Interview: Ben Leece

Ben-Leece39.jpgLast year Hunter Valley singer-songwriter Ben Leece released his excellent debut album, No Wonder the World is Exhausted, and since then it hasn’t been hard to find fans of his thoughtful, and artful, songs. Leece is not, however, a newcomer – he may be relatively new to country music audiences but his love for and experience in music goes back several years and across genres. It was a pleasure to talk to him recently and find out about his album, his songwriting process and which type of music he loved first.

There’s been a great reception to the album. You must be very pleased.

Absolutely. It’s far beyond anything that I could have expected. Random messages from people that have found it and then positive reviews from people that I really respect. So it’s been pretty amazing.

How long before the release had you completed it? And why I’m asking you is to find out how long you were sitting in limbo waiting to find out what people thought.

The recording was wrapped up at the beginning of January [2018], essentially. There was maybe one or two overdubs that needed to be done by some other musicians, and mixing obviously, so maybe seven months with final mixes that were sitting on them. A long time.

In that time did you start to think, I wish I’d done X, Y, Z differently? Or were you just thinking, Oh, it’s done and I’m leaving it where it is?

I was pretty stoked. It exceeded my expectations. It turned out way beyond anything that I could have imagined that it would have. I guess it was just being patient with it and not to try and rush it out there. The thing is once you’re finished with something you’re excited, you just want to get it out there. So learning to be patient with it was hard. The biggest thing with that is I’d come out of this studio with Shane Nicholson recording it and essentially it was done. And then I went to the Tamworth Country Music Festival, so that was January 2018. And one of my gigs was playing on the floor of a Hungry Jack’s restaurant [laughs].

Which does happen at Tamworth, those sorts of gigs.

I was 36 at the time and I’d been doing music for a long time, and I’d just come out of this experience with Shane and I was on this massive high and it was this massive slump back to reality. And it was the worst gig ever. It was double booked, for a start. I was sitting there politely arguing with the other guy that was double booked about who was not going to play it [laughs]. In the end we decided to split it and the noise from the kitchen drowned us out. The two or three punters who walked through the door had zero interest in us being there. My capo broke in the second song. The power kept cutting in and out so I was fighting with the PA. It was the worst. I remember getting back in the car and just thinking, You know what, I don’t need this. I’ve done the record but I don’t need this.I literally got back in the car after that thinking that I was all but done and I got a message from my friend Tori Forsyth saying, ‘Hey, my gig at the Welder’s Dog has just sold out – do you want to come and open for me?’ And it’s just kind of been ascending ever since then. And that message from Tori is typical of this community that I’ve found myself in. It’s something really special.

And this year in Tamworth I know you played quite a few different types of gigs. I saw you perform at the Cake and Cordial sessions and then happened to head to The Press that afternoon, not knowing who was on the bill, and then you walked into that. I thought, He’s getting around!

Cake and Cordial was a great gig. I love Paddy [McHugh] and Megan Cooper that organise that. They’re great people. It’s good fun.

It was a great gig. I remember seeing you arrive before the start of the show and I
thought you must’ve been on first, but no, you were at last. So just talking about that country music community, I think part of it is that you all do show up for each other.

Well, I’ve got a connection to everyone on that bill. And it was random. I had no idea that was how it was being put together. Jenny Mitchell I’ve spent a lot of time with and I think she’s pretty special as far as songwriting goes. And obviously Paddy and Megan as well. And Michael Waugh – Michael and I had played a gig with Shane the night before. So it was pretty special.

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So you do have all those connections, but I have to ask: is Lachlan Bryan your best country music friend?

[Laughs] We’re pretty good friends now. We didn’t know each other before January this year.

And you’ve just been on tour together!

It was Areatha Bryant. We share a booking agent and she had the idea but we’d never met each other before. She just threw the idea out there and I guess we had that trust in her that we’d get along, which we did. We definitely formed a pretty special bond. I don’t know if he’s my best friend [laughs] in country music but he’s up there.

He’s a friendly sort of person. So that was a good tour mate to have, I would think.

We had a lot of fun and I got on really well with his band and veice versa. We’re definitely like minded. There’s no shortage of conversation when we actually had the opportunity to sit down and talk. We’re both so busy running off to do other stuff in between the gigs, just holding down life outside of the tour. But when we got down and actually had a chance to, to talk, we definitely formed a bit of a special bond.

