Ben Rosenbush on Duluth, Jacob Hanson, and what A Wild Hunger means
Photo by Will Keeler
Ben Rosenbush and the Brighton have put a lot of time and thought into their new album. All bands do, so what makes this group so special? Nothing much, other than Ben makes you fall in love with his pieces on the first listen. A Wild Hunger is a collection of honest, graceful, and organic songs set against a scene straight out of a Bob Ross painting.
Gimme Noise spoke with Ben before his album release at the Cedar on Thursday on writing for the new album and the processes behind the songs.
Ben Rosenbush (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, cello)
Zach Miller (drums, piano, percussion, vocals)
Matt Patrick (guitars, multi-instrumentalist, vocals)
Aaron Fabbrini (bass)
Lyndsay Peterson (vocals)
Kip Jones (violin)
Jacob Hanson (electric guitar) - special guest
Gimme Noise: Ben, you've been writing for a while now with a debut album under your belt; how do you feel you've changed as a songwriter since the last album?
Ben Rosenbush: I consider myself more songwrestler than songwriter. My process always begins with a melody I'll live with for some time that finds the right chords, and then I begin the painstaking effort of wrestling it down with words. I spend a good amount of time frustrated, anxious, and banging my head against the wall. But what I lack sometimes in the ability to call forth a song effortlessly, as some seem to do in our community, I meet with perseverance and the simple duty of picking up the pen again and again.
The songs on my first album however came out with much more immediacy. They were born out of failed love and new love, and those kind of songs come to the surface without much bait. But for this album I wanted to realize something not so reachable for me, and to develop as a writer.
Instead of continuing to write confessional songs I kept wanting to tell stories. A story is a way to allow humanity to play out. A story allows us to discover our own humanity and our shared humanity, which I think is incredibly useful. My hope as a writer is to write a story in a song that a listener can enter like a room, and find that what's there looks an awful lot like their own story.
You have a lot of pastoral elements and themes on this new album. What flavored the songs when you were writing?
One of my favorite poems is "A Still Cup," in which the author, Hafiz, says, "the Pitcher needs a still cup." Like a lot of people, in order for me to write it's important for me to be still, to posture myself for inspiration. To find that stillness I'll most often turn to spending time in some natural landscape--woods, prairie, water, mountains. When I go to these places it's inevitable that their scenery will work it's way into the songs.
I can barely ever write a song that doesn't have water in it. It's something I've tried to shake but can't. Maybe I'm haunted by Lake Superior or something.
I gravitate toward metaphors and images that derive from the natural world, because for me they feel somewhat ageless, and primal, and the right kind of humble.
There's also a lot of storytelling aspects on A Wild Hunger, especially on songs like "Duluth." Did these stories come from personal experience?
I think anything I write is in someway and inevitably autobiographical. Most of these songs have stories with fictional characters, but at the same time, I feel like I am each of them.
The song, "Duluth," is probably the most straightforward in telling a personal story. It centers on several key images from my childhood. Growing up in Duluth as a young kid, my family and I spent as much time as we could at Park Point, the long narrow strip of beach on Lake Superior that connects Minnesota and Wisconsin. We used to build fires on the beach at night after we'd been swimming in the cold water all day, and I used that image as a metaphor for how the moments of our past echo throughout our lives. The line, "every spark became the sun of a new day", is to say that those young moments left an indelible impression that continue to shape who I'm becoming. Often times those moments for many are heavy and destructive, ones to seek refuge from. But for me I was fortunate to have family that gave me many moments to celebrate.
When I was in college I left with an underused creative writing minor. I've attempted many times to write a collection of short stories but that never came to be. I think in a lot of ways this second album is a melding of those two muses, writing short stories and making music.
How did The Brighton contribute to the evolution of the songs? Did you approach them with the pieces, and they changed from there?
Our band's process is that I first write the tunes, often out somewhere in nature as I said. I generally have a developed sense of the emotional trajectory I am hoping for, as well as the arrangement for the tune, but I leave room for the others to help shape the songs.
Zach Miller and I then spend a good amount of time in preproduction. He and I work so well together and have a natural camaraderie over these past two records. We grew up together in Duluth and have made music together for some time. He contributes a great deal to the rhythmic approach and overall production of the song, having a real skill for seeing the whole. This record truly stretched both of us as we were tried to go places neither of us had been before.
