Ben Noble Q&A
Many people say they’d love to quit their desk job to pursue their true dreams, but not many end up doing it. Ben Noble was one of the rare few who did. After years of obsessing over music, he has recently launched a solo career as a singer-songwriter. Noble’s intimate sound and lullaby-like melodies set him apart in the Twin Cities music scene. His debut album, Whisky Priest, is out now.
The Wake: How did you first discover music? When did it become an important part of your life?
Ben Noble:I grew up with music. My mom was a music teacher, so it was always in the house. I started taking piano lessons when I was super young. In school, I started playing saxophone, and then in eighth grade I started playing guitar. It’s pretty much in my blood! All of my siblings play music, too.
The Wake: What instrument or instruments can you play, if any?
BN:I can play the piano still. And, I play drums—I picked that up in the eighth grade as well. It was kind of neck-and-neck between drums and guitar for a while. And then, yeah, I also produced. So, all of the computer stuff, which is also a sort of instrument. That’s what I do most now.
The Wake: Was there a specific person from your youth who inspired you to pursue music?
BN: There’s a musician whose name is Michael Gungor…. Just an absolutely insane guitar player. Pretty much whenever one of his albums would come out I would just sit with it for months and just learn all the parts, and totally nerd out.
The Wake: Is he local?
BN: I actually grew up in Colorado and I met him in Denver. I just hardcore stalked his music for like five years, beginning part way through high school. It’s kind of a pattern for me to find something I like and then leech onto it way too much. I feel like as an artist, being able to essentially leech on to somebody is great because then you start to see music like them, and the world like them. It works its way down really deep into your soul. Then you can write music with these influences without even thinking about it.
The Wake: What was it about Michael Gungor’s music that tied you in?
BN: Honestly, it was just the way that he was able to craft melodies but also add these different textures, mostly having to do with guitar. It basically made all different aspects of music seen in a different light. Even just chord progressions… It made me really interested in music theory, just listening to it. I asked myself, “What’s going on here?” It doesn’t sound like regular pop or rock. It’s interesting and complex. That’s why I wanted to be a music major. I wanted to figure out how music theory worked. With each album, his stuff would get weirder and weirder instead of more commercial every time. It was awesome to see.
For a long time, the biggest struggle has been being comfortable in my own skin. I feel like one way to combat that is just to get a full band to play really loudly and rock the fears away.
The Wake: What made you want to start a solo career?
BN: Honestly, it’s been a thing for a long time. Basically, since high school. But, I never really got serious with it until about two and a half years ago. I was working at a job, and I hated it. I hated everybody there—well, not everybody. I hated a lot of things about working there, and so I just quit. I was just like, ‘All right. Nothing is going to ever happen with my music unless I make a drastic change.’ I had a bunch of friends who were doing freelance music as well. I was like, ‘If they can figure it out, I can figure it out.’ I have a daughter and she’s three now. She was almost one at the time, so I was like, ‘OK. I just quit my job, and I’ll do the stay-at-home Dad thing, and work on music.’ Then I started thinking, ‘I should make an album.’ That’s when it started being an actual thing. I’ve been writing songs for years. I always had dreams about making an album and never put the time in.
The Wake: Are some of the songs on your album songs that you wrote a while ago?
BN: Only one of them. The first track: Birthmark. I wrote it five years ago, and kind of repurposed it.
The Wake: How has your family supported you throughout the process? How does your daughter factor into this new step you’ve taken in your life?
BN: My wife has been awesome. She’s a teacher at a high school. She teaches high school English and works really hard. My daughter goes to daycare three days a week. And, that gives me time to do the stuff I have to do. I do other stuff besides working on my music, too. I do gigs, I teach guitar lessons, and I work at a recording studio. I’m definitely busy. But, having space blocked off and deciding how to spend it has been important. My wife has been amazing. She believes in it.
The Wake: How did you create your album Whisky Priest?
BN: Basically, how the album came together was it was just going to be an EP. I had like six songs, and then I took a bunch of mics up to my friend’s cabin and recorded. And, then I had—pretty much—all of those songs done and ready for mixing. I showed them to my wife and then she listened to it and said, ‘These sound really good. You should make it longer!’ And, I was like ‘Dude, c’mon. Not cool! I just put so much time into this. I don’t want to start over’ [laughing].
