Ahead of the September release of a retrospective album compiled from his first three releases, we caught up with Illinois based singer-songwriter Ben Bedford for a chat about his music, coping with the new normal and his feline companion, Darwin.
FT: You’re about to release a new retrospective album called ‘Portraits’. Tell me a little about it and, in particular, why this material never got an official European release until now.
BB: Sure! ‘Portraits’ is a retrospective release that covers material from my first 3 albums. It does not include material from my 4th and 5th albums. In my head, the first three albums really go together in terms of style, content, etc. I also recorded all three of them with my friend Chas Williams. He’s the musical wizard playing resonator, lead guitar, banjo, etc. Also, the amazing drummer Peter Young plays on all three. Three different bass players, but all amazing: Ron de la Vega, David Spicher, and Adam Gardner add their touches.
And, good question on the lack of European releases for those three. I think it was a combination of factors. All three were promoted to radio and press in Europe and the U.K. but none of them secured a European or U.K. record label like this retrospective has, being on Cavalier Recordings in Europe and released by Proper in the U.K.
Probably, part of the reason for not securing a label was simply that I was inexperienced and did not even know how to go about doing that. In the states, I was on Waterbug Records based in the Chicago area, which is not far from me. That happened after meeting Andrew Calhoun at a Folk Alliance conference. The same situation just did not occur with a record label in Europe, I guess.
FT: I’m guessing that ‘Migrant Mother’ is based on the Dorothea Lange dustbowl-era photograph. Do you feel that the human side of the song has become more relevant today as governments around the world dehumanise migrants for political gain?
BB: You are absolutely right. It is based on that photo. And you’re right too, that I wanted to capture the human side of things. Unfortunately, I do think the song is relevant. Here in the U.S., the government is committing crimes against humanity. The situation is atrocious.
FT: ‘Lincoln’s Man’ and ‘Twenty One’ are songs that find their roots in the Civil War era and both document the human cost of war on the individual and their families. Were you deliberately looking to do that with those songs?
BB: I can’t remember if I had a specific purpose in mind with the writing of those two songs. I think, if I can remember where my head was when I wrote them, that I was simply trying to tell the stories. But, as often happens, songs become imbued with meaning after they’re written. And I suppose one could say that they get imbued with purpose. Or, they could be. But yeah, I think I just wanted to tell the stories.
But, I also think it is fair to say that I’m probably consciously and unconsciously trying to get as much of that “human” side of things in the songs as possible. I want the songs to be real, you know? I want them to be authentic, whether they are historical fact or not. I want the listener to hear a “true” story, if that makes sense.
FT: You appear to have an interest in, and understanding of American history. Is it a subject that’s close to your heart?
BB: It is. I’ve always been interested in history. I studied history at The University of Illinois in Urbana and I graduated with a degree in history. I think it would be fair to say that I like old stuff!
FT: You have a very vivid and descriptive way of songwriting. I’m thinking of ‘Amelia’ when I say that. While the subject matter of the song is obvious, the way you use landscapes, food, and even engine noise to describe the human aspect of the journey, it feels almost like stepping into a novel. Where do you think that attention to detail comes from and what are your influences as a songwriter?
BB: Thank you! I read a lot. I always have. I think that helps. I can think of a lot of influences on my writing. Many of those influences are other songwriters, of course, but many are also novelists, poets, and writers of nonfiction. Speaking of landscape and the central role it plays in many of my songs, that can probably, in some ways, be attributed to writers like William Least Heat-Moon. WLHM is brilliant in the way he captures a place or a landscape. I’m striving for something like that, I suppose. And I’m often thinking about how to enhance the environment of a song by including sensory details. For example, what noises, smells, tastes, etc are occurring and how can I incorporate those into the work so the listener feels more immersed. Is it hot? Is it cold? You get the idea.
FT: Another intriguing song in the collection is ‘John the Baptist’. What’s the story behind it?
BB: There is a sort of funny story behind that song. I actually wrote it for a Presbyterian Minister friend for an advent Christmas sermon he was giving. He wanted to have some original music to accompany the story of John the Baptist in the wilderness. I was excited to try my hand at writing something but I wanted to make sure he was okay with the fact that I’m an atheist. Haha! He was a very good sport about it and I played the song for the first time in public at that service in 2011. And, as it turned out, I really liked the song. I had also recently heard an interview with the poet, W.S. Merwin, and he spoke about the present actually being the very recent past. That’s where I got the idea for that one little section of the song.
FT: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your plans for 2020 and how are you adapting to the new normal?
BB: Yeah, the pandemic has really tilted the world for a lot of us and touring musicians are not an exception. The last concert I played was March 2nd, I think. Then, my other concerts and tours for March and April began to cancel. Then, May and June cancelled. And now, the rest of 2020 has been cancelled. Theoretically, my next tour is in January of 2021. And, of course, that is not guaranteed. The fact that the United States has so poorly responded to this crisis makes certainty a difficult thing to come by.
I’m hoping that an effective and affordable vaccine comes out within the next year, so that musicians can get back on the road and play concerts. But, as we’ve seen, it is difficult to predict what is going to happen. If the U.S. and the Trump administration had responded like much of the rest of the world, we’d be in better shape here. But, the Trump administration is incompetent, corrupt, and hell-bent on denying science-based research, so here we are. It’s August and Covid cases are rising in the U.S. It is quite frightening.
To deal with this new normal, I have started a Patreon Page, which has been quite enjoyable, so far. And it has helped give me some income. I also have a class of 5 wonderful guitar students that I continue to teach via video lessons and Zoom. And, the time at home with Darwin the cat, has allowed me to do a lot of writing. That is the silver lining of this, I suppose.
FT: You share your recent promotional images with Darwin. What’s his story and how does it feel to be almost upstaged by him in the photographs?
BB: Darwin is quite the fine fellow. There is no doubt about that. Haha! When he and I first joined forces, he was just retiring from a career as a model, so it really isn’t a surprise that he upstages me in the photos. He just really understands how to make the camera work for him. He’s a natural. Self-consciousness never gets in his way. And Kari Bedford is a pretty fantastic photographer, too. So, she knows how to capture Darwin’s essence.
FT: Thanks for your time and stay safe.
BB: Thank you, Gerry. And likewise, stay safe and healthy!
‘Portraits’ features twelve songs drawn from Ben Bedford’s first three albums: ‘Lincoln’s Man’, ‘Land of the Shadows’, and ‘What We Lost’ and is due for release on 4th September 2020 on Cavalier Recordings.