A few months ago, I featured an album from a popular Seattle busker by the name of Ben Fisher. His debut album, Heavy Boots & Underwoods, is a great list of songs written and sung by Ben and is somewhat reminiscent of the folk singers of the past but done in his own style. And, although Ben is not as well-known outside of Seattle, his star is quickly rising. Recently, he did a live acoustic performance on Seattle’s KEXP radio station and will be one of the featured acts at Seattle’s Folk Festival‘s winter concert event at Columbia City Theater on Saturday, December 10th.
So, as Ben gains more recognition, I thought I’d better score an interview with the man. You can read it below. It’s actually entertaining and I guarantee you’ll enjoy reading it.
CFM: When and how did you first become interested in music? When did you realize music was what you wanted to do?
BF: My parents started me on classical piano at a very young age, but I wasn’t particularly interested in it. It bored me, and I would sneak into the kitchen to knock a few minutes off the stove timer that my mom set for me when I was practicing. I started playing vihuela (a Mexican guitar that I played with a rounded back and 5 nylon strings) in a mariachi band when I was living in Atlanta, and I used my mom’s classical guitar to practice because I couldn’t take the vihuela home with me. I taught myself some chord progressions on it and started listening to my dad’s Dylan and Springsteen and Neil Young albums at around the same time, probably when I was in eighth or ninth grade.
I realized music is what I wanted to do the first time I saw a video of Dylan playing live in 1966. The footage of him playing during that era is pure magic. How could anybody not want to do that?!
CFM: Describe your experiences in and with music thus far. How does it feel to get the kind of recognition you have been receiving?
BF: It’s like being patted on the back for eating your favorite food or watching your favorite movie. That’s not to say I’m ungrateful though, I’m completely and utterly thankful that people enjoy my music, and making cold hard cash when I play blows my mind.
CFM: How has busking helped with your music and career? Why do you prefer busking to performing in clubs?
BF: Busking has helped me develop my voice — my literal singing voice. I’ve gone from sounding like a bad Dylan imitator with a head cold to having my own bellow-y voice which you can hear a block and a half away. When I busk at farmers markets, the other buskers hate me because I drown them out and they have to steer clear of me. Busking prepares you for playing in front of people whereas practicing in your room doesn’t.
I wouldn’t necessarily say I prefer busking to playing shows, but I’m definitely more familiar with it. One thing that I enjoy about busking is not having to use microphones. They scare the hell out of me. I like being able to control my sound rather than leaving it up to technology. Another thing I like about busking is the 2 or 3 year olds who are mesmerized (or petrified) by me and refuse to leave when their parents try to drag them away. I love seeing the elderly people who dance in their wheelchairs to my versions of “Folsom Prison Blues” or “The Weight” at farmers markets. The 80-90 year-old crowd don’t generally make it out to my shows, but they roll down the sidewalk in packs.
CFM: As part of the Seattle music scene, how has the city affected your music and development as a musician? What have you contributed to Seattle, its streets, and its music?
BF: As many musically literate people know, the Seattle music scene is extremely vibrant and phenomenally rich. When you’re a musician living in Seattle, you’re surrounded by musicians who inspire you and challenge you. I thought my album was great when it was all done. Then I heard Bryan John Appleby’s new album and Kelli Schaefer’s and Noah Gundersen’s, and I thought mine was complete crap. When you’re immersed in a group of people that have talent pouring out of their ears, it demands that you work harder to keep up with the pack.
People like to joke that I write too many songs about fish. Hell, there’s a salmon on the cover of my album. If I was still living in dusty old Atlanta, where I grew up, I almost surely wouldn’t be writing nautical songs like “Cast Your Line” and “For Hiram M. Chittenden”, the latter of which is named for the Ballard Locks here in Seattle. Seattle is a beautiful town and the landscape has found its way into some of my songs.