The next stage is to convene at Matt Patrick's studio to find out what the songs will really be. His studio, The Library, is a "Grand Central Station" for so much good music that is happening in the Twin Cities. He's an incredibly talented producer and mix engineer, and also a key member in the band Greycoats. Jeremy Messersmith and many others have recorded at The Library. Matt contributes a ton of great ideas to the tunes, and how we can record and capture them the best. Aaron Fabrini, Lyndsay Peterson and Kip Jones then also add so much artistry and well-placed parts in the music. It's a creative group of folks that is at times silently intent and focused, at times excitedly explosive, and at all times a freaking great hang.
How did you meet Jacob Hanson, and how did you come to working with him?
I met Jacob when he and I were both played with Stardweller for a show at The Cedar (I was playing cello). I really loved the ways he was approaching the guitar and thought he would contribute in some unique ways to our next album if he were open to it. He was!
What did he contribute to the album?
I think it's safe to say Jacob is an experimentalist. We all had a great time working together in the studio for an initial three days of tracking, simultaneously recording bass, drums and my live scratch tracks. Jacob played over the tunes experimenting until we found what we were all looking for. The collaboration between us all took the songs to where they are now, which is always a surprise and always a new discovery. Jacob is responsible for a lot of the atmospheric textures the guitars added to the songs. Those textures have played a significant role in becoming the tapestry behind and the setting for these stories.
What's the story behind the title A Wild Hunger?
My wife, Jacqui, first suggested the name A Wild Hunger. It's a line from the second track on the album, This Fire, and it eventually grew on me. We had been round and round with names for the record and I hated them all. But when she suggested A Wild Hunger, it seemed to tie a good majority of the song-themes together well and also felt like it might have that spark we were hunting for.
To me A Wild Hunger speaks to what is moving many of the stories forward in these songs. In a song like "West," it's the hunger for an adventure, and for casting off a history handed to the brothers that gets them on a train, but then offers them an adventure they didn't expect.
Or in "This Fire," there's the hunger of an impending fire that's at once destructive but in the same moment bringing new life and inescapable change. In "Running On My Knees," there's the hunger for a second chance, in "The White Stone," the competing hungers of individuals that succumb to fate in spite of them, or in "High Flyer" the hunger to see someone ride hope to heights you've never been yourself, and maybe know it just a little bit with them.
There are many "hungers" that are pushing and pulling in these stories, so it may seem funny to call the record singularly, A Wild Hunger. But to me, they are all part of the same primal and wild hunger to live on.
Any favorite songs off the new album?
My favorites on the record are "High Flyer" and "There Is No Ending." I don't necessarily expect that to be a share sentiment with others however. The reason I lean towards them is that they both contain something deeply personal for me.
I wrote "There Is No Ending" to be a cushion for death. I had to somehow deal with the crippling fear that I may one day lose the love of my life, and tried to do that through a song. "High Flyer" is a hopeful statement to me, helping me fell a lift amidst the ruthlessly mundane and anchor-heavy realities of life.
With such an orchestral sound, how do you translate that from the recorded piece to the live show?
We try to keep our live show as organic as possible. To capture the bigger sound of this record we've put together a behemoth band in an effort to avoid tracks. We've added a percussionist and two horn players to The Brighton's seven members, capping off at a ten-member band.
We realize we have the ever-daunting task of reproducing all the crazy sounds we crammed into the recording. It asks us to be creative and bring the songs to life in real time through as many inventive ways as possible.
How did you decide on the Cedar to have your album release, and what can we expect at the show?
Since the first show I ever attended at The Cedar, which was a Happy Apple show, it's been one of my favorite venues in the Twin Cities. It's the quintessential listening room, which is the kind of venue I am always hoping for when I go to a show. I've had a chance to play cello with a few different bands at the Cedar, and every time the staff has been nothing but kind and helpful, seeming to really take pride in taking care of everyone well. That is certainly not the case everywhere else.
I am such a huge fan of John Mark Nelson and Rogue Valley, who are joining us for the show. I have profound respect for the music they continue to make. John Mark's songs are fresh and brilliant and they keep shuffling through my playlists. Rogue Valley is a band whose textures and composition are always beautiful, interesting and full of something you want to keep hearing and can't always put your finger on. They're all such gracious and honest people as well, the kind you like to be around as much as you can.
You can expect a night of good music, worth coming out for, in a room that provides one of the best settings around.
Ben Rosenbush and The Brighton will release A Wild Hunger at the Cedar Cultural Center on Thursday, September 6, 2012 with Rogue Valley and John Mark Nelson.
AA, $10 adv, $12 door, 7 pm
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