Transforming Experience into Sound: A Conversation with Ben Abraham

Ben Abraham © WILK

It’s no secret that it takes a combination of experiences to draw out the best in someone. Whether this is shown via artistic pursuits or not, one is certainly bound to learn about themselves and the world around them. However, it is when passions collide where real magic can be found, and this rare output can be found within Melbourne native Ben Abraham’s debut album, Sirens (March 2016 via Secretly Canadian).

Sirens - Ben Abraham

Sirens – Ben Abraham

There are a magnitude of experiences that Abraham has drawn upon which have weaved together to create such authentic and honest work. Self-described as a cinematic, indie/folk artist, Abraham has a whole spectrum of qualities which have fused together to create a cherished album. Growing up around parents who were part of an Indonesian pop group in the ’70s, Abraham began his musical endeavours quite late. He pursued his first love of cinematography at university, however also worked part time as a children entertainer in a hospital. It was during this time he began to pour his energy into songwriting, which his cinematic core not too far behind.

Many reviews have described Abraham’s sound as ‘deeply human,’ and it doesn’t take long to understand why. His charismatic and fun loving aura bleeds through into every track. The whole album has an inoffensive sound that seeps into the darkest corners of the human soul. Abraham prides his work upon each track holding particular significance within the album and these are executed with luxurious soundscapes that continue to grasp the film-making talents.

Ben Abraham © 2017

Ben Abraham © 2017

Many would struggle to pigeon hole Abraham’s sound, and whilst indie/folk with cinematic tendencies sounds quite vague, it doesn’t do justice to the array of sounds that can be found within Sirens. Ranging from soul/gospel-esque, to mellow, soft indie sounds there are always truths to be found within the core of the tracks between the chords, and especially within the silence. The tracks are filled with emotive phrases, in both lyrical and instrumental contexts.

Perhaps the most admirable quality about Ben Abraham’s work is his light-hearted, fun-loving nature. This was demonstrated through a campaign that was launched asking Sara Bareilles to collaborate with him on Sirens. He’d written a track and thought it was perfect for her, so Abraham did what any driven songwriter would do and wrote a song asking Sara to collobrate with him. Thanks to the power of social media, Abraham joined Sara on a few shows and created a stellar track called “This Is On Me.”

Read Atwood Magazine’s exclusive interview below with Ben Abraham.

Watch: “This Is On Me” – Ben Abraham ft. Sara Bareilles

A CONVERSATION WITH BEN ABRAHAM

Atwood Magazine: The first time I heard your music live was such an incredibly humbling experience, what does Sirens mean to you?

Ben Abraham: Firstly – thank you! Sirens is the culmination of my first few years pursuing music. You can hear me growing up over the course of the album and the songs are all creative signposts from these formative years for me as an artist. I’m really proud of the work and glad that I was able to work with the team I did to pull it off.

I think I’m always going to think of Sirens as a kind of monument to my creative adolescence as an artist.

How did you go about the songwriting process for the album?

Ben Abraham: The album was unique in that nothing was written for the album, rather it was about going back through my catalogue of songs and picking the ones that felt the most important in summing up that era. All up I had about 40 songs to choose from that were written over the first 8 years of me as a musician.

Ben Abraham © 2017

Ben Abraham © 2017

What is your favourite track/lyric on the album?

Ben Abraham: Hmm. This is a tough one to answer. There are a few moments I’m very proud of in terms of songwriting. Speak might be my favourite song overall though I’m also very proud of songs like “To Love Someone” and “Songbird.” I really love singing the line “I try to tie you down with synonyms and sad piano sounds” in “Speak.”

When you first began songwriting where did you draw your inspiration from, and has this changed over the years?

Ben Abraham: All my early songs were directly tied to experiences or people in my life. Every song on this album can be attributed to a specific memory or story because that was my relationship with music at the time – as a form of therapy. Nowadays I would say I’ve grown a little more to where I can also write about ideas or hypothetical narratives in a way that I never used to. For better or worse I guess. My recent songwriting doesn’t quite read as much like pages of my journal.

Describe your experience working with Sara Bareilles and how you both connected on a musical level?

Ben Abraham: I think Sara has one of the most beautiful voices in music and also happens to be one of the smartest writers working in pop music. The aesthetics of her music – and the big commercial hits she’s had – might mislead people into thinking she’s a lightweight ‘pop’ writer, but you just have to listen a little deeper to the stories she tells in her lyrics and the way she turns a phrase to realise what a sharp mind she has. I can’t believe I get to say I worked with someone like that on my first album.

I had the idea for the song ‘This Is On Me’ (which at the time was called Wrecking Ball…until another song of that title came out, ugh!) and I knew I wanted a duet wherein both parties take responsibility for the end of a relationship but I also knew I wanted ‘her’ to be written by a girl.

I sent the song minus a second verse to Sara and asked her to finish it off. She sent back a full verse that matched all of my lines and I got the idea to split it up and do the overlapping part. So I made a few chops and changes, sent it back to her and she loved it.

Unfortunately we didn’t get to sing it together. She tracked her vocals straight to GarageBand and emailed us the files. The wonders of the modern world!

Ben Abraham © 2017

Ben Abraham © 2017

How did early experiences with music and songwriting influence your turn toward a music career?

Ben Abraham: I grew up in church and cut my teeth writing congregational choruses. That kind of writing is fascinating because there are so many parameters to work within. It needs to be singable, it needs to make sense, it’s function over poetry and it needs to be familiar.

I think this is why some of my songs have unusual structural qualities to them. I Belong To You, To Love Someone, and Speak don’t really have traditional choruses but are almost more hymn-like in their structure. And then choruses like Collide, Time and You And Me are just good old fashioned big choruses.

My parents were also folk musicians, so we grew up in an environment of music that was always pretty separated from things on trend. Lots of classic albums, lots of Chicago (the band not the musical!) and Beatles.

I never felt the need to be the coolest person in the room with music because I grew up in an environment that saw music as being more about family and community and expression. These are all values that are still heavily a part of my music now.

Watch: “You and Me” – Ben Abraham


Yet it seems you also have an avid interest in filmmaking, do you wish to return to this one day?

Ben Abraham: Film is still in many ways my first love. I studied screenwriting and fell in love with narrative – finding it, understanding it, analysing it, telling it. I write songs with this kind of approach. This isn’t always a good thing – sometimes I get too literal…but I guess you also have to lean into your strengths.

I’d love to get back involved with film some day or tv is also a super fascinating narrative form right now. Obviously scoring a film or show would be awesome but I’d also love to write, direct and even perform on screen some time. Telling stories. That’s my jam.

Do you have any advice to up and coming singer/songwriters?

Ben Abraham: I have to keep reminding myself why I’m doing this. One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that not everyone is trying to do the same thing. Some singers want instagram hits. Some singers want the biggest audience possible. Some singers want to make art, some singers want to make money. All of these apply to songwriters too.

I’m the type of artist where even if everyone stopped listening I would still pick up an instrument, sit in a dark room and sing to myself because that’s my relationship with music. Reminding myself of this has been important as I find my way through a career because sometimes people tell you things like “you should do this because you’ll make so much money!” and it’s ok to say “I don’t want to do that, and that’s ok because money was never the end goal.”

It’s just so easy to lose your way now that the music industry has become such big business again.

I think the best thing a singer or songwriter (or both) can do for the world is learn who they are and then learn how to use your art to communicate that to the world. We need more people who know how to tell their story like that, no matter how cool or uncool it is at the time.

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Ben Abraham © 2017

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Sirens – Ben Abraham

cover photo © WILK