Ben Featherstone has just released his debut album ‘Prisoner to the Wind’, an album some ten years in the making. Ben tells us more about the recording and songs on the album, along with what inspired him to start playing music and meeting Russell Crowe in a bar…
The songs on ‘Prisoner to the Wind’ are very personal ones. Did you have any doubts/concerns about sharing your feelings and experiences in these songs?
I was full of anxiety when I first started singing my own songs live, I used to be sick before I performed and if I had a gig in the evening I would start drinking whiskey in the morning and all day to try and keep the dustbin lid on my nerves. If I ever played a song to someone and admitted it was mine I would feel like a fox caught down an alleyway with nowhere to turn.
Most of the time I would disown my songs and make out they were obscure covers until I met the most fantastic singer songwriter in Winchester called Matt Blake who has become a close friend; when I saw the way he dragged his songs behind him like a broken apple cart and sang them as though the topic they were about had only just happened, it gave me the confidence to take responsibility for my songs like they were my animals and I was a travelling circus – ashamed I lived in a trailer but proud of taming the tigers. Now I hope people listen to my songs when they are going through life’s inevitable challenging times and it helps them a little or maybe a lot because they connect with the brutal honesty hidden between the lyrics.
“Prisoner to the Wind” is a metaphor for not being able to control the big things in life, it is not necessarily a bad thing, and the wind can blow us into the arms of someone who we fall in love with or meet an incredible person with whom we have a special connection. Sometimes we have to walk around with our eyes open and our chest out and see what the wind brings us.
You have a number of guest musicians on the album including Dan Hawkins and Robert Webb. Did you approach them with a specific part in mind for them and did they improvise their parts, or keep to music you had written?
I managed to gather a troop of these fine musicians mainly through a commission I had for MUSTO to write the music for their cinema campaign, Jon Howells (drums) must have the patience of Job for working with me, none of my songs have click tracks because I like the free movement of timing like a river. Jon introduced me to Dan Hawkins (Rod Stewart, Katy Melua) and Robert Webb (Keys, pads) who played on the Musto advert.
All three of them have their own approach, I barely gave any direction to them and trusted their experience and creativity, the only thing I would do with the drums would be to use metaphor for the timbre of the drums, I said to Jon “can we make the floor tom sound like a dead zebra being hit with a piece of 4×2”, he either understood or just cracked on and thought I was crazy like everyone else who works with me does!
Dan Hawkins is very intuitive and the only direction I gave him was on ‘Chasing Stars’ I wanted to get an 80’s fretless sound in certain points, you can barely hear his line on ‘the Octopus song’ he sent it to me and just said ‘this is all it needs’ and he was correct.
Robert Webb is an intergalactic musician who I am convinced was beamed down to earth from another planet, he understands music in another dimension, when I first sent him the stems for the MUSTO advert he got back to me in two hours with five finished tracks that needed barely any editing. I’ve got to mention his Hammond Organ solo in ‘Fantasmogloria’ I sent him the skeleton of the song to his studio and a few days later he sent me through the Hammond solo with a note saying ‘hope this is ok’. I put it on and heard it for the first time in my head I was thinking; ‘is this ok!? It’s one of the best Hammond Organ solos I have ever heard!’ I fed his solo into a valve guitar amplifier and played the Wah pedal as it oscillated round, this is how it has so much attack and punches through over 70 layers of sounds as if it is the most aggressive track kicking the shit out of the tracks behind it. It still sends shivers down my spine when I listen to it.
A special mention to Jade Woodhouse, she was initially my live cellist, when we play or write music together we are polar opposites, she is super professional, ultra-talented and structured, whereas with me I have not got a clue what chords I’m playing half the time. She deserves a medal for coming away with me to record ‘Octopus Song’ I was not in a very good place and she was like a beacon of light floating around our makeshift studio in a barn in the Cotswolds. The guitar and vocals for Octopus song were recorded at the same time in one single take with no editing, I struggle to listen back to it because I can hear in the back of my voice how desolate I was feeling at the time, Jade layered her cello over my take and suggested she sang a verse, so we wrote lyrics together for the female singing part and she sang them so delicately I can’t think of another singer in the world I would replace her take with it is just perfect for the song and it melts my heart when I listen to it. When we finished the song it snowed outside and we put on some 80’s disco music, had a few drinks and danced around the barn.
Linda Taylor (Art Garfunkel, Tracy Chapman) added a lot of special sauce to the album, she plays a lot of sexy instruments like the slide dobro which adds some lovely timbres, she plays the lead in Emma-Lee and uses volume swells to create the sweeping gentle guitar motions.
