Ben Elliot -
                         Taking the Gold

Rarely  does an indie artist come along that brings the whole ball of wax.  Songwriting, vocal skills, arrangements, harmonies.  Even though Ben Elliot won the Golden Kayak in 07 for Best Male Artist, I forgot how good he was.  Actually the 2 new songs he's uploaded for his IMP page I think bring him to a whole new level.  Started with a video for his song Fades of Echoes (currently in the Kayak Big 25) which displays him multi-tracking with himself and is reminiscent of Brian Wilson with that delicate blend of his own voices.  Now he's released a song called I'll Be Your Heart Attack which really knocked my socks off, what a gem.  I find his songwriting style is so flowing and self-assured, there's something natural going on here, you don't hear the labor of his work, he just finds the song, seemingly out of the mist.  Makes these masterpieces look easy, one wonders about his potential because maybe he's just tapping the surface.  Anyway he goes into a fair amount of detail in his Spotlight Interview, and I think there's a lot to learn from his approach.  Music like this is about flow and letting it happen, there is a pureness to his creativity that one doesn't find very often in Indieland.



Scott:   So, last time I've seen you around was a while back, what have you been doing since then?

Ben:   Work and life got in the way for a bit. I had still been doing bits and bobs of music, but hadn't managed to come up with anything tangible due to time and motivation. The change came when I had the opportunity to run an open mic night. It forced me into re-learning old songs and making an effort to write new things as I had to perform on a weekly basis. When I stopped doing the open mic I decided to keep the ball rolling, continue writing and try and record some of it, and that's where I am now.

Scott:   I saw your video, seems like you're more deeply into production these days. 

Ben:   In some ways I'm much less in to production. Writing material to perform at the open mic changed how I write. I used to (and still do to an extent) revel in the aspects of modern recording that meant you could have a piano part that would need an 8 handed pianist, or layer 25 tracks to create the dynamics, but to perform live regularly which I had never done previously,  I had to write music that relied on the bare bones of chords and melody to keep things interesting. When it came to recording the newer songs I had to change how I did things, I realised that a lot of things I'd written recently had subtle changes in tempo and had a much looser and simpler feel to them, so I stopped relying on click tracks and stripped back arrangements for songs. It was at this point that I though that if I was aiming for simple arrangements done freely in one take, it would be fun to video them as well and create a YouTube channel for them ( Having said all this, do still really enjoy the audio-production side of things and have a few things in the pipeline that are more like the old style.


Scott:   How much time do you spend on music?  Is it as much as you'd like?  Do you have any difficulties with writer's or recorder's block?

Ben:   The time I spend on music varies depending on what I'm up to week to week and what motivation I've got when I do have some time. Of course there are times when I have creativity flowing in my head but no time or means to work on it, but generally it's nice to be able to have a flexible approach like this and it means I suffer less with creative block as if its not flowing on one particular day I can just put it all to one side and pick it up again another time with no pressure.

I think its difficult to say if the time I have is 'enough'. I've had periods where I put aside lots of time for music and ended up very frustrated and struggling with creativity, whereas other times I've been equally as frustrated by not having enough time to work on things. I think fundamentally, if everything is flowing and working, you make the time and if its not, its just not.

Scott:   Take What You Can, Give What You Are has always been one of my favorite of your songs.  Care to elaborate about what that phrase means to you?

Ben:   Overall, the song is about self-worth. I've often thought that people, myself included, can have an ability to focus too much on what other people think about them when they develop an opinion of themselves, and we can often fall in to a trap of judging ourselves by making comparisons between ourselves and how we perceive other people. The title is really just saying, take what you can from life, but remember you can only give what you've got to give. Sometimes you can expect too much from both the giving and taking elements, and that from my experience can make you unhappy.

Scott:    Describe how you write your songs?  Mostly on piano?

Ben:   Yes, I'd say mostly piano with a smattering of guitar. 

My methods for the majority of the songs I have uploaded to IMP over the years were really quite a different from the more traditional way of song writing. I tend to come up with a short chord progression and melody, usually the verse, and record it immediately. I'd then start working on an arrangement, figure out some sort of chorus, and finally add in a middle 8 or such-like.

Vocals wise, I'd often come up with melodies and lyrics as I was recording a particular section. I'd start by singing nonsense to a melody, and then fitting words to the sounds I was making. I have always felt that the lyrics can often be my weakest points and I think writing like this contributes to that. Its hard to write lyrics about something specific when you let the phonetics of the sounds you made when coming up with the melody, effect the words you choose for the lyrics. I think this has led me to have overall themes for songs as apposed to in-your-face lyrics about a certain subject.

Although this way of writing has led to some songs I'm really proud of, the fact that it could be months between recording vocals or guitar from one part to another left some tracks feeling quite disjointed from both a recording and song-writing point of view. However, having done the open mic, I feel like I have become a better piano and guitar player as I had to learn a song from start to finish without any re-takes or dropping myself back in after a mistake; things I'd become accustomed to being almost exclusively a 'studio musician'. Its allowed me to spend more time crafting a song and I've not just gone straight in to recording so much. I've also started doing some collaboration/guesting on some tracks at a friend's studio. There are sometimes a few musicians throwing ideas in to the mix and I have no dealings with the production side so its a really cool, but very different experience to what I'm used to and I expect it will start to have an influence on how I write.