The Wake: But you didn’t have to start over, right?
BN: Right. I was just like, ‘Well, I’m done with half of it now…’ When I thought I was actually done with all of it. So, that night, I just went down and wrote music for a few hours. And, I pretty much 90% wrote two of the songs on the album. In the next month and a half, I wrote like five more that ended up being on it. And, I’m super glad that she said that, because pretty much a lot of the cooler songs on the album would not have been written.
The Wake: How would you describe the genre of music you create?
BN: I’d say Indie-folk. When I play live, there are some electro elements. Indie-folk for now. It’s definitely dynamic!
The Wake: What music groups have inspired you?
BN: Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver. Those are the two big ones. The next big one is Radiohead. Damien Rice. Those are probably the big four. Bob Dylan, obviously, is an inspirational dude. Imogen Heap. And, this guy from Iceland whose name is Ásgeir. And one more would be Novo Amor.
For more information and where to listen, visit his website here
The Wake: What is the best experience you’ve had performing live so far?
BN: A few weeks ago, I played a show at Honey. And, I don’t really like that venue. It’s basically just a grungy basement. But, I was like… screw it. I’m not going to bring all of my crazy, computer production stuff. I’m just going to bring my guitar and just be on stage, and just play all of my soft songs. And, just be confident—even though I don't feel good about it. And, it was great! It was just nice because, when you play music really softly you’re totally taking a risk. You have to actively trust the audience to not be raucous. Two things can happen… one, the music sucks and everybody is like, ‘This is uncomfortable. I’m just going to talk through it.’ Or, ‘Wow, this music is pleasant to listen to. It’s not something I would usually get in a bar, and so I’ll shut up and listen.’ For a long time, the biggest struggle has been being comfortable in my own skin. I feel like one way to combat that is just to get a full band to play really loudly and rock the fears away. But, I don’t think that is the solution for me necessarily. I have to face the struggle of playing bedtime music at a bar.
The Wake: What is the story behind the name of your first album, Whisky Priest?
BN: The big inspiration for an album was this book called “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene. In 1930s Mexico, there’s this anti-Catholic church purge happening. Basically, they’re hunting down all of the priests and either killing them or making them renounce Catholicism. There’s one priest left, and they call him the Whisky Priest. He has a drinking problem. It’s just a really powerful story to me because he’s just this guy who obviously has issues but all along the way he does a lot of admirable and selfless things. He struggles with guilt and shame. I find it really powerful. He has an illegitimate daughter with a woman and sees her for the first time seven years later, and then just has all of the feelings [laughing]. I really resonated with this character, and the idea that we are all so much more complex. You can’t just slap labels on everybody because there are good things and bad things about everybody. And, I just like the contradiction of the words whiskey and priest next to each other. To me, it’s just like the juxtaposition between good and bad.
The Wake: I read that you recorded this album in a cabin. Why did you choose that location?
BN: Well, I’m a huge Bon Iver fan so I’m going to be completely shameless in saying that that’s why. I went there for a few days to record the first batch [of songs]. It’s such a serene and inspiring place. The first batch was mid-spring… end of April. So, trees were starting to bloom. It’s over in rural Wisconsin, on a lake. It was my first time seeing rural Wisconsin, which is actually a surprisingly beautiful place. I went back up there towards the end of summer to record the second batch. That was great because it was in the summertime. I could have some coffee on the dock. There’s something about being by yourself in a cabin… Maybe the walls start talking to you or something. I feel like I’ll probably try to go up there once a year to do a writing thing. Maybe I’ll record all of my albums there? We’ll see.
[caption id="attachment_21673" align="alignright" width="520"]Photographer: Laura Nickel[/caption]
The Wake: What is the story behind the album art? On the cover of the album is it a father and child? Two brothers? What is the significance of the split in the cover revealing stars and space?