There are a hundreds of great bands in Seattle, but when I listen to some of them, it seems like they don’t consider lyrics to be a priority. I pride myself on my lyrics, and I think that I add a lyrical presence to Seattle’s music.
CFM: Describe the music that you create and your songwriting process. How often do you write? What inspires you to write, make music, and perform?
BF: I think it was John Prine who said something along the lines of “If given the choice of getting a hot dog or writing a song, I will always go get a hot dog.” That’s me. I love making music but I hate forcing it. Songs hit me; I don’t seek them out. A specific line (which usually winds up in the song’s chorus) will slap me in the face at the dentist’s office, or at dinner, or on the bus. I write when I have something that’s been bouncing around in my head, which could be seven times a week or not for a whole month. The songs I write have to do with what I’m up to at the time as well. I took a class about Mystical Islamic Literature at the University of Washington last quarter and found myself writing all sorts of songs that sounded like they were written in Oman 1,400 years ago.
For example, my song “Cast Your Line” came from listening to a lot of Dylan and a lot of Mark Knopfler simultaneously. The first line, “Where she leads me, I do not know” is from a Dylan song that never got released. The second line “But it’s fishing season, and it’s time to go” was my riff on Mark Knopfler’s “The Trawlerman’s Song.” Then after I pilfered ideas from two of my idols, I made it my own.
I’m inspired to make music every time I see a great show (I saw Richard Thompson a few weeks ago; he’s 62 and his fingers are as limber as they were 40 years ago) or watch a great music documentary (every time I need inspiration, I’ll watch a recording of Springsteen & The E Street Band and that gets me going again).
CFM: Discuss the recording process for your first full-length album, Heavy Boots & Underwoods. Explain your feelings and what it’s like to have your music heard not only by the people of Seattle, but nationwide.
BF: I met a Seattle singer-songwriter named Gabriel Mintz around this time last year. He’s a great guy who I’ve played a few shows with. He introduced me to his friend Bradford Button who plays bass in a band called Whalebones and also has a recording studio. I recorded my album with him. I went into it thinking that it’d be just a solo album with guitar and vocals, maybe a little harmonica. However, Brad cut me a deal, and I had enough money to spend more time than I expected in the studio, so I started adding more instruments onto the songs. Gabe sang on a few tracks, Dylan Rieck played cello, and I played a bunch of instruments that I don’t actually know how to play.
I sell a lot of CDs when I busk, but the first time I sold a copy of my album on Bandcamp to a stranger, I thought it must have been some sort of computer error. The first thing that comes to my mind is the rapid globalization of this day and age, but the internet has helped independent musicians get their music out there in ways that didn’t exist 30 years ago, which is definitely a step forward for unsigned bands.
CFM: Which musicians do you admire? Why?
BF: I love Townes Van Zandt and Ryan Adams and Tom Waits, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I admire any of them. I admire Josh Ritter. First of all, he’s obscenely talented, but I respect him because on a regular basis he’ll stand for hours outside the venue after his show and talk to the folks that came to see him. You talk to him for five minutes and feel like you’ve known him for your entire life. He’s a guy who has made it; he’s been on Letterman, and Springsteen goes to his shows as a fan, but he’s completely down to earth.
I have a friend whose name is Brandon Decker who lives in Arizona. He’s a singer-songwriter and he tours all over the damn country. For some reason, before I met him I thought touring was something that was done exclusively by musicians with record deals and tour buses, but when I met Decker, I realized that all you needed was the motivation and enough gas in your tank. I admire him because he gives up the day-to-day comforts that we have like sleeping in your own bed every night to play his music for complete strangers.
CFM: What are your future plans? What would you most like to accomplish with your music and in your career as a musician?
BF: I plan to graduate from the UW with a degree in Arabic, just as a back up. I’m going to record another album in 2012, probably the spring or early summer. I’d like to tour, either next summer, or if not, the summer after that. I’d like to be able to make music a personally fulfilling but also financially sustainable career. I’ve already worked at Starbucks. I don’t want to go that route again.