In terms of how I think my song-writing has developed over the years, there's a couple of examples that I think have had a really big influence on how I've evolved as a song-writer. To explain further, in a short space of time, I was lucky enough to be chosen as a 'BBC 2 song-writer of the year finalist' and was also offered a publishing contract with a small record company. Although very flattering, my experience of the latter was having songs scrutinised and having to write new songs to a brief, albeit fairly loose. This, coupled with deadlines, gigs being arranged for me, a key-man clause in the contract and a host of other things from both me and the company, meant that we both lost a bit interest. For me it was to do with losing creativity and motivation from the lack of control, and subsequently nothing ever got signed. I think a lot of musicians would have pushed and made it work, but I actually felt a bit of relief when it was all over, though of course I do hold a bit of regret.

The BBC thing was a great experience too, but with a similar outcome. As 'finalists' we went to the BBC and did a few workshops and group song writing exercises, it was really great but mostly an opportunity to showcase yourself, something I didn't do too well. My feedback from the sessions was exactly that, and it was suggested I might try to write for other musicians if I wasn't too interested in the performance and showcasing elements. I did give this a go, but fell into similar patterns of lacking creativity and motivation.

The point of talking about these two things, (other than to name-drop a couple of accomplishments!) is that all the experiences I had made me realise that trying to stick to a format and think too hard about what I was writing really hindered the song-writing process. I decided that I would try less hard to find the 'hook' or follow a traditional structure as some of my influences didn't lend themselves to that anyway, and I clearly wasn't going to throw myself at 'making it big', where those things are more important. Ironically, those hooks and structure started to come a lot more easily and I actually didn't end up changing my style a great deal. However, it has allowed me to write some songs I think are really interesting, songs that haven't stuck to conventional 'verse-chorus' formats, or traditional chord progressions and arrangements. A good example of that is the song I videoed - Fades of Echos. It has also allowed me to write some absolute crap that no-one has ever heard.

Scott:    So how many instruments do you play?

Ben:  I can get a noise out of a few things, but its piano and guitar mainly. I used to have a drum kit and I recently dug out the clarinet I played at school. I can play a few instruments to a decent standard, rather than one thing really well. Its always been more exciting learning something new rather than practicing on the same instrument over and over, for instance I borrowed my sisters 'cello recently, it is indeed exciting to think I can add some cello to songs, but actually its really hard and I'll perhaps give up on it before I've got to a performable standard.

Scott:    You have a song called No Regrets.  Made me wonder if you've had some difficulties in your life.  Anything you want to go into?

Ben:   As I mentioned before, lyrics are what I'd say is my weakest area and often don't relate specifically to any one particular thing, so its perhaps a little hard to really analyse them. I tend to work with themes for my songs and they can range from referring to myself or talking about someone else; referring to something that has happened or something that I'd like/not like to happen; objectification or personification; complete nonsense, and so on. So basically if I say 'I', 'you' or 'it' in a song, it could refer to anyone or anything. I think sometimes my songs can seem like I've got things to complain about, but in reality I think my early influences tended to have grungy, dark, teen-angsty lyrics, so thats what I did too and it kind of stuck. I have tried writing more positive lyrics but they don't come naturally.

Scott:    I see a lot of discussions out there these days about artists who shun political songs, how do you feel about them?

Ben:   It depends on how subtle they are and whether I agree with them I suppose. Within reason, as long as I can enjoy a song I don't really mind what its about as I tend to listen to the arrangement of all the parts rather than focus on the lyrics or meaning. As an example, when I listen to Chic 'n' Stu by System of a Down, I hear a good, fun song that periodically lists pizza toppings, and I don't tend to think so much about advertising, brainwashing and global consumerism.

Scott:    Could you name some of the music that inspired you to want to make your own.

Ben:   Initially it was Silverchair. I followed their transition from grunge to orchestral rock while I was starting to write songs, and I know that has been a big influence. Each album they released made me want to write songs like that album. Some way a long that time-line Daniel Johns did a side project with Paul Mac called the Dissociatives which was essentially a similar style to Silverchair but a bit freer and used a lot of electronic instruments and sounds. This is where I really started to take influence as it was much easier to create a similar sound than some of the orchestral elements Silverchair had been doing at that point.

I've also always loved music for film, especially Danny Elfman's soundtracks. I love the way film-music can completely alter the mood and feel of a scene, it showcases to the highest degree music's ability to stir emotion. Another notable mention is metal/hardcore/post-hardcore (or whatever silly name it has currently). Although I like to try and listen to a diverse range of music, metal is always my fall back and 90% of CDs I have in the car fall into this genre.

Generally, I'd like to think I draw influence from anything I hear, and sometimes a little too much. It's not unheard of for me to have very quickly and freely come up with an idea for a song that I think is going to be really good, only to realise its actually pretty much exactly the same as something I've just listened to.

Scott:    Tell us about your goals in music, as far as career goals.  Are they reachable do you think?

Ben:    I don't really have any goals any more. I'm just enjoying making music in a way that suits me, and that is perfectly reachable.

Scott:    Does it ever bug you when you hear music on the radio that isn't so good to the point it seems like an injustice that it's not your songs being played?

Ben:    Not really. The music industry is a weird old place. The great thing about the modern world is that you can listen to what you want, when you want, so I tend to not listen to music that 'isn't so good', but maybe miss out on some other good stuff too. As for it being an injustice that its not my music, I think I've passed that now. If I can get the odd compliment in any form, it makes my day.

Scott:    We ask this to all Spotlight artists, have you ever had any experiences of high strangeness like UFOs or ghosts or what have you?

Ben:    Thankfully not, despite living in the most haunted city in the UK.

Scott:     Do you know where your music is headed?

Ben:   Nope, and that's what I love about writing music. I spent the day listening to Kate Bush and then some Dubstep the other week. Needless to say my song-writing took a weird unexpected turn thereafter. You'll maybe hear the results before long.

Ben Elliot