A Conversation with Ben Ottewell – HuffPost 11.5.14

Mike Ragogna: Ben, your new album Rattlebag follows your critically acclaimed debut solo album, Shapes And Shadows, both albums teaming you with your old pal Sam Genders. How did the collaboration work this time out and was it recorded?

Ben Ottewell: The songs on Shapes And Shadows were a collection that spanned six years. Some were written with Gomez in mind and for whatever reason didn’t work in that context and some, like Blackbird for instance, a vague idea that I pulled together with Sam for that record. When it came to writing for Rattlebag, I started afresh and all the songs were written specifically with the album in mind over a twelve month period, perhaps making the album a little more cohesive. I’m a great believer in the power of the riff, not just in the bombastic Zeppelin sense but also the more cyclical blues or folk licks, and most of the songs are written with a riff as the foundation. The test was generally if I could play it repeatedly without getting bored and remember it in the morning. Melody and lyrics always come later. Once these ideas were formed, some a just a verse some almost full songs I’d take them to Sam and we’d finish them. He’s a great lyricist and arranger and I’ve always worked better in collaboration.

The recording took five days in Los Angeles with producer Will Golden, the other key ingredient. Will and I have a great understanding and a similar aesthetic, basically the motto was “keep it simple.” We got in some great players and Clay Blair who is a fantastic engineer. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a studio since those early Gomez records.

MR: You offered Rattlebag’s featured track “Red Dress” to your fans as an “Instant Grat” track on iTunes, those fans naturally being a combo of the Ben Ottewell and Gomez camps. Being the artist, from your perspective, what separates your Gomez persona from your solo artist approach?

BO: As the one steering the ship there’s obviously more control as a solo artist as well as more scope of expression. This is not to say that Gomez is in any way stifling–rather that with the band, as there are five collaborators with different influences, the results will always be a more eclectic mix.

MR: In discussing “Red Dress,” you’ve said, “It’s a song about love, conflict and the armor we wear to get by, how sometimes surrender is better than continuing to fight.” Does the song have a personal connection to you, maybe from real life events? Are there more songs on the album that may be more autobiographical than not?

BO: All the songs have a personal connection and all, save perhaps “No Place,” are drawn lyrically from real life events and emotions–be it literally, or through allegory. I try not to be overly direct lyrically and try to use phrases that sing well, rather than always be a slave to meaning. Often what I’m really singing about will only become clear to me later when I revisit the songs, playing them live for instance.

MR: It seems Americana and folk play a large role in Rattlebag. Who influenced you musically in your early years and do those artists or acts tie-in to where you took this album?

BO: My parents were both huge music fans and grew up in the sixties so I was listening to Dylan, The Beatles, The Doors, The Stones, etc., as well as Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and the early ’70s stuff: Neil Young, James Taylor, The Band, CSN–the first record I played to death. My dad also fancied himself as a bit of a beatnik so there was always Jazz and Blues on the turntable and my mum was always singing Joni Mitchell tunes. Later I got into Led Zeppelin, which I’ve never got out off, the way Page arranges guitars was probably the biggest single influence on me musically. Stylistically, Rattlebag was intended to be somewhere in between JJ Cale and Led Zeppelin III.

MR: Is there anything in the news or in general that has your attention lately in addition to making and performing music?

BO: We live in crazy times; ISIS, Ebola, widening inequalities, battered social services, its hard not to pay attention.

MR: Is there one recording or song on this album that you think might be a hint at where you’re taking your solo music in the future?

BO: “Patience and Rosaries,” darker, blues.

MR: What is it about Gomez that resonates with fans to this day? What was the creative mix that made Gomez work?

BO: The eclecticism, the fact that we were never part of a scene, the tunes, the inclusivity, the lack of ego, the playfulness, the obvious fun we were having with the whole thing. I think our music became a soundtrack for a lot of fun times for a lot of people and so becomes associative – I’ve had a staggering amount of people tell me they played us to death while traveling or at college. How and why it worked so well is hard to explain, we were essentially five friends who respected each others talents, knew how to have fun and had no blueprint.

MR: What is your advice for new artists?

BO: Be good and be lucky.

MR: Will the worlds ever merge, those of Ben Ottewell as a solo artist and Gomez?

BO: I can’t imagine that they’d want to be my backing band!

MR: Ideally, what would you like the future of your solo career to look like?

BO: A wide, open space.

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