Here’s a clip of Burt-Bacharach-Brian-Wilson-Carole-King-Todd-Rundgren classic pop inheritor, and singer-songwriter from Montreal Ben Wilkins. It’s the video for his new single “Through To You” a tune featured on last year’s Back Of My Head EP , and now a shining gem on a full-length debut record of gems, 2011’s Ben Wilkins.
Formally trained in music at Montreal’s McGill University, and the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Wilkins built up his skills in playing music for the sheer fun of it by developing a solid base of composition, singing, harmonic theory, and some arranger’s chops into the mix. A love of AM radio singles of decades past endured all the while.
As a result, his approach to arranging and recording involves a seriously sumptuous and lushly-realized sound that pulls from orchestral pop traditions which gelled and became immortal at the end of the ’60s. But, here we’re reminded that just because a sound is closely associated with an era, it doesn’t mean it’s stuck there. As such, what we’ve got here is the kind of thoroughly enjoyable contemporary pop record that we’re always complaining never gets made anymore. The decade in which it was made doesn’t really matter.
This is classic pop.
After receiving a preview copy of the record, I spoke with Ben via email about the making of this song, the video ,the album, about the spirit of classic pop, and the elusive idea that music may or may not be the universal language.
The Delete Bin: With a song like “Through To You”, and on other songs on the record, a lot of thought was put into the business of arrangement. How has being your own arranger, and having a solid background in that area freed you up during the recording process?
Ben Wilkins: It’s definitely given me more control. I didn’t have to hand my songs off and see what happens and I was able to use my imagination right through to the end of recording. Arranging and songwriting are different things but they sometimes come at the same time. I sometimes hear the arrangement of a song before it’s finished writing. I’m still learning a lot about both.
DB: You’ve made an incredibly warm record, with lush strings, woodwinds, brass, vibes, piano (of course) and even a small choir that really bring the songs to life. In an age of ‘Garage Band’ and other admittedly useful tools for many, do you feel that your approach to traditional arranging and recording is becoming a lost art where independently made pop music is concerned?
BW: Anybody can make a record these days, and that’s a good thing. Unfortunately many of them, including releases by the major labels, sound harsh and squashed. Many labels think if the album is louder, people will notice it more.
My Engineer/co-producer Pascal Shefteshy and I consciously did it differently – avoiding many production methods that have become conventional. Ironically, this caused the orchestral instruments to pop out more and the whole album to be more dynamic.
DB: Let’s talk a bit about the video for “Through To You”. What was it like being involved in making it?
BW: That was a hilarious experience. I had to sing in slow motion to the song that was playing three times slower than normal, then the footage was sped back up to normal speed. If I sneezed, or blinked, or made any jerky motion it looked strange once sped up, so I had to practice for a couple days.
BW: The video was shot in the cafe where I used to do a weekly show. They have six hours of live music a day, and lots of it isn’t indie rock. Montreal is a great place to develop and make music. You don’t have to sound like the signature Montreal bands to benefit from the enormous talent pool.
Having said that, indie rock dominates the local scene and I don’t fit into that. For that I do get some flack, but I’m OK being a bit of an odd duck. It probably helps solidify what I’m doing.
DB In addition to writing and recording your own work, you’ve also been involved in the work of other artists, particularly as an arranger (Bran Van 3000, Misstress Barbara). What’s your primary motivation for keeping your hand in creative processes which are driven by another artist, or group?
BW: Collaborating is always an interesting learning experience. I find when I get in on someone else’s creative process it opens up new perspectives and I inevitably learn more about my own. And honestly it’s a welcomed change when someone else has the reigns and responsibility and I can just show up, do my thing and walk away.
DB: You’ve mentioned elsewhere (and I agree) that there is something special about that late ’60s and early ’70s orchestral pop sound from which your music draws. I’ve talked to other artists who say the same, and they all suggest that the sound seems to build the melancholia and the nostalgia right into it. When you approached your album, what was it that kept things on track to bring your songs in line with that same spirit?
BW: I pretty much kept the production process in line with that same spirit as records made back then. More rehearsals with the band before recording and less need for editing after. Most of the songs on the record were recorded with no click track. There are moments, the chorus of “Soup For One” for example, where the tempo changes on purpose. It’s pretty impossible to achieve naturally if you’re working to a grid.
Whenever it made sense, I had recording sessions with groups of musicians, so the string parts were recorded by a quartet playing their parts together. Same thing for the brass. It’s harder to make a record like that, because you lose some of your post-production safety net, but we were heavily rehearsed and willing to take the risk.
DB: You spent some time studying music in China. What were some of your most important takeaways as a musician, taken out of your usual cultural context?
BW: I learned in China that music is not necessarily a universal language. It’s very cultural and its ability to affect you is related to your individual reference point. If you’ve never heard Chinese opera, you may have a tough time feeling anything on your first few listens.
Some of the people I played music for had never heard The Beatles, and when I played them music I was working on they said “I listen but I don’t understand what to feel”. It’s all part of the beauty of music. It’s a big ocean and there are many places to drop an anchor.