Interview: Ben Abraham

Last November, I was able to attend a small private concert on the Neuehouse rooftop by Australian singer-songwriter Ben Abraham. He played a handful of songs (mostly older ones, as well as a cover of Kesha‘s “Prayer” which he co-wrote), and discuss his upcoming album for Atlantic Records Friendly Fire.

I spoke a bit with Ben after the show, and we began an email correspondence where he kindly answered some questions about his song-craft, the music scene in Melbourne, and discussed his upcoming album in more depth.

**

Indy Review: How did you get started as a songwriter? Was there a specific moment or artist that made you want to pick up a guitar and start writing your own music?

Ben Abraham: I grew up writing songs and singing in church. So I’d say the songwriting began there. My parents were church musicians and wrote their own songs for the congregation to sing so it was definitely just a culture I was raised in.

The transition to being a performing artist was a longer and slower process for sure. I had played in church and written my first songs since I was a teenager but it never occurred to me to want to perform music outside that context. That came when I was in my early 20s. 

I got a job at a children’s charity that involved running activities for kids in hospital. One day I picked up a guitar (I knew all of three chords) and wrote a song with one of the kids. It was a good song! My bosses were so excited about it they flew me around the country to perform the song at their events. That was the moment I realized I wanted to do it as a career. 

IR: What is the Melbourne music scene like? Is there local support to help foster new artists?

BA: I feel so far from Melbourne these days! But the Melbourne I came up in was incredible. I really am the musician I am today because of the people I was surrounded by as I first started cutting my teeth as a writer and performer. I can’t speak to what it’s like now because I’ve lived in LA for a few years at this point, but Melbourne has always been an amazing place for singer songwriters to incubate. The audiences there are so supportive and the community of performers are generous and welcoming. 

There are so many great venues that gave me a chance to try my stuff out. Honestly I don’t know how many if any of them have made it through COVID but Melbourne is such a creative city, where one venue closes, another one opens.

IR: When did you decide you had to come to Los Angeles to continue with your career?

BA: Ha. Well if the audiences and peers of Melbourne were amazing, the industry has always proven harder for me to engage with. 

For whatever reason the Australian music business has never been especially excited about my work. 

My first album was self produced with friends using crowdfunding, and through that I signed to my American management. This was after years of trying to find Aussie managers without any luck. Anyone who seemed interested was never really willing to take the conversation beyond giving me a thumbs up from their desks over an email.

As soon as my US managers were on board the rest kind of fell into place pretty quickly. I signed to Secretly Canadian to re-release the first album and signed a publishing deal with SonyATV and instantly it felt like all of America opened up for me.

The years following it just felt like a natural progression. It’s a weird dynamic because I feel so proud to be Australian, and feel so connected to my Australian audience, but almost all the infrastructure of my music career is American so it just made sense to relocate to where the machine was. 

Once I moved to Atlantic Records it felt inescapable that I needed to be based out of LA. At least for now.

IR: What led to your collaboration with Kesha on the song “Praying”? Was it the first time you had written a song for another artist?

BA: I had written before with my friend Wafia. Her song “Heartburn” is the first song I ever wrote with or for another artist. 

The Kesha story is a funny one. One of my managers used to work with her management company and one day the request came through “would Ben ever be interested in writing with Kesha”. This was back in 2015 when the media frenzy around her court case was still relatively fresh. 

Obviously I knew her big hits but otherwise didn’t have much of a relationship with her music and the idea that I could do a writing session with her felt absurd and incredible so of course I said yes.

Any preconceived judgements I had about her were gone the instant she walked in. She’s a musical genius (also I’m pretty sure her IQ is literally genius level) and we just got along so well and wrote a beautiful song called “Funeral” that you’ll probably never hear.

A year later I got an email from her management saying that Ryan Lewis wanted to write a song with her and they asked if I’d like to be involved. The rest is history.

IR: As a lyricist, do you find yourself drawn more to narrative songwriting (such as on tracks like “She” or “Satellite” or metaphorical/esoteric lyricism like on “War in You Arms”? Is one more challenging to you? 

BA: I think I always need a narrative. I’m the annoying writer in the room always asking “but what does it all mean? how does this fit into the over-all arc?”.