Sophie (violin) and Bryony (cello) were the main string players – I don’t have words to describe how happy I am with their work, they transcended my expectations. Sophie is so instinctive, she adds delicate piano parts as well to compliment the strings. They are both genuinely lovely people, they have played with ‘A list’ legends so I was over the moon that they took my music seriously.
‘Ageless Lady’ has a few ‘wow’ moments for the listener, not least the operatic outro in four languages. What inspired that idea?
I had a few of life’s disasters happen at the same time, I think it was the lowest I had ever sank, I did not eat ANYTHING for 24 days – literally nothing, I felt like I was not in the same dimension as everyone else like I was a ghost floating around pubs and bars jotting down poems as they floated through the windows. I flew to Jersey to try and write in isolation but it was really unproductive, I got super drunk with Russell Crowe at a hotel bar, I called him Mel and asked him about Braveheart because I got him mixed up with Gibson! He didn’t correct me until the bar closed!
A doctor phoned me up on day 19 I think a concerned friend had called them, I remember saying to the doctor ‘I have not eaten for 19 days – when I say not eaten the closest I got was I licked a banana and was sick straight away, but the weird thing is I feel totally normal like I do not need food anymore’ he told me ‘beer is the only thing keeping you alive, you need to try and eat before your vitamin levels drop’.
I had a conversation with my wise friend Aleah in Canada and she would not get off the phone until I ate something, I managed to eat half a pack of jelly tots, she stayed on the phone talking to me and it worked, I went to see my friends at a BBQ and it was like an intervention, they would not let me leave until I ate a burnt sausage. I gradually began eating again and the following day instead of being sick the energy turned into ‘Ageless Lady’ and recorded the vocals over the track in one take.
The operatic part at the end was recorded months later, I was trying to work out a guitar solo and I was doing a sound test on the mic and began singing in my operatic voice and it just worked for some reason. The different languages just ‘happened’ can’t explain the thought process behind that, but I had an image in my head of the bleakest thing I could conjure up – looking up at the sentine underneath a ship at night in the North Sea. It translates to:
“Above the ship is the light and the heavens, under the ship it is dark and you cannot be saved” It was recorded in a tunnel with a little stream running through it in Hassocks.
The album has been ten years in the making. Could you take us through a few personal song highlights on the record? E.g. story behind the lyrics, recording process.
I could write a whole book on that question – I’ll condense it down to key points –
I sometimes mention to people I don’t feel like I write my songs, it’s like they blow in the window, they appear at the most awkward times, I’ve been on long walks over the downs before and just had to get back to my car and race home to record the idea, it’s like carrying water cupped in your hand.
Lyrical meanings – sometimes these are ambiguous because a good poet drags the future towards them, I find a lot of the older songs mean different things to me now than they did than when I wrote them. Most of the songs are about love and loss, I’ve had numerous girlfriends in the past get pissed off with me because they think I’m writing about other women or whatever, it’s difficult to explain to people who are not creatives, I’m hoping one day I’ll have a ‘Kathleen Brennan’ in my life I can marry, her and Waits are such an amazing team together.
Musical Personal Highlights –
Hammond Organ solo in Fantasmogloria – epic
The blues part on Fat Mojo Moon at the end – I love that bit it’s really nasty! It’s me playing all the instruments except the organ.
Cold White Snow – I met Nick Cave in Brighton and it was like he planted it in my ear, I literally went home feeling awesome I met one of my hero’s, hit record and made it up as I went along. It was so strange. It was only shortly after his son passed so I had a kind of melting pot of empathetic emotions that day, I cannot begin to comprehend how awful that situation must have been for that family.
Red Light is a blend of two meanings – the red light is the tail light on my ex-girlfriends car after we split up, disappearing into the distance, red is the colour of blood but also love and passion. I knew it was going to be the last time I ever saw her. The chorus is actually about the male suicide epidemic and my friend who was battling a heroin addiction, he overdosed and his brain swelled causing him to lose a lot of his memory. I’ve lost a lot of people I know to suicide. This is my least favourite song on the album I think I could have done better on the chorus.
Chasing Stars – looking out of an aeroplane when you’ve above the clouds, I wrote the lyrics on the aeroplane on a sick bag on my way to see my girlfriend in Brazil because ‘I can’t wrap my arms round a memory’.
Octopus Song – I love Jade’s vocals on this and the raw emotion.
Emma-Lee is a kind of reverse of the typical – WW2 soldier goes to war, dies and his wife does not hear for ages. This is a song about a soldier who is longing to see his love, he misses her terribly, but she passes away while he is stationed and he did not know until he came home to her.
