’I don’t fuck about! Get the job done, in and out quick.’
Words: Marsha Gosho Oakes
Lower your eyebrows, Ben Westbeech is talking about music. “I find long songs boring… if it goes on for more than 5 minutes I totally get bored of it. Unless it’s dancefloor, like house, you know, long songs don’t interest me – I prefer making short songs”, he explains of his many less than three-minute tracks.
Signed by Gilles Peterson to his new Brownswood label early last year, 25-year-old Bristol-based singer Ben Westbeech reckons his ambitions would centre on being a restaurant critic – if it weren’t for his soaring new recording career. Ben went from being on the dole and writing music in his bedroom, to being snapped up by Radio 1 DJ and international taste-maker Gilles Peterson after a mutual friend played him one of Ben’s songs at a festival. The infectious happy vibes of ‘So Good Today’ convinced Gilles to sign him to a single deal, and then an album deal. Since then he secured a performance on the prestigious Jools Holland show, and has been touring like a madman from London to Japan. With an album titled Welcome To The Best Years Of Your Life, it’s quite possible that Ben Westbeech is beginning to experience his now.
You might call Ben’s music, which merges soul with “a lot of different genres and styles”, similar to that of Jamiroquai – ‘though where Jay brings the funk, Ben switches to elements of drum’n’bass in many of his tracks. Ben would call this a lazy comparison. Responding to this not uncommon association, Westbeech (who claims not to own any Jamiroquai albums) comments, “It’s great to be compared to someone who is great, and that’s how I look at it. Journalists are always gonna compare you to someone or something, and I think it’s quite a lazy comparison to make – but it’s fine by me, I don’t really care. But I wouldn’t say he’s a major influence… If he had been, I’d be like ‘oh yeah, you know’ but it’s not like that.”
Aside from any coincidental and unintended vocal similarities between the two, there are clear differences – unlike Jay Kay, Ben’s not one for dancing. His performances are, musically, very energetic and quickly rouse the crowd to get down with enthusiasm rarely witnessed in London for un-established acts. Still, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that he doesn’t throw down any moves himself – not even when singing the instigative ‘Dance With Me’. When this is pointed out to him he grins and ponders, “Do I need to start dancing do you think? What sort of dance am I gonna do?! It’s not really me, dya know what I mean – I’m not that sort of guy! Maybe I need to get some lessons!”
His music fits in everywhere, no matter how out of place he may inwardly feel. I first saw him perform at an industry showcase in plush London jazz club Ronnie Scotts, where he was wracked with nerves in a suit jacket, shirt, tie and jeans. I next caught him at the BBC Radio 1xtra DrumNBass Awards 2007, which was an underground awards show disguised as a tightly-packed rave in West London venue Neighbourhood. Ben’s MySpace blog reveals that “it went good although I felt really out of place”, but his emphasis on the drum’n’bass elements of his music seemed to please the hyperactive crowd. Two performances later in front of the mixed music-loving crowd at Notting Hill Arts Club night YoYo’s and the industry audience of NME-types at the Islington Academy, and Ben has illustrated a knack for subtly tuning into different aspects of his personality and music to fit the crowd, without having to change much at all. Did performing come naturally to him? “No, not really”, he responds honestly. “I wasn’t doing it last year, I was just making music in my bedroom. So for me to get out on stage it was quite worrying at first, you know. It’s a lot of pressure and I’d never done it before. I’d been a performer as a kid, playing instruments and stuff, but I think it has been quite a lot of pressure this year, and to get out and do it has been quite scary. But I’m learning all the time.”
If his journey into the art of performance began this year, his musical voyage began by listening to musical genius and rebellious greats. “Stevie Wonder was really a big influence,” Ben reveals. “D’Angelo – you know, when I heard him I felt a real affinity with his voice and the way he sung, Curtis Mayfield, people like The Clash I was really into, Roy Ayers, NWA, Tribe Called Quest, and the Sex Pistols.” From here, he developed an inclination for writing soulful music with an edge. Ben describes his music as “Soul music that crosses over a lot of different genres and styles. I think it’s like underlying soul, and being soulful. I think if I did anything it’s always gonna be a bit soulful. I’m trying a lot of new things, but keeping it soulful still.” He laughs and adds, “Punk-soul-jazz is gonna be the new thing”.
Regarding British soulful music in general, Ben proposes, “I think we’re on the cusp of something big, a lot of people are doing good things. Amy Winehouse is a wonderful artist and her album’s amazing, it really goes back to…” – ‘classic, soulful sounds’ (or something similar) is probably where his statement was headed, but he interrupts himself to comment, “The thing about those types is they’re not doing anything new with it”. Making a case for the importance of innovation, he continues, “They’re going back to the old ways – and that’s well and good but I’m trying to do something new with it and push it into the new music section. I’d love to do an album where I go back to making it sound old, but that isn’t really pushing things forward. I’m quite a forward thinker in music and to make soul music that sounds like stuff from the 60s and 70s I think it’s wonderful and sounds great but for me it doesn’t do it for me. I look for artists who push it forward.”
Drawing inspiration from everyday life, Westbeech explains how he came up with his album title. “I was watching TV one night and I saw this advert and it said ‘Welcome to the best years of your life’ and I was like, that’s my album title right there! I just thought, it’s a really vague comment but it’s one that begs the listener to ask a question within themselves as to when these years occur, and if they already have or haven’t. Life’s a funny thing and you go through bad stages and you never really know when those years are gonna happen or if they’ve happened already.” The title of the album reflects the positive energy of much of its content, with many of the songs being upbeat, fun and cheerful; not something always associated with the pain of soul music. Perhaps this was something that drew Gilles to Ben’s sound. Ben is thankful for the “major, major role” Gilles had played in gaining exposure for him. “I think he opens doors to places that would never get opened if I was at another label, so it’s really wonderful having him have done that.”, Ben gushes sincerely. “He’s really put a lot of faith in me to do what I do, ‘cause literally when I started this was not gonna happen, the live show and all of that… so it’s like he’s given me the confidence to put effort into it and try and work it. Before, I wouldn’t have done that, it wouldn’t have happened at all. He’s a great guy and it’s been great working with him.”
Described by his long-time school friend and now manager, James Mountain, as ‘naughty and angry’ at school, Ben endured his share of pain and difficulty as his mother died when he was young (inspiring the song ‘Taken Away’). “It was a weird time of my life. My family, it was in bits, it was a strange time of life for me,” he explains. Being signed to Brownswood has changed Ben’s life in fundamental ways, he reveals: “I’ve been able to live without having to do things I shouldn’t be doing, which is really good! Just living nice and not have to worry about where I’m gonna get food from.” There’s no turning back to his four years of receiving unemployment benefits prior to his deal. Ben reflects on his former life habits, “I was on the dole, and when you ain’t got no money it’s like, what do you go and do? You’re living off the staples”. In closing he says, “It was a difficult time of my life, a fun one nonetheless, but I’m really glad to get away from it all.”
Welcome To The Best Years Of Your Life is out now on Brownswood Recordings, visit www.myspace.com/benwestbeech for tour dates.