I caught Ben Leece for the first time at this year’s Dashville Skyline Festival. It was broad daylight on the last morning, the vibe was lazy, sun-kissed and chilled out. Ben started singing and something in the air shifted. It was one of those voices that catches the air and piques one’s senses. Rich with ache and melancholy, it cut a straight line to the heart of the music and his songs of personal reflection, experience and introspection. Ben’s playing this Sunday at our next Red-Eyed and Blue session at The Bearded Tit in Redfern (along with That Red Head). Get along and experience a talented singer and songwriter in Ben Leece.
Raised on Kamilaroi country, Ben grew up on a small farm on the North West Slopes & Plains of NSW. He first picked up his father’s Maton guitar as an early teenager and began writing songs before he even knew how to play. After performing in Newcastle bands The Delta Lions and Hazards, his solo incarnation sees him offer up a soulful blend of minimalistic alt country, Americana, folk and blues.
What was the album that first led you down the dusty path of Americana/country music?
This is kind of a loose one for me. Since I was a kid after watching Crossroads I’ve been obsessed with Robert Johnson so I’ve always had that roots/Americana part of me there I guess, but growing up I understood country music to be Garth Brooks and Shania Twain etc. and I couldn’t stand the shit and actively rebelled against it, all the while I had stuff like Charlie Pride and Steve Earle around me that I didn’t mind, but just didn’t associate with country music. Then I started listening to triple j around the time of the first Tex, Don & Charlie record and I remember taping Fake That Emotion and playing it over and over again and same deal with What Rhymes With Cars & Girls?, When that came along it wasn’t country it was just old mate from You Am I to me. So it was kind of a case of this subconscious bed being laid over time I guess. Around 2005’ish a mate gave me a copy of Too Far Too Care by the Old 97s that blew my mind which led me to The Brooklyn Side by The Bottle Rockets and Son Volt’s Trace. Those two records were the ones that made me want to get involved and of those two, Trace has been my bible.
Describe your latest release in 100 words.
I have a bunch of songs written that I don’t feel are cohesive enough to group with other songs to be a whole album or EP, but still worthy of recording, so I started a series of 7” records that I can release randomly. Hank Volume 1 was recorded with Trent Crawford in his studio on the Central Coast which was a great experience. He works fast and plays just about anything so it came together reasonably quickly. Four songs were tracked in the session, two of them made it the other two not so much.
What’s been the most memorable gig you’ve played and why?
For a shitkicker I’ve actually managed to snag some decent supports but the most memorable is easily the first Peppertown Jam in January this year. Peppertown was a café/institution here in Newcastle that has recently closed, but at the time was run by Brock and Nat of the Wayward Henry’s. They started a songwriters night and this particular one was hosted by William Crighton. I’d never done one of these things before and got my spot way down at the bottom of the list at the end of the night after a swag of brilliant performers had left fire on the stage, including William, who’s ability to command a crowd in that setting is nothing short of phenomenal. I was shitting myself, I shook like a leaf and came close to vomiting. I got through it but it was the catalyst for me really getting my act together. Writing the song for me is first and foremost and comes reasonably easy, but I’m not a musician’s asshole and I realised that night that if I wanted to do this I had a lot of work to do.
How did you learn to play your instrument?
It started when my dad taught me how to play the main riff in ‘Livin’ Lovin’ Maid’ from Led Zep II. From there I had a pretty influential music teacher in High School that showed me a few chords and kept me interested and after that I kind of just taught myself, listening to records and messing with little tricks friends have shown me over the years.
What do you consider the finest song you’ve written and why?
Hopefully I haven’t written it yet, but maybe a newish one called ‘Cinnamon Sky’. I ripped the title from a Willie lyric in his joint ‘A Horse Named Music’ – I thought it too pretty a term not to have its own song. I guess my favourite songs are ones that capture complex imagery in simple lines without sounding too naff or corny. Word economy I believe they call it. I think I came close to that in this song.
If you could sit-in with one other musician (living or dead) who would it be?
No idea. I’m flat out sitting in with myself let alone anyone else. I’d rather just listen and watch. Maybe Tommy Stinson. I would’ve said Paul, but I reckon Tommy would be more fun to be around.
Do you feel there is a strong country/folk music community in Australia and if so, what does it need to keep growing?
I do. I think it keeps growing by continuing to value and support the stuff we believe in. As simple as that. Artists will always be here regardless of any sort of scene, we do this because we can’t not. Unfortunately commerce drives almost everything else – venues, festivals, media etc so we all have a responsibility to get off our ass and be present so the community continues to have a home.
What can we expect from your live show?
I’m a pretty awkward sort of a dude, but hopefully I’m getting better. If I’m settled in and feeling confident I’ll put on a show and I like to explain my songs.
What’s been your favourite Americana release over the last year?
I really love Sara Watkins’ Young In All The Wrong Ways or Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life. Both absolutely brilliant. Both opening tracks on these records just blow my mind. I have been in the car or at my desk at work and just played those songs on repeat for quite literally hours. Pinegrove’s Cardinal record is another standout.
What are your musical plans for the next 12 months?
Hopefully an album recorded and released and more travel. Maybe put a band together, we’ll see. For now I’m loving the politics of a one man show.