Quite often, listening to David Marsden and Ed-FM introduces me to fabulous music that I missed out on the first time around. Both DJs are committed to promoting underrated musicians, unearthing gems to share with their listeners. As a result, we are are always the winners.
Benjamin Russell is one such criminally underrated artist. I first heard his rare and obscure 80’s song “Miracle” on Ed-FM’s Retrospect show from CFRC. A while back, I attempted to research and write a “Criminally Underrated” article about Mr. Russell, but wasn’t able to find either “Miracle” or much information, at all. Lucky for me, he recently left a comment on one of the playlist postings; it lead to some correspondence, culminating in today’s interview. So, sit back and take a few minutes to experience this uber-talented, charming, and endearing musician.
You can listen to “Miracle” here.
Benjamin Russell Interview ~ 4-1-2011
Q – When did you know that you wanted to be a musician?
A – When I was about 2 years old, I heard “rock’n’roll” on the radio, loved it, and tried changing the channels to get the songs I liked. Ever since then, I dreamed of being the one making music, but never thought I could do it until my sister got a guitar and learned to play. I figured if she could do it, so could I. I never looked back.
Q – What/who inspired you to choose music as your profession?
A – It was the crazy days of the late 60’s, early 70’s when there were no rigidly defined genres. You had bands like King Crimson who did the heaviest rock imaginable, but they had sweet beautiful music on the same record. Elton John’s first record was all over the place. When I heard Dylan doing” Tambourine Man” and “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel, I realized I didn’t need a band to get started, so I jumped in.
Q – What artist(s) influenced your music back in the beginning, and now (if different)?
A – I’ve always tried to be original, but I listen to everything I can. As Elvis Costello says, “It’s not IF you steal, it’s WHO you steal FROM.”
But my thefts always get filtered through my bent sensibilities. The best example is MIRACLE. My producer actually tried to get me to cover “Let the Music Play” by Shannon with the idea that our version would come out in Canada before hers and we’d basically steal the sales. But I just couldn’t do it. To appease him, I sort of turned it inside out and put my thing into it and that’s MIRACLE. Can you hear Shannon in there?
One HUGE influence was the B52’s. I can clearly remember walking down St. Laurence in Montreal and passing an open door with a jukebox playing “Planet Claire” and it was like a switch went off in me! Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”, Gary Numan’s “Cars”, XTC’s “Respectable Street” – those were the magnets drawing me away from The Clash when I was doing my “Pop Modern(e)” album for TGO.
Q – Who do you currently listen to?
A – I’ve got a long list and it just keeps on growing. I still love most of what I’ve loved since I was a kid, but there’s amazing new stuff every day. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to The Black Keys new CD. I really like the last couple of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco CDs. K’naan is a big fav. Adele, Ray Lamontagne, Keane, Kenna. Geez, there’s just so much good music! One of my new discoveries is pretty old stuff, but it’s new to me – Shostakovich – I’m enjoying his string quartets. The guy had to write this stuff in secret because it wasn’t state approved in the Soviet Union. I relate to the underground aspect and the emotional intensity.
Q – Which comes first – the music or the lyrics, and why?
A – That’s changed from when I first started writing songs. In the beginning, it was always words first, then music. But now I hear stuff in my head, try to grab it before it flies away, and often it’s the music first. Sometimes I have these amazing dreams where I’m writing a song and playing it for someone at the same time. I wake up and just write it all down – it’s like words and music spontaneously erupting together!
Q – Have you been recording steadily over the past 20+ years, or have you taken a break?
A – I have never stopped writing and recording. Simultaneously with me being nominated Most Promising Male Vocalist in the nationally televised CASBY Awards, I had “irreconcilable differences” with TGO, my label, and had to get a lawyer to get out of the deal.
To be fair, I don’t think Tony Green knew what he was getting into when he signed me. I’m fiercely independent artistically, and I was naive enough to think I could get away with it while suckling at the teat of the mainstream industry. I’ve made 9 albums since my 15 seconds of fame in the 80’s. The newest one, ROCKHILL has some stuff on it that my fans from back then seem to like, STARVED, DECEMBER, DEEP MAGIC, QUIET, GHOST.
Q – What do you think of the availability of music electronically?
A – Artistically it’s the best thing that’s happened to me! Now I don’t need to bend to label pressure and can do exactly what I want.
It’s not just that you can distribute online. Technology makes it easier to make music. I’m hearing amazing stuff from people that no one’s ever heard of. Back in the 80’s I had a huge investment in synths, drum machines and racks of gear. My laptop all by itself blows that stuff out of the water. But I’m perverse – now that technology is easy, the challenge for me is to play acoustically without it.
Q – If you could perform anywhere in the world, where would it be?
A – Somewhere with palm trees, maybe the Acropolis or Delray Beach. Seriously, I love to perform and if you put me in front of an audience who loves music, I’m happy.
Q – Now the tough question: If you were on a desert island, which 10 albums would be must-haves?
A – That’s not hard. The island would be made of all my favourite music – you could just pile up all the albums from the floor of the ocean and make me my own private atoll.
Oh, you mean… I have to pick 10?!!! Whatever I picked I would seriously regret later because I would be missing something desperately. Assuming I’m not allowed to pick my own music (I make music I love, after all…)
1) Bob Marley & The Wailers – Rastaman Vibration
2) The Clash – London Calling
3) Beethoven’s 9 Symphonies by Herbert von Karajan (it’s a box set – that’s not cheating is it?)
4) Elvis Costello – Get Happy
5) Harmonium – Cinquieme Saison
6) XTC – English Settlement
7) Yma Sumac – Voice of the Xtabay
8) Art of Noise – The Seduction of Claude Debussy
9) Adele – 19
10) Chilliwak – Chilliwak
iTunes – http://itunes.apple.com/ca/album/rockhill/id358711824
CDBaby – http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/BenjaminRussell
On The Web:
Official Website: http://www.benjamin-russell.com
Facebook (just getting started with my music page – get a free song here): http://www.facebook.com/pages/Benjamin-Russells-Music-Page/242286627481?ref=mf
Video from 80’s: POWER OF LOVE
STARVED (official music video)
GHOST (official music video)
DECEMBER (live, opening for Gowan at Club Soda in Montreal, March 2011)
BROKEN-HEARTED LOVERS (live with band in 2010)