Fantasmogloria has all kinds of crazy shit going on in there, my girlfriend at the time got sent to prison for out staying her visa the line “baby when I get to see your eyes, they seem to say to me, you’re alright” it was about her trying to smile and be happy when I went to visit her in order to mask how awful it was for her, she tried to altruistically spare my feelings because she had such a selfless soul, I could see straight through the veneer though.
Excuses – a short story I wrote about a guy who’s girlfriend dies and he is granted one wish to meet her ghost on the south downs, when the sun rises is when her ghost disappears forever, the guy spends too much time working out how to stop the sun coming up so he tries to summon rain to put out the fire, he tries to throw rocks at it but in the end he just wastes his time and never gets to tell her how he feels. The metaphor of the story is – you cannot control most things in life especially the sun and moon, so if you have a special connection to someone – don’t waste it, let it grow and come from a place of honesty, let love into your life no matter if you have been hurt before.
Red Fern – My friend Amanda passed away suddenly in 2007, she was a wonderful artist and terrible dancer but always kind and deep.
She was always at my gigs supporting me,
Loved my songs and poetry,
A silent midnight train,
I made a song for her,
So she wouldn’t disappear,
Like cardboard in the rain.
The album is recorded using vintage reel to reel and Neumann mics that really gives the music deep, rich sound. What attracts you to using vintage recording equipment? Do modern recording techniques mean less thought and time goes into the the sound of music now, especially as it is so easy to make music today?
Making music is the same as it has always been, recording music has become vastly easier, it’s crazy, but we live in a day where most people accept shit sound, listening to songs though their phone speakers or in a pint glass, it makes me cringe! I was sat in Abbey Road chatting to Andy Walter and Jame Cristopherson about it in the café downstairs. All the effort musicians put into recording and the tens of thousands of pounds worth of equipment it needs to go through to be then played through a phone speaker.
I basically looked at the artists whose production quality I was aiming for, Tom Waits, Neil Young, John Martyn, Nick Drake and they mostly used a really simple line of Neumann mic, NEVE 1073, mixer then reel to reel usually Studer. I figured if I could aim to use this then the only thing that could be shit is the mix or the actual song itself, you could have the best equipment in the world and if your song writing is no good then what’s the point.
I record most of the vocals in mono and decorate around them as though I am mixing in a three dimensional ball, I painstakingly mixed the entire album myself in various locations, barns, attics, bedrooms.
As for analogue versus digital – so to get music into computers and onto CD’s, mp3 etc. it needs to go through an analogue to digital converter, this converts the sound waves into a series of 0’s and 1’s, the more numbers in the line reflects the quality of the digital sound, so the earlier you go to digital the more likely your sound quality will dip as it gets mixed down, analogue however is not made up of 0’s and 1’s it is the real actual waves captured which is why sometimes non-musical people can’t quite put their finger on why a song might seem lacklustre compared to say something from the early 70’s. This is why I refuse to loop anything or use drum machines because it takes nuance away from a song. So I figured if I could capture as much as possible analogue and keep it there until Abbey Road could master it then it would be the highest quality I could achieve, I will release this album on vinyl eventually and then audio perverts will appreciate its richness.
Are you planning any live shows to go along with the album’s release?
I’m performing at the Mid Sussex Americana Festival on 24th August 2019, I will then organise a tour to play isolated village halls or small theatres, and I love to put on a show that’s unique. I will definitely have some select dates with Robbie Webb in the line-up just so I can selfishly enjoy him smash out the Fantasmogloria solo!
Who inspired you to start playing guitar and writing music?
Honestly! I really fancied a girl at school when I was 8 and started writing songs thinking she might hear them and fall in love with me – the first song I ever wrote was called “Coconut Joe” and it was 15 seconds long. When I was 13 I took up the electric guitar because I was convinced if I could learn the guitar solo in ‘Whole Lotta Love’ then all the girls would fancy me – it didn’t work and I’m still trying!
How do you approach writing a piece of music for TV or film? Do you need to see the visuals or can you work off a storyline?
I literally read the script or watch the visual, I imagine myself as the character and try and dream up a song that I think they would be listening to at that point in time, there is probably a mental health label for being able to do that! I sometimes ask directors for images that have nothing to do with the film but evoke the same feeling they are trying to achieve. I wrote all the songs once for a crazy Italian film about alien jellyfish, it won some music award at Cannes film festival and I never got round to accepting it, probably should have gone to the festival to watch the film as well.
Thank you for showing an interest in my music.
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