Ben Lovett is one of the hardest working artists I know. In addition to scoring films for the last ten years, he’s also helped produced other artists’ work before releasing his own debut album Highway Collection two weeks ago. But it’s not just about the record: he’s also working on nine different corresponding music videos for each of the songs, of which he’s already released three. The video for “The Fear” (shown above) was just released today, and the first was the ethereal steam punk inspired “Eye of the Storm” followed shortly by the electric “heartattack” (see both below). After seeing his performance at the appropriately named Lovers Ball at South by Southwest (click here for the full BestNewBands.com article), I knew I had to find out more about the multi-talented mastermind. We spoke on the phone over the weekend, and though he answered all of my questions I still feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of his iceberg-sized musical persona.
Laurel Kathleen: After years of producing other artists’ albums and writing film scores, when did you decide it was the right time to make your own album?
Ben Lovett: I think it was maybe always in the back of my head, but I didn’t know that necessarily. You can’t access the stuff in the back of your mind as easily as you can in the front, and I’ve stayed so busy with things in the front. I got to the point where I cleared out the front part of my brain so that I finally had time to access the back part. What I mean is that I got to a point where my career was…it was expanding at the point where my life was shrinking (laughs). I wanted to have more of the latter, and so I had to make some changes in my lifestyle. I was working harder, but it wasn’t making me happier or feel more fulfilled. So I kind of jumped up and flipped the table upside down on all that and reorganized my priorities in order to focus on things that were more important to me. I sold the studio, the business I had in LA at the time. I got rid of everything down to the forks and spoons and took off with very little. I kept an acoustic guitar and some books, a few records. And that was about it. I needed a change from ten years of city life. I’m from a small town in Georgia, and I’d gotten to a point where I just needed a change of pace. So that ended up leading me through various adventures, just wandering around. I wound up realizing that there were a lot of things that I assumed would happen at some point at my life that had not happened yet. So I made the small personal revelation that I had not made time to do them; it’s a matter of making time for all those things. One of those things was a trip to Europe, like the old ‘backpacking to Europe’ thing. I was approaching my 30th birthday and I was like, “I think it’s time to do that”. I have to just stop and decide to make that trip. It doesn’t just show up, knocking on the door and telling you it’s time to go. I spent my birthday ambling across Europe, meeting strangers and letting it all open up in front of me. I was literally on a mountaintop in Spain that’s so high you can see France, and I kind of had this moment where I realized I had reached the end of that trip, and the next mountain to climb was this record. It was like, okay, I did my solitary stint in the mountains, I did this stint in Europe. What else haven’t I done? I haven’t made this record. So I took that home and immediately started recording these songs. They were sort of already writing themselves. I had lots of ideas, little scribbles and half-baked ideas, phrases and lines, a chorus here, a verse here. But I didn’t really think of them as finished songs, just big seeds that needed some time and attention to grow. So it wasn’t until making the decision to make the record that all of those things started to come. If you don’t commit yourself to it, you have plenty of excuses available to you as to why it’s not time for that yet.
LK: How do you feel now that the album’s officially finished? Are you anxious to make another one?
BL: Albums are like tattoos: it takes you a long time to get a first one, but then you walk out the door knowing what you want to do for the next one. I’m excited that this record is something that I made, not something I’m in a constant state of making. It seems like you spend more time in the process in the process that it’s really satisfying to say ‘I made this”. I will say that I don’t feel like I did this on my own. It required the tremendous effort of others to not let me give up on it, and help me find my way. A lot of times I had to reach out for some perspective, there were plenty of times when I lost sight of what I was getting at. A lot of these songs are puzzles that I had to put together in reverse. There’s a lot of people involved in the album itself. There are 100 kids on “The Fear“, and 40 or 50 musicians involved total. Very few are on more than one song, it’s a total variety of ideas and musicians and because of that, it allows me to celebrate it easier. It’s more natural to go “this song is awesome”. Some of it is truly a wonder to me, because I didn’t want to record an album of me playing ten different instruments. What was exiting was collaborating with other people and getting them to play the parts. There are things I’m less likely to let myself do, whether it’s a drum fill or a piano lick here and there.
LK: Is it ever difficult to have to tell someone you don’t need them to play a certain event or recording, or does everyone involved come on knowing the situation?
