I met Ben 3 years ago at university. Most of our shared memories are situated in the small, dimly-lit, funky-smelling kitchen on the 7th floor of uni accommodation.
Ben studied English at Harvard University and I did Economics. We both crossed different oceans to be where we were – he, from Seattle, and I, from Singapore. I think it’s pretty safe to say we were probably hardwired differently (although we both consumed copious amounts of tofu). Nevertheless, Ben makes for warm company and interesting conversation. From time to time I would hear him belting out songs in his room, and even now as I listen to his new song, Irene, I feel an inexplicable connection and a sort of understanding that’s mutual and unspoken.
I’m immensely honoured to feature Ben Zaidi, a friend and poet-songwriter, on Foxesden. I hope you’ll feel things through his music as I have.
Hey Ben, for the sake of your non-U.S. followers, can you tell us a little more about yourself and where you are based? Where have you toured so far?
i’m 24 and grew up in seattle, washington––a beautiful natural place that has always (in my lifetime) been exploding with music. last year i moved from seattle to new york city––i received a fellowship to write and make music for two years from new york university. i’ve toured on both coasts, played in seattle, vancouver, portland, san francisco, boston and new york. i hope to play other parts of the country later this year, but right now i’m really focused on writing and recording.
How would you describe your musical and artistic style/direction?
in my songs, i try to carve out the most vulnerable, honest parts of myself. especially as you ‘grow up,’ a lot of forces in the world tell you to hide or subdue your feelings, and music has always been the space where i was allowed to feel things––to see that other people felt that way and it was okay if i did too. when i was in high school i worked as a counselor on a teen support hotline, where other young people would call in when they had nowhere else to go. i think now i’m basically doing the same thing i was then, but with music.
How long have you been writing and making music?
i’ve played piano since i was really little. i’ve been writing more seriously since about 14, when i discovered garageband and all the possibilities it presented. at the same time i was taking classes in writing and spoken-word poetry.
Your songs are deeply personal and wax poetic. What’s the process of creating new songs like, from start to finish?
i work entirely by myself. i’m very lucky that i was born into a time where you don’t have to go to the studio with a bunch of other musicians, and producers, and what not. if i had to record like that, i wouldn’t be doing it. i usually write, record, and produce songs start-to-finish on my laptop in my bedroom. i think it lets me be more personal.
Is there a special place you go to for inspiration?
the bus. the train. i’m actually on a train from washington dc to new york as i answer these. something about being in motion, looking out the window…
Out of curiosity, who does your album art?
different friends of mine, usually. because they understand my vision better than strangers. also because i know our society makes it so difficult to make a career as an artist, and i want to use the chances i have to support. for ‘Irene.’ my friend Yunhan Xu drew the cover.
You also do a lot of live gigs, what has the experience been like?
playing live is so different from writing. it’s more like being an athlete––you don’t perform on your own terms. you have to be ready on gameday. it’s harder for me because i’m such a perfectionist, i want to get the perfect take of something. but you just have to let that go. which is more healthy probably anyway…
You said Irene. was the hardest song you’d ever written. Why? What motivated you to complete it?
‘Irene.’ was particularly hard because it was the first time i’ve ever truly tried to tell a story that wasn’t my own. i felt a great deal of responsibility, and also had to get in touch with a whole different set of emotions. in the end, i could tell that it had to be completed because i knew that i’d pushed myself, and it has produced something unlike anything i’ve written before.
In contrast, what’s the easiest song you’d had to write?
haha that’s a good question. the song i put out before this, ‘Ivory.’ was, not easy, but very fluid. i woke up one morning and wrote and recorded it all in a few hours. that doesn’t happen very often. it’s a special feeling, like being a six-year-old again.
What’s in store for you and your music this 2017?
more and more and more music. i made an oath to myself on my birthday (1/27) that i’d put out a song every month for the whole year. this was the first and i already can’t wait to put out the next one. i sincerely think the work i’m making now is the best i’ve ever made.
Who is one other person we should definitely interview on Foxesden?
my friend Brandon Johnson (www.brandonelijahjohnson.com) is an amazing painter based here in new york. you should ask him about the influence of cats on his work.
Thanks Ben, for making music as you do and for being a friend.
Listen to Irene here.
For more of Ben’s music:
Photography by Andrew Imanaka, Jeremy Millar, and Riley Corr.