sound now.
Like most people, I think, the earliest influences come from your parents,’ Ben said, ‘and it’s usually the music that they’re listening to, and in our household we did listen to a broad range of music. My dad was right into the Irish folk music, so we got exposed to a lot of that style of music early on, but there was also country that we listened to. It also went through to modern pop and rock, and that’s kind of where I got an interest in music.
‘But it wasn’t until my cousin actually picked up a guitar and started playing twelve-bar blues that I thought, yeah, wow, this is something that I really want to do myself. When I was growing up and going to school and sort of listening to the music that was around at that time, it was a lot of Australian pub rock, and I guess the way I write and the songs that I come up with at the moment, you can hear some of the influences in them.
‘So I kind of got a mixed bag – it’s a bit from here, a bit from there, and sort of chuck it in and see what you come out with.’
Given the Irish folk music in his past, I asked Ben if he’d been tempted to take up the fiddle as an instrument.
‘I don’t mind the fiddle,’ he admitted, but you know what I like? I like the tin whistle. My dad has played the tin whistle. He actually played the bagpipes as well. He was in a pipe band, but I love all that jig sort of stuff, it’s really cool, and some of those songs, they’re great songs, if you listen to them, they’re really, really great songs, they’re good fun to sing.’
Given that range of influences and instruments, Ben obviously has a strong background in musicality and also in different types of songwriting. As he’s a songwriter, that must help him understand song structure and storytelling.
‘Yeah,’ he agreed, ‘and sometimes it comes naturally, but then also I went to the academy – to the CMAA Academy of Country Music. It was around about this time last year, it was all over June and July, and during that period you study a lot about songwriting and how to write songs, and structure and wording, that kind of thing.
‘I had a couple of sessions with Tamara Stewart and she said to me that she was watching the way I write, et cetera, and said that it’s something that actually comes naturally to me.
‘So I started writing songs from an early age, but I don’t know what it is about sitting down and actually doing it from a literary point of view or a structured point of view. It these things sort of come to me a bit. It’s hard to explain. It’s not like an exact science; it’s just that for me, it’s one of those things that just comes to you … there’s always different ways of writing songs and learning how to write songs, and there’s many different styles and methods, but you get these sort of little snippets of inspiration from all walks of life, and that’s where I usually get my songs from.’
We discussed the idea that for most people who can write successfully, whether it’s songwriting or another form of writing, there is a spark there and that ability and willingness to follow ‘the muse’. But what is learnt through studying, studying other people’s songs or studying songwriting is that the writer learns how to put some structure around what comes naturally. So it’s not about following. It’s not about being taught how to be able to write songs, it’s more just corralling what is known by instinct.
Ben is writing songs – not to mention recording and performing them – around work and his young family in Sydney, and that’s a lot of distractions. I asked him if he has to structure time for himself to write songs, or does he tend to do it when it comes to him?
‘I have so much going on,’ he said, ‘but also … I’ve got to organise my own marketing, managing, bookings, all those kind of things that usually people that are signed to record labels or have people take care of that, and it leaves little time to sit down and think about songs and writing songs. I do find it hard to get a moment to sit and think about things. But, you know, sometimes when I get my most inspiration is when I’m doing a hundred other different things and you’ve got your brain, you know, firing all two cylinders and you get these ideas springing into your head, and then I’ll just write something down on a bit of paper, and then, you know, when I get a second to come back to it, I’ll come back to it.
‘But what I want to invest in is a Dictaphone,’ he said, laughing. ‘That’d be an awesome tool.’
For his debut album, Slow Burn, Ben enlisted heavyweight talent: Matt Fell and Glen Hannah. Matt produces a lot of albums, and Glen plays on a lot of albums and a lot of shows, so they’re both busy men. I asked Ben how he came to work with them.