BL: It can be very difficult, just for the sheer amount of egos and personalities that you have to navigate. You want everybody to enjoy the experience and feel needed and necessary and things like that. The rotating cast part has really been a matter of logistics. It isn’t that I plan to continue that way, because it’s too difficult. You have to continue to teach people these songs, and it takes awhile for any group of musicians performing at the same time to sound like a band. Even musicians playing parts together at the same time in the same key, that doesn’t necessarily make the same impact as a band who’s played together night after night. But that part’s really hard. I tried to make each of the initial performances of this something special and unique, so one of the advantages of my lifestyle at the moment is that it’s easier for me to go to the place where the show’s going to be and recruit a bunch of people there and rehearse and do the show. Versus get a band together and bring them all over. In the case of LA, we played a show at Spaceland and we had 30 people at the show. We had to bring extra staging in there to fit all those people. It was wild! The next show I did was in Atlanta, with like 18 or 19. Only two people out of either groups were at South by Southwest. It’s involved a whole bunch of people, and when you go beyond the songs and performances, all the content we’re creating with all the videos and all the films all these other artistic disciplines, there are even more people. A different director, crew. I’ve completely lost count.
LK: Your video for”Eye Of The Storm” (above) is incredible. It’s very popular on the web, and it was screened by Vimeo at South by Southwest. Recently you announced that it is an official selection of the 2011 Atlanta Film Festival. Did you have a feeling it would be such a huge hit or is it a bit of a surprise?
BL: A little bit of both. It took us a year to make that. I had more moments along the way where I had to deal with the fear and doubt that it would ever be finished. It took so long and was such detailed and tedious hard work, it is truly a compliment/dedication of the director and people at SoapBox and everyone that they brought into it. It was a lot of hard work, all these productions are DIY: rally the troops and get people to get behind the excitement of what we can to together. No one was being paid to justify spending the time it needed. Everyone has had to put their input in around the other responsibilities they have. That said, there’s not a thing in that or other productions that was put out with a compromise with something ‘we just had to live with’. Everyone is totally satisfied and super excited. It’s rare. But I did have that moment when we were doing the very final color correction pass and this was in January of this year. I was out in LA and we were in the color correction room and I had this moment where I was like “things are about to change”. It was kind of exciting. I thought, “I look like a goddamn superhero up there! Holy shit.” I just could not believe how believable it looked, and how far it had come. I had to live with a lot of early edits, where it’s me in front of a screen with all these blue things attached to me. I’m not an actor, I’m a music guy! So I was like “oh man, this is going to take a lot of work”. But I had that moment that was appropriate and perfectly placed: this guy is charting this course and sort of preparing himself for an outcome that is totally out of his control. I totally felt that at that moment. “This is an interesting piece of art imitating life”. However, I was surprised at how fast it took off. The Vimeo views crushed the YouTube views: it went to 100,000 within a few days. Then it got to 2 million within a month. So it was pretty wild. I don’t think anyone expected things to take off that fast by word of mouth. It was exciting because there’s no label behind it, no hype machine convincing people to like it. People don’t trust that, they don’t just believe the hype anymore. They’ll trust their friends, and listen to what their friends are listening to.These kinds of things are the evidence of that. I didn’t pay anyone to watch it, they just did. Someone asked me, is there another one like “Eye of the Storm“. I think I know what they mean, but there are nine different songs with nine different films attached to them. So, to me what we did for “heartattack” with that group of people is exactly what I wanted for that song. A deep conceptual narrative isn’t right for that song. “The Fear” is the same way: each one of these is getting a unique perspective on the song, based on what’s good for the song. We’ve got a couple more shot, a couple in pre-production, a couple more planned for later this year.
LK: What’s next for you touring-wise?
BL: There will be more shows, but I haven’t committed to anything yet. I have so many plates spinning with this thing and having to manage so much of it on my own, I have to be really choosy about what happens when. It’s not just about putting records out or playing shows; I’m trying to do all of this stuff. It’s all interesting to me.The videos are not meant as advertisements or supplements to the album. I have to make time for those too. You can’t control the level of talent that you have or what you think of it, it’s how hard you work. It’s not the landscape where the most talented people take the day. It’s not the most talented who are the ones up in front of you. Talent’s the prerequisite; it’s like your ticket to the dance. I’m fortunate just to be invited to the party at all.
Lovett‘s debut album Highway Collection was just released on iTunes on March 15th. It is simply sublime from start to finish, and it’s definitely a must-have record of 2011. Purchase it here and be sure to check out his music videos above. Stay tuned to his website for more information on the release of the remaining music videos as well as future tour dates!