It has been a decade since Benjamin Russell and I first interviewed. I seriously can’t comprehend where all that time went. Back then, we had a chat just before his CD “Rockhill” dropped. I was so moved by the collection that I wrote an impromptu review soon after. I know that Benjamin has been busy creating and releasing since then, but somehow life got in the way, and here we are 10 years later.
I was given an exclusive first look at Benjamin’s latest CD “Balance,” an emotional and insightful journey scheduled to drop on February 26. The tracks speak to a rich life, a full life, a life filled with tales dying to be told. The overall tone and lyrics have me imagining the patriarch of a family gathering the members together in front of a fire crackling in the living room hearth and sharing stories in a way not to instill fear, but to endear, with lessons to share.
My impression is that the more we listen to “Balance,” the more the depths of Benjamin’s life are laid bare for all to see. It’s done not with melancholy, but with a sense of triumph and joy. The upbeat undercurrent tells us that whatever we might learn from the stories he spins, it’s to our advantage and to his great relief.
Benjamin and Elyce, his writing partner and soulmate, took some time out of their busy schedules to indulge a few questions from me. The upshot is that we all have an opportunity to enjoy this latest heartfelt creation from one of Canada’s most gifted musical story weavers. Remember: this creative and inspiring album drops on February 26, so mark your calendars!
MissParker: So what have you been up to the past 10 years?
Benjamin Russell: After the release of ROCKHILL, I put a band together and played shows with Peter Marunzak (former drummer for one of Canada’s most popular 80s bands, LUBA), Peter Patrick (guitarist from Nova Scotia’s NAKED LUNCH), composer, Sandra Chechik on keyboards, and Jose Sierra on bass. It was great to be playing live again!
I was on a high, creating music like crazy, but all over the place. The muse kept jolting me with stuff ranging from acoustic folk to aggressive electronic dance as well my more 80s pop style. I decided to split myself in three. But then everything came to a screeching halt.
There’s a reason there’s such a gap in communication since ROCKHILL. After that, I made an album under my name, SUNDOG, and 2 EPs: BUY THE BOMB, under the name, Guru Groan, and ALL FOR YOU, under the name, River of Stone. These nearly didn’t see the light of day as, just when they were about to be released in 2013, Elyce (my music and life partner) was diagnosed with a slow moving but incurable cancer, a form of leukaemia called, CLL. I stopped making music and had no time to promote it, making the decision to just spend every quality moment together.
MissParker: I’ve seen Elyce listed in the songwriting and video credits. Has she always been so involved?
Benjamin Russell: We met when I had just turned 19 and have been together ever since. A year later, I typed out two copies of the lyrics of all the songs I had written and bound them together into books as gifts for my best friends. They were divided in two parts: Before Elyce and After Elyce. There were already more songs in the second half. She gave me lift and I flew. Since then everything has been a collaboration.
MissParker: Does Elyce write music or lyrics or both?
Benjamin Russell: She doesn’t write music but she’s influenced me incredibly. Elyce is one of the original Beatlemaniacs. Friends and family made fun of her for loving them before they were so big! She has eclectic taste and she turned me on to stuff I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise. As the son of two university professors, I grew up in a home where “commercial” and “popular” were dirty words. I was a musical snob when Elyce opened me up to more than rock, classical and male singer-songwriters.
Elyce: Yeah, he was a real chauvinist! (laughing) Not really, but he hadn’t listened to Barbra Streisand, Laura Nyro, Roberta Flack, or Buffy Saint Marie.
Benjamin Russell: The lyrics are collaborations. Mostly, I start writing something and ask her to tweak it but often I get ideas from something Elyce said or wrote. Some songs are all nearly all her, TRYING TOO HARD, on GENTLE MAN, for example. On that one, she talked while I rearranged the words into lyric form.
MissParker: I feel like I’m forever asking this same question, but it seems to add context to what we’re listening to. What inspired the creation of “Balance?”
Elyce: As I used to tell my high school students, my husband’s best and worst quality is that he’s very sensitive! The smallest thing can inspire him to create but sometimes to extremes. He has so many ideas and projects, and needs be grounded. Balance has not been easy for him to achieve.
Benjamin Russell: Yeah, Elyce has kept me tethered to the mother ship. There have been many times I could have rocketed off this planet entirely if not for her!
I gave up my job in August 2018 to be with Elyce. We began the best years of our life, and Elyce encouraged me to start recording again. We were well into BALANCE when we realized we were working on not one but two albums. Elyce started it – she said, “This should be a rock opera!”. We put BALANCE aside and quickly wrote and produced SHIKASTA SUITE, which came out in November 2019. It’s based on Nobel Prize winning author, Doris Lessing’s science fiction novel, Shikasta.
MissParker: Do you find that the more life you’ve lived, the more reflective your music tends to be?
Elyce: I think it’s always been a big part of his music. A song like BROKEN-HEARTED LOVERS, his first vinyl release back in 1981, was a punk/pop song, but I know the real story. The lyrics say, “Sat up late last night with the headphones on, listening to some music, crazy love songs…” Ben was actually listening to Beethoven’s 9th and Bach organ fugues while he decided whether to ask me to marry him after we’d been seeing each other for only 10 days.
Benjamin Russell: Ha ha, that’s true. Reflection. It’s like hiking. You get IN THE ZONE, and just climb your mountains, but every once in a while you come to a break in the trees and can see for miles. That’s kind of where we are now.
MissParker: Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write your songs?
Benjamin Russell: As broad as possible!
Elyce: I tell him to be free as an artist and not pigeon hole himself.