‘I love those guys,’ Ben said effusively. ‘I was put in contact with Glen Hannah, actually; I needed to get a photo shoot done, and that’s how I came into the fold. I’d done my photo shoot with Glen, and then found out all these other things about him, that he’s one of the best guitarists in Australia for this type of music, and so he said, “You can use my services any time.” Which I did, I had to record a single, and he said, “I’ll tell you what, I reckon you’d go well with this fellow Matt Fell”, and that’s how I actually met Matt. We went into the studio together, me, Glen and Matt, and also Josh Hubert on drums, and we knocked out the second single that we released, which is actually on the album, the single is called “Long Hot Days”, and that’s how the relationship started, and when I wanted to record the album, I said, “I want to go back, I want to capture that sound and energy again,” and that’s how we found ourselves back in the studio together and working on the album.’
Matt has a huge amount of experience producing Australian country music albums, and a good producer can make all the difference to an album, so I asked Ben what he thought Matt brought to the process of making his album.
‘It’s a good question, because for a long time, I didn’t really know the role of a producer. But they kind of breathe life into the whole thing, they can take any song and – it’s like they’re bringing interpretation of it, and they actually create the song.
‘When you go and demo a lot of songs, you are taken to these producers and they’ll say, “We don’t want to hear, you know, anything, we just want to hear the vocals and guitar or piano”, or whatever you like to do it on, “I just want to hear the most basic, basic version of it”, so that they can envisage what it is that they want to bring to it and how they will bring it to life and then coming up with the end result. So to have a great producer is essential, I think, in any recording project.
‘I recorded a CD twelve months before without a producer – we just went into the studio and knocked it out. It turned out okay, but you compare that to the official debut album and the difference in the quality and the sound and ideas and everything is out of this world. Matt did an awesome job; he’s one of those people who work on a different level, and it’s good, actually, to have an outsider’s perspective of your material as well, because they look at things a different way to what you would.’
As a singer, I wondered, did Ben change through that recording process as well?
‘Yes, and that’s the thing, it’s a two-way street, and it’s a bit of give and take, and you listen to their advice and their suggestions, and then you’re sort of backwards and forwards a bit, and you develop as an artist as well. I think it’s all part of that development process, that you learn from people like this, and he’s had a world of experience, so it’d be remiss of me to just go in there and say, “No, this is how I want it done and this is it”,’ he said, laughing.
When I remarked to Ben that his voice reminded me a bit of Keith Urban’s, he didn’t mind at all, and actually said that some people tell him that he reminds them of Bon Jovi, ‘which is cool’, he said. His sound is country rock, and that’s ‘the style of what I like to do, particularly performing live – I want to be out there and energetic and entertaining and upbeat, and I think if I tried to do something else, I wouldn’t quite pull it off.
‘I think you have to be yourself,’ he continued, ‘or be true to the artist that you want to be. I do a lot of acoustic stuff, and I have done a lot of solo acoustic stuff, you know, a lot of quieter stuff, but it’s not really where my strengths lie, I think as an artist, I like to be a bit out there,’ he finished, laughing.
Finally I got around to asking Ben about the single, ‘Big Country Sky’.
‘I love it,’ he said, ‘it’s a great little rocky tune, it’s a driving tune. I love songs when you’re in the car and you’re driving and you turn the volume up, but one thing I love doing is getting out and about whenever I can, and Australia is such a big, big country, it’s a massive place, and at every opportunity [I] get up, out the coast – up the coast, down the coast, down the country, wherever, and sort of getting out there and experience the countryside and everything that this place has got, and that was the genesis of the song, and because I like driving.’
One place Ben will be driving to soon is the next Tamworth Country Music Festival.
‘I guess around July, August we’ll start booking the dates in,’ he said. ‘We’ve got our sights on a few different venues there. The last festival we did twenty performances. There were fifteen full shows, but twenty performances altogether. So we’ll probably look at trying to beat that record.’
Given how dedicated Ben is to his craft, and to his role as a performer and songwriter, I doubt he’ll have much trouble doing that. Ben has also organised the Live at the Brewhouse sessions at King Street Wharf in Sydney, so he is making his own luck when it comes to performances. He’s definitely a name – and a talent – to watch.