You had a band with you on that tour, Left of the Dial, but you often play bandless. So is this a recent band for you?

I’ve got two core members, a bass player and a drummer. Liam Ferguson is my bass player and Matt Taylor plays drums. Jason Walker’s been a part of it, playing steel on and off. And we’re pretty close with Georgia State Line from Melbourne. Tom and Laura from Georgia State Line have played with us at various times as well. This time around on the Victorian leg Matt couldn’t go down so Pat from Georgia State Line played drums with us as well. So I’ve basically stolen Georgia’s band [laughs].

But it is as, as you said, the community of country music. And it leads to such interesting collaborations. One of those collaborations was with Shane Nicholson, who was your producer. There are a few very, very good producers working in country music. How did you come to choose Shane?

I’d recorded a couple of songs with a friend of mine, Trent Crawford, on the Central Coast [of New South Wales]. He’s a friend of Shane’s and used his studios for different projects. Trent actually produced Tori Forsyth’s first EP. He kind of brought her to Shane, I believe. Tori sang on one of those songs in the session that I did that time. When it came to talk about the album, they suggested that I reach out to Shane. I guess on their recommendation he agreed to give it a go.

You talked about that process of being patient once you’d recorded the album, waiting for it to come out, but had you also been patient in the anticipation of creating it? Had you written the songs quite a while before?

Yes and no. Maybe it was May when we first started talking and I had 10 or 11 songs that for all money was the album that we were going to make. And [Shane] had told me not to stop writing in that first conversation. And of course he was just coming from a point of view that the more we have, the better strike rate we’ll have. We’ll have more to choose from. But I kind of went into this panic mode of ‘he doesn’t like what I’ve got or he doesn’t think what I’ve got is good enough’. So between May and November, when we started, I ended up with 54 songs. And obviously they’re not all great. There’s probably at least another album in there if I choose to revisit them. But it was an anxious wait till we started, but it was more about impressing this guy, you know what I mean? It was more about having enough good stuff to take to Shane rather than me getting antsy about just doing it.

That’s a hugely productive rate, to come up with that many songs. Throughout your musical career, have you tended to stockpile songs? Do you set aside time to write and produce things in that time? Do you wait for inspiration to strike and then let them stockpile?

Until then I wouldn’t call it prolific or anything, but I definitely had written a lot. But in that time I really learnt that it’s a skill and a discipline that you have to exercise. I found that once I was in that frame of mind, in that zone of writing and just getting stuff out … I guess most of us tend to self-edit before we give songs a chance to be what they are. You shut a lot of songs down before they have a chance to be anything. Whereas I’ve found if you just write it and get it out, it kind of clears the way for other stuff to come through. After we finished the album I went in a bit of a hole and didn’t write much at all last year. But in the last two, three months, I’ve really switched back on. I guess I’m gearing up to do it again, hopefully before the end of the year. I think I’m up to 20 something now, this year. It’s my happy place. It’s what I love to do. I have a thing called morning pages that I do. I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Artist’s Way?

I am. In fact, I’ve done that process in the past, so I know exactly what you’re talking about.

I’m a massive believer in morning pages if nothing but for the mental health benefits. So I set my alarm at five o’clock every morning and get up and write for an hour before I go to work. It definitely helps with the [song] writing process. We’ve so much going on in maintaining a normal life as well as music, you just fit it in where you can. That’s the one part of the day that I try and keep that discipline up.

How long have you been doing morning pages?

I listen to a podcast called ‘The Moment’ by a guy called Brian Koppelman and he’s a screenwriter. He refers to The Artist’s Wayand morning pages every other episode. I started in middle of last year maybe, but I’ve only just finished reading the book maybe two months ago now. I guess I was doing it without fully understanding the process for about 12 months, but the last three months I’ve been doing it as the book would suggest.

An hour every morning is a great discipline. And talking about your songwriting: your lyrics suggest you’re someone who keeps his eyes and ears open, taking in a lot of life. Is that true and if so, have you always been like that?