BN: My friend’s brother is a graphic illustrator who lives in Seattle. He is on a similar journey… just like a year further down the road. He quit his job and is just doing art. He also has a kid, so he understands that piece of it. Basically, I told him what the album is about, and he was like, ‘Alright, man.’ I gave him this picture of me and my daughter, just walking. Maybe base it off of this, but feel free to do whatever you want with it. I told him to put a bottle of whiskey in my hand, because it’s complicated. Some people might think it’s offensive, but, whatever. I don’t care. It’s just the idea of walking through life with my issues and having a kid looking up at you, being like ‘Tell me about the world! What do I need to know?’ when I don’t have my issues all together. And, that is what the album is about. The outer space thing is basically what my friend described as a “tear in the fabric” and there’s this crazy other world of thinking about things and almost an alternate reality behind the random stuff that we do. When you’re living life, and when you’re raising a kid… when you’re doing whatever you’re doing, all of these deep things are also going on. There are the immediate, physical things, and there’s the existential also behind a lot of it.
The Wake: Your music is not really head banging, jumping-up-and-dancing music, but much more sentimental and low-key. What does your ideal audience look like?
BN: That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I definitely recorded it to be an album to listen to, probably late at night while driving in your car, when you’re a little bit sad. I’m still trying to figure out what I want the live show experience to be. I’ve had quite a few shows this year, and I’ve been experimenting with it a lot. And that’s ranged from just me with an acoustic guitar all the way to a full band, using tracks and going overkill on the production. I’m trying to find a good sweet spot for it. Live, I kind of rearrange the tunes a little bit. I don’t have strings, because I can’t bring an orchestra on stage. Pretty much every time we play live, it’s a little bit different. How do we take this album and put it in this other context? I don’t know yet. But, it’s a lot of fun and I don’t get bored with a live show because I’m always thinking about it. In future albums, they might be produced more in a way that will immediately translate to the stage… to produce them for a full band. But, with this album, that was never my goal. I just wanted to make something.
The Wake: Where do you draw inspiration for your lyrics?
BN: Man, lyrics. I stole a lot of quotes from the book I talked about earlier. The first time I read that book was five years ago, and then I wrote down a lot of quotes as I was going through. Then I read it again. Pretty much every time I needed inspiration, I would just go find a quote. But then also, just random poetry things. It’s kind of nice to steal from poems and just change the words up. Even if it’s just two words that you think sound cool together. That kind of thing.
The Wake: Then, the larger inspiration behind the lyrics is you, trying to get through all of your issues…
BN: Yeah. There’s one line in one of my songs that kind of sums it all up. There’s this song called “The Sea and the Moon,” and there’s a line that just says, “Weaving the darkness with the light.”
The Wake: What kind of tools do you use to produce your music? Have you ever experimented with a vocal harmonizer like Bon Iver uses?
BN: Yep! But, I didn’t use anything on the album. My rule with the album was that nothing fit. The only thing I could put on it were things that I could record with one microphone… not any electronics at all. So, that was my box. It was actually really nice, because then I focused so much more on the music than on the toys. After the album was made, I found this thing called a TC-Helicon VoiceLive 3. It’s a big vocal pedal board. It’s pretty nerdy, but it’s super cool. You can do any vocal effect on it. It has a harmonizer on it. And, you can set it to specific keys, which is great. It’s almost like using intelligent harmonies. Then, taking the next step in nerd territory… you can also control harmonies with a mini keyboard. So, it’s almost like a Vocoder. That’s what Bon Iver uses. Basically, you just play your chords on the piano and you sing and those chords come out. When I play live, I use that thing a lot. Track 2 on the album, called “Healer Might,” is all acapella with no instruments. I do that one live and I use that thing. It’s pretty similar to the song “CR??KS” by Bon Iver.
The Wake: What do you have in store for your next big project?
BN: At this point, I’ve mostly figured out all of the stuff I need to do routinely: playing shows, and publicity, and that stuff. So then, what’s next? Basically, ever since I came out with my album, I’ve spent almost all of my time just learning production and buying new things and experimenting. I’ve not been in the season of creativity just because I’ve been learning all of these tools. But, I’m getting to the point now where I’m starting to actually know how to use them! I’m guessing in the next 6 months the creativity spark will come back. And, you know, it is interesting, because you do an album… when you sit down to do another album, you have to reinvent yourself. Ultimately, each year of our lives we are a slightly different version of ourselves.
The Wake: Who was your most-listened-to artist on Spotify in 2017?
BN: Novo Amor.
To see more photos, visit http://lauranickel.pass.us/ben-noble-music