IT would be easy enough to throw jealousy…
the way of Benjamin Stevie. The Edmonton-born, Toronto-based songwriter has a very spiritual and relaxed approach to music: in the sense, he allows the environment and landscape around him to influence his music. That is how the seeds for Yellow Bird - his new single - were planted. I learn more about the song’s gestation and his forthcoming album, Cara Cara. He talks about American under Trump and the music he was raised on.
I ask him about the music scene in Canada and some of the artists he recommends; what is was like recording in the idyllic spendour of Joshua Tree – a desert studio not far from the iconic spot – and what kind of gigs are approaching.
Hey, Ben. How are you? How has your week been?
I’m great, thanks!
The week has been really beautiful. I played my first show with this new band and it was really special. Toronto is really a special place in the summer and this summer has been incredibly revelatory - and I’m overjoyed to be surrounded by so many beautiful people.
For those new to your music, can you introduce yourself, please?
I’ve been playing music in various projects since I was thirteen; starting in the Punk scene in Edmonton - where I grew up - I played in the same band for twelve years. I moved to Toronto around ten years ago, where I started to do stuff on my own.
While it took me a while to find my stride with the solo stuff; I feel really happy with where it’s all at these days. In the last few years, I’ve been able to connect with so many beautiful people and had a wonderful time doing it.
PHOTO CREDIT: Anthony Tuccitto
Can you tell me about your new song, Yellow Bird? What is the story behind it?
Sometimes with lyrics, the melodies and words just come and you kind of find out what they’re saying, afterwards. The song, to me, is about shedding falsehood, ego; attachment and gaining freedom through that. It was definitely a reflection of my own personal experience.
Our unique experience of this existence is not to be defined and measured as it has maybe been told to us. But, the truth can never fully be told.
How did you come to work in the desert near Joshua Tree? What was the experience like?
So. I had come to the high desert in California after visiting my parents in British Columbia - where I came up with the first lines of the song while strumming on their deck.
A yellow bird flew past and I just started singing the first couple lines. When I got to California, I was a bit nervous as Adam and I had never worked together - and I didn’t know if I was going to bring the noise you know.
The location of the studio was a windy, expansive plateau on top of the desert mountains - right in between Joshua Tree and Big Bear. It was serene, magical and a bit foreboding (and harsh). I can still remember the feeling of being up there as inspiring a sort of calm and sense of solitude that forced me to evaluate my life in a real way. Also, in places like that; music resonates in a clearer way than in the city.
The song came out of those hills and right through me. That’s the best way I can explain it. Haha.
Your album, Cara Cara, will be released on 22nd September. It seems like it will be very eclectic. What themes are addressed within?
Yeah. The album is a very eclectic mix of music that really came together organically.
After being in so many situations in the ‘industry’ - that were looking to control the creativity and felt like they were choking me out - I was happy to kind of freely create with no real agenda other than getting the work done. I guess, in a sense, the lyrics reflect that energy as well. Obviously, there are songs about love, loss; joy and pain - you know...the basic stuff.
But, I think there is some clarity to it in a way for me. The themes, overall, are about appreciating where you are in the knowledge that you’re only here and now; never there and then - finding peace and truth through acceptance and love.
What sort of emotions and ideas compel your music? How important is the environment and natural energy of the location to your creativity?
I look to cultivate a sense of truth and light in my life which, I guess, could be called spiritual - and music without heart is just noise. I do my best to put that in it because the music that touches me is always wholehearted. The environment and landscape inevitably enter into the music - simply by the impressions of your daily life being filtered through you at any given time and place.
I do my best to remain empty and still in the mind and find when I can get to that the inspiration can flow through much easier. Humility and honesty are goals I strive for every day - and I find with that comes just a little more peace.
Tell me how the album came other and what the experience was like.
The album was recorded in a bunch of different places over about a year but the bulk of it was at one studio in Toronto, over the summer. We would go in with either a rough idea of a song - or a full song and work out the arrangements (etc.) in the studio. Different people would be involved on a day, other producers; players (etc.) who would lend their ideas as well.
A few times, we would inevitably come up with an idea on the spot and work on that. Like Mind Movie; I just started playing this riff one day, and for three days straight, we worked on the whole thing until it was done. It was amazing to have that luxury of time in the studio to try ideas out and be able to realize them without too much stress.
Also, I guess you could say we did a lot of post-production making a lot of small changes or additions to things - after the actual studio work was done. All in all; it was one of the best times I’ve ever had making music.
PHOTO CREDIT: Anthony Tuccitto
What do you make of the situation with Trump and the way America is headed? How do you assess the current political structure in the U.S.?
I grew up in a politicized household and in a highly-politicized music scene where I was exposed early on to ‘radical’ ideas which I think of more as common sense, humanistic ideas - so I pay some attention to what is going on. For myself, I tend look at the longer arc of things more than what’s going on day-to –day - so I see the current situation as more symptomatic of the downfall of this tragically misled society.
We’ve lived on borrowed time for so long and the people have been fed so many lies for so long that we’re physically, socially; culturally and spiritually malnourished- starving to make some sense of things; so we easily fall victim to divisive hateful political messages. If I could say anything, I would say anger breeds hate on both sides. But, the more productive and powerful thing would be to turn disgust and anger into empathy and love.
How musically-minded were your parents? What is your first memory of music?
I remember my parents had Whitney Houston’s first album when it came out - and I have this vivid memory of being about five and dancing in the living room with these girls my mom babysat. I lost my mind and felt entirely free in that moment.
I guess it was probably How Will I Know, as that’s the most dance-y but, really, that whole album has a very special place in my heart. I’ve been looking for that moment of freedom and musical connection ever since.
Have you got any gigs coming up? Any plans on coming to the U.K.?
Doing some shows this side of the world in the next little while but I definitely have my eye on the U.K. and Europe – so, fingers-crossed, I’ll be there before long.
Who are the new artists you recommend we check out?
I live in my little box where I don’t see too much of what’s happening musically these days but my friend, Matty Tavares - who produced some of the record - just released the first single, Embarrassed, off of his new album.
Hmmm…also, Charlotte Day Wilson is another Toronto artist making some beautiful stuff right now.
IN THIS PHOTO: Charlotte Day Wilson/PHOTO CREDIT: Devon Little
What is the advice you would offer to new artists emerging?
I’d say: do your best to connect with and develop your own intuitive sense of the music. Work at it and be as honest as you can with yourself; yet, gentle with yourself at the same time.
You’re not going to be amazing at certain things at first but, if you cultivate the connection between your heart and your music, one day, hopefully, you have a garden full of beautiful flowers.
Follow Benjamin Stevie
PHOTO CREDIT: Anthony Tuccitto