Obviously that book talks about being aware and open to everything around you. Yes, definitely there’s been some awareness. I’ve spent a lot of time in my own head. I guess I’ve become more observant in recent years. I never used to read. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve read. I try to read a new book every month, which I’ve been able to maintain, and which I’ve taken a lot from. Definitely now I try to be more observant of what’s going on around me, be it in the news, be it family and friends, people on the street or wherever. Just trying to imagine what it might be like other people’s shoes and having an empathy for different situations and approaching different situations from a point of love and empathy as opposed to shutting things down before you give them a chance.

That kind of approach is not just about how you write your songs but also how you perform them. I think that’s part of what I’m hearing in the songs, this awareness from you that you are singing to people. It’s not just, Oh, I’m singing, I’m singing my own experiences. I’m singing to get something off my chest.Whatever it might be. It actually sounds to me like there’s a real awareness from you that this is part of a bigger whole.

I’m definitely trying to make a connection. I had an experience with William Crighton at an open mic night, and I’ve had a few discussions with him since. I used to just go through the motions on stage and rely on what I thought was a good song to get me over the line, but at some point it clicked watching him that there needs to be a connection with the audience. You need to bring them in, invite them in, because the most important or most valuable commodity anyone has is their time and attention. And there are so many options for people to go out on a Friday and Saturday night or put their iPod on and go through Spotify. You’ve got the world’s music at your fingertips. So if someone’s prepared to give me their attention for half an hour or whatever, then I’d better not waste that. I have a real appreciation of that that has clicked that has allowed me to get out … I’m a pretty anxious, self-conscious sort of a person, like most of us are, but now I’m getting more confident on stage that I can share my experiences with people and try to connect with people, because they’ve kind enough to give me their attention, if that makes sense?

Absolutely. I’ve often thought when you walk into a show and the artist is like you and they understand that relationship with the audience, the audience immediately relaxes:I don’t have to do anything else here, this guy’s in charge. He knows what he’s doing. He’s happy be here and I’m just going to enjoy the show.And therefore that keeps strengthening that connection.

For sure. I’ve only just recently played house concerts. I really love those intimate gigs. Even playing without a PA, I think you’re able to form a more personal connection for sure.

I think one of the reasons why you can play without a PA is you have a really strong voice, a very distinctive and rich voice. Is this the voice that emerged when you first started singing or have you shaped it a little bit?

I think it’s been shaped. I think a big part of it was that I was playing guitar for a long time and I didn’t realise that the pickup was going in it. So I would often end up yelling and screaming [laughs] because I had this PA blaring the guitar and I was really smashing the guitar to get noise out of it. Then I got a guitar that was made for me and it was so sensitive that just by default playing with it taught me about dynamics. When to go hard and when to hold back. And I think those things are important to putting on a show and that’s the stuff that draws people in, I think. But also I come from a punk rock, heavy metal background. So maybe that’s got something to do with it. Just being loud [laughs].

I recently interviewed Nathan Seeckts, and he came from punk as well. He said the voice is partly from the Welsh barrel chest, but also it’s years in a punk band.

[Laughs] Nathan and I actually used to play in bands not together, but our bands would play together in that past life.

Also just what you were saying about learning that light and shade of the voice around the instruments you played with, I wonder if you’re conscious of that affecting the music that you’ve written and put on the album, because there’s definitely those really different nuances between songs. It’s not just like you produce one type of music.

Words are my thing. I love words and language, semantics, and I want people to pay attention to what I’m saying. So I guess I try and use dynamics to convey what I’m trying to say or build that around what I’m trying to say in the songs.

Given that punk is in your background, what else is in your musical background?

I’m actually a hip-hop kid [laughs]. Hip-hop is my number one thing. Funk and soul. And obviously that’s from hip-hop. I grew up on a farm in a town called Quirindi. Growing up, I just wanted to be different to everyone else, so anything that was slightly left of the dial I would lean toward it. I wasn’t interested in anything that was mainstream. Growing up through the late eighties and nineties, that was hip-hop. And punk rock and heavy metal. I don’t know if it comes through. If you listen to the record the drumming is really interesting. There’s a lot of interesting beats which I think are drawn out of hip-hop. It’s taught me a little about like word play. And a correlation between what we do in alternative country, Americana, roots music, whatever you want to call it – it’s born out of oppression and protest, and I think that aligns with hip-hop. As different as it may seem on the surface, I can draw a lot of lines that way for sure.

No Wonder the World is Exhaused is out now through Stanley Records.

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