As for the specifics of my lyric style I actually don’t know if I can be super self aware about it. I don’t really see much difference between my songs but I will say when I hear a Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran song I’m keenly aware that my lyrics lack that type of literal, conversation storytelling. I envy it a little. I feel like it takes a steady hand and a level of confidence to just tell the story in the way those kinds of writers do. I think because of my church background I tend to be drawn to the grandiose before the specific.

IR: Let’s talk about some of your newer music. Listening to “War in Your Arms”, I noticed there was a greater emphasis on the drums/percussion on the track than on some of your earlier works. What inspired you to put more focus on the beats in the track, and is this a direction you see yourself further exploring on your next album?

BA: Some of this was the decision making of my producer James Flannigan but I guess we did collaborate on wanting the sonic world of the album to be more rhythmic. I think the drums play a really important role on this new album for sure. The songs Runaway and Boy In A Bubble were written around drum beats.

I think some of this is just how I’ve grown in my confidence as a writer. Beat making intimidates me so I’ve always needed to rely on others to do it for me – certainly that was the case with my first album. 

I think my songwriting has just evolved a bit so it was easier to have bigger beats on the new stuff. 

I will say for the story I am hoping to tell on album #3, there’s definitely going to be a big emphasis on percussion. So maybe this is all just a kind of foreshadowing.

IR: Since signing to Atlantic, have you felt more freedom to experiment in the studio when recording? What kind of opportunities has being signed provided to you while recording your next album?

BA: Absolutely. I got lucky in that I signed directly to Craig Kallman. A quick Google should tell you that when he’s your guy at the label you can kind of ask for anything haha.

I knew that I wanted the album to have a hi-fi, big budget feel. Peter Gabriel was a huge influence on this album and I wanted the music to sound like we recorded it with expensive microphones in an expensive space. It’s weird because music is in such a minimalist space at the moment but for whatever reason I kind of wanted to swing all the way to the other end and go maximalist where we could. 

We got lucky that Kallman got the vision and gave us the greenlight. We recorded at Barefoot Recording Studio (which alas is no more), the same room that Stevie Wonder made Songs In the Key Of Life in. I played his piano on all the songs. Isn’t that wild!? That kind of thing is only made possible by a label that is willing to invest the money and I’m so incredibly grateful to the team of Craig Kallman and Mollie Lehman at Atlantic for taking that chance on me.

There was this one moment near the end of our time at the studio, when the songs had really started coming together, that I met with Craig to show him our progress. I had this vision of getting a choir to sing on some of the songs but knew that a real choir is expensive and that the label would need convincing. I had my big pitch ready to go and was ready to present the full range of options from the compromise “we can do this with 3 people if we have to” through to the dream “what if we had 10 people!”. After he heard the songs I didn’t even need to say anything he just turned around and said “go get your choir”.

IR: What have been some of your inspirations for your latest crop of songs? 

BA: Ha. This is a long story and I feel like I’ve already rambled so much in these answers. The new album definitely tells one main story for me. In the years since my first album I’ve gone through an intense life change of reconsdering my faith and embracing a fluid and queer relationship with sexuality. Conversations around sexuality and spirituality have traditionally involved such binary and fixed ideas, and Friendly Fire is all about making peace with, and embracing the middle ground. In some way or another, every song deals with an aspect of this. And certainly the back half of my album tells the story in a longer form.

FRIENDLY FIRE

IR: What song on your next album are you most excited for your fans to hear? 

Honestly I keep changing my mind about what I think the best song is on the album. The one that amps me up the most is the song ‘Boy In A Bubble’. But I think the best song off the record is the title track ‘Friendly Fire’. It’s a pretty special tune and I think we recorded it perfectly. 

That doesn’t happen often. But wow I’m so proud of what we did.

IR: Are there any other Australian artists you’re a fan of who you would love to see get more attention in the states?

BA: Hmm. This is where I’m going to give the terrible answer of being so out of the loop on what’s going on with Australian music. 

I’m just going to do what I’ve always loved to do and elevate some of my friends that I was playing with back when I still lived there.

John Flanagan is an exceptional writer — soulful, timeless, a real troubadour. And Tilman Robinson, who has arranged a lot of the strings on my album, is a musical genius. His work is challenging, experimental, and exciting!

IR: If you could make one lasting impact or change to popular music as it is now, what would it be?

BA: Haha. I’d make it so that social media wasn’t the only way to break a new artist. But I think that train has well and truly left the station.

**

Listen to Friendly Fire here!

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