Benjamin Russell: That being said… (laughs) I want this album to resonate with fans of my 80s music who’ve supported me and have been waiting a long time for a followup to my 1984 album. I had done remakes and videos for MIRACLE (on SUNDOG) and SHADOWS (on SHIKASTA SUITE), but this is fresh material with a vibe that’s being recognized. Some have compared BALANCE to Pet Shop Boys and New Order’s later stuff.
MissParker: How important are the lyrics?
Benjamin Russell: That’s a great question. When I started writing songs, they were always first but now it varies from song to song and music has become increasingly a focus. I’m always writing melodies in my head. Many of them have been lost over the years because I didn’t write them down. Now I do, and lyrics might come later.
Elyce: What we’re saying is important to us. There are fewer words now but they are carefully chosen.
MissParker: Did you perform all of the musical parts for “Balance” or did you have help in the studio?
Benjamin Russell: I did everything with the exception of some of background vocals. I had help from Oliver Russell and Erin Ilagan on WORD (YOU MAKE ME FEEL) and REFUGE, and that’s Elyce in the tag to I AM A STRANGER.
I played electric and acoustic guitar. I really enjoyed playing bass especially the solo on ALONE, as well as doing some parts in real time on my computer QWERTY keyboard (the solo on IN THE ZONE, for instance). I combined real playing with sampling on BENT OLD MAN AND MULE. I was going to call it a “landscape for voice and banjo” and wanted it to be just me plucking and singing live, but it grew into a full electronic, sampled and looped production.
I’ve come a long way from the days when everything was actually played on instruments. Now my main axe is the computer! When I made the album in 1984, I didn’t have one, but I had to be a programmer. Anybody who used a drum machine or sequencer back then had to bend themselves to the weird and conflicting operating systems, so most of what is on that album is actually played. Computers have made composing so much easier.
For me, everything changed radically in the last couple of years. I used to write out the words with chords, put together beats and build on top of that. Now, I almost always write out the melody first in actual music. I use a program called Notion. Some of the instruments are written straight in there. Then I’ll export it and continue in my main music program, Logic. REFUGE is a string quartet and was completely written in Notion before I sang on it.
MissParker: How much do current world events influence your music, or is it mainly personal experience?
Benjamin Russell: That’s a big question! How can you avoid current events without sticking your head in the sand? THIS SKIN is intensely personal, about being ready for an internal change, but on another level, it’s a statement of solidarity with everyone struggling to be seen for who they are, not their race, religion or gender.
I AM A STRANGER came from a dream. I was in a big crowd at some event, a conference or something. No one knew each other, but before it started, everyone stood up, faced their neighbours and sang a song together. I told Elyce about it and we wrote this song. She calls it an anthem. My waking dream is that that could happen one day, that everyone could sing it with me.
Elyce: This is where I step in and tell him not to get carried away! (laughs) I just know that it makes me feel positive and hopeful.
Benjamin Russell: We need to remember that the world is many individuals and each one is important, crucial even, in unique ways. IF asks and answers the question: “What if you were never here?” BLINDED BY NEED, shows how we get so caught up in our own pains and insecurities that we become blind to each other. Are these personal or are they issues everyone in the world has to deal with? I believe it all starts with each one of us if we want to heal our world.
MissParker: I know no one is really performing live at the moment, but prior to COVID, had you been performing at venues? When the COVID crisis is over, do you plan to take your music on the road?
Benjamin Russell: These days I’m strictly a studio artist due to our situation.
MissParker: Do you think the creative solutions that artists have come up with to circumvent COVID restrictions and get their music out to the fans—Zoom, YouTube, Streaming—will permanently change future live music performance?
Benjamin Russell: There’s nothing like a live concert. Whether in an intimate club or a huge stadium, the experience is so much more than just the artist and music. Everyone’s energy contributes. Fans and feedback generate something on a whole other level. That’s what’s so hard about not performing – it starves an artist’s need to connect.
That said, thank God for the internet! It’s helped me keep in touch with fans all over the world and allows me to release an album like BALANCE without touring. Videos on Youtube give a taste of what a performance might be like, but like everyone else, I can’t wait for live performances to come back!
MissParker: I’ve spoken to other artists who say the creative flow never stops—that even though this album is complete, there’s so much creativity waiting to get out that more songs are already writing themselves. Does that ever happen to you, or do you try to take a break between each completed collection?
Elyce: Try and stop him! Creating for Ben is like breathing. If he takes a break from music, then he’s doing photography, poetry or painting. Lately he’s even managed to combine them all in his Instagram posts which I think would make a great coffee table book. Knowing him, the next album could start with the cover design, a drawing which inspires us to write a song.
Benjamin Russell: I don’t know. If I never made another album after BALANCE, I’d be OK with that. It’s that important to me – a distillation of what we have learned.
I’ve already finished more songs which could have been on this album, but a lot of thought went into the flow and balance and they didn’t quite fit. I’m working on a remake of ONE LOVE from my 1984 album. People keep requesting the original, but I don’t have the rights to the recording and TGO Records, my label back then, is defunct.
Missparker: Where can people listen to and purchase your music?
Benjamin Russell: All my music is online (except for my 80s albums which are out of print but even they can only be found on Ebay, Discogs, or whatever). My vinyl and CDs are available on Bandcamp. I’m on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, Youtube, and anywhere else you get your music online. Streaming doesn’t pay much per play, but when people put you on their playlists, it adds up. And I know people are listening, which keeps me creating.
Missparker: This has been fun! Thank you so much for taking the time to share your music and your thoughts with us. Looking forward to future releases!
Benjamin Russell: Thanks for asking. You do so much to support independent music and spread the word. It has been a real pleasure and it is wonderful to reconnect with you!
Show your support for these incredible artists:
Apple Music: https://music.apple.com/us/artist/benjamin-russell/47225251
From Shikasta Suite~THE LEAF
From SUNDOG~BABYLON BABIES
From GURU GROAN~HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN