AAA Music Approved: Ben Osborn
aaamusic | On 21, Feb 2019
Who are you and where are you from?
Ben Osborn. I was born in Oxford, in the UK. I was in a band there, where I’m calling from – the result of obsessively reading Raymond Carver and listening to country music and the Pixies. As a student I started writing music for theatre and film; this became my job alongside working for an anti-racism campaign, a trade union, various museums and writing film scripts for an insane old Swiss director while struggling to survive London. I moved to Bristol and focused on theatre and libretti for a while, as well as writing with the folk group Hands of the Heron. In 2016 I ran away to Berlin to start a free music school for refugees and concurrently began to establish myself as a solo artist, releasing a solo EP on Wanda Portal Records and a book of poems and drawings on Moot Press. Then I met Alex Stolze, the experimental violinist and producer. He took a leap of faith and signed me to his fantastic label Nonostar Records. He heard something that was growing in my sound – a link between my love of 20th century classical music, ambient electronica and poetic folk balladry. He let the sound grow up, brought it out of the DIY corners where it was hiding.
What inspired you to get into music?
Raymond Carver called his influences “fires” – because there are things that make you have to write, not just reasons that you want to. For me, it was illness – I had a chronic illness through my teenage years that prevented me from fully engaging in the social world around me. In those years I taught myself the piano and guitar, with help from my sisters and my friends, and I read and I wrote.
Literature is always an influence; recently it’s been the Psalms, and I’ve been collating various translations. I felt they were a useful link between two sides of my ancestry – the fierce Christianity of my father’s parents and the hidden Jewish heritage from my mother’s side. My genre is poetic chamber pop – you can hear the influence of folk, electronica and classical music, but the poetry of the lyrics is central.
What have you done?
As a composer for theatre and film, I’ve won multiple awards and worked in some venues I love – the Young Vic in London, Madrid’s Matadero, Gotenberg’s Folkteatern among others. As a librettist and lyricist, I’m proud to have been able to work with my favourite composer Josephine Stephenson for many years. Our collaborations continue to tour with the ensemble Hermes Experiment, a very unusual classical group.
The new releases, produced by Alex Stolze, are what I am most excited about right now. Our first single ‘Fast Awake’ came out in the winter, and I’m very pleased that many people around the world continue to connect to that song; our next, ‘A Bridge of Starlings’, is was released on February 8th.
What are you like live?
I like to arrange my music around how I am feeling and whom I collaborate with. Last year I toured with Hands of Heron and we arranged my music around their vocal harmonies and acoustic instrumentation; recently I’ve been joined on stage by some of my favourite Berlin artists Rowan Coupland, Ignatz Höch and Barbara Cuesta. The set I am currently touring is very electronic, with myself and Alex Stolze operating synthesisers and drum machines alongside live piano, mandolin and violin.
My first mini-tour supporting Alex Stolze and Anne Müller (Erased Tapes) was very special; the concerts were nice but it was the time they spent teaching me East-Berlin slang that I really loved.
What makes you different?
This first record is about shaping a particular sound and telling a certain story. The sound we have been making is quite unique; layers of voices and strings combined with analogue synthesisers, prepared piano and rhythms built from field recordings and old drum machines. There are sounds of everywhere I have lived in the music: the dubby Bristol echo, a sense of dislocation and alienation I associate with Thom Yorke and Oxford, the driving kick drum of Berlin techno. A lot of care goes into the song lyrics and poems. I write about borders, about anxiety, about grief. These are always in progress, waiting to be shaped by the next performance or the next session. This is a way to stay honest. I think people listen because they are looking for some kind of honesty; honesty implies truth, although it doesn’t guarantee it. I think many people are looking for truth of some kind.
Physical vs Downloading vs Streaming…How do you listen to music?
I listen to vinyl and sometimes cassettes. I am not organised enough to be a “collector” of such things, but I live surrounded by piles of books and records. I also use Spotify; at the moment this is where most people hear my music. I’m glad there’s a place that they can hear it, but I think all of these things are changing very quickly and we shouldn’t assume anything is solid right now.
What have you been listening to?
I have been too wrapped up in last year to hear anything of this year. 2018 had some wonderful releases. I loved Ex:Re’s debut. This is on a loop in my brain at the moment; it’s very understated and raw, and lyrically very strong. Also a new electronic artist, A Psychic Yes, had a great debut; another British Berliner. He makes these exciting soundscapes, at once chilled and frantic.
What are your aspirations for the future?
My album is out on April 19th. I am touring Germany, the Netherlands and Poland in February; in March I will be doing a residency in Thailand and playing some concerts there, and then there’s the release tour (UK, France, Germany) in early May. Everything is about to happen.
Questions answered by: Ben Osborn…