Success is seldom the mother of invention. Just ask Ben Westbeech. Following the release of his acclaimed debut album, 2007’s Welcome To The Best Years Of Your Life, Ben threw his gears into neutral and decided to rest on his laurels somewhat.
“I didn’t feel inspired,” he explains. “I got a bit lost, a bit disillusioned. I was getting lots of work as a DJ, enjoying life, but I didn’t have any hunger. At the end of it all, I asked myself, what do I have to show for the past few years? It just wasn’t productive for me. I had wicked fun, but I just wasn’t making enough good music.
It was a turning point for an artist whose journey began as a twelve year old, buying Rave and Jungle mix-tapes sold by the Jamaican blokes who ran his local newsagent in his home of Hertfordshire. Later, he moved to Bristol, where he spent his days and nights working on his music, and making friends with kindred creative spirits in this most musical of cities. One friend, a producer named Clipz, got Ben to sing over a Jungle track he’d recorded. “He really liked my vocals,” remembers Ben, “and said I should sing vocals on my own music. Three days later, I wrote ‘So Good Today’.”
This track – three minutes of deftly-jazzy, melody-slaked sunshine pop set to a playfully athletic breakbeat and foregrounding mellifluous vocals – would be championed by legendary DJ and tastemaker Gilles Peterson, winning Ben a recording contract with Peterson’s Brownswood label, who released his debut LP Welcome To The Best Years Of Your Life, an album which played Ben’s skills as a song-writer and vocalist to the fore.
With its success, however, followed a growing anxiety: how best could Ben follow it up? What about his music had struck such a chord in audiences? What did people want Ben Westbeech to be?
He’d begun work on a group project with old friends Hugh Pescod and Redlight – “making weird music, totally away with the fairies – a project that was quite dark, and very Bristol” – when Strictly Rhythm records suggested Ben record an album for them. “I was given free rein,” Ben says, “and put together a list of House-y producers whose work I loved and who I wanted to work with. At first I was just singing over their tunes, and it felt a little too much like ‘Superstar Producer, Featuring Ben Westbeech’. So we took another approach, and I started working with the producers right from the beginning of working on the tracks, so it’s more of a collaboration. It’s pushed the album somewhere else.”
Ben’s worked with a stellar line-up, including Henrik Schwartz, Soul Clap, Motor City Drum Ensemble, George Levin and Rasmus Faber and these collaborations have found all parties challenging themselves to come up with something fresh and new. “I’ve even done a track with MJ Cole,” says Ben, “something really unlike what you’d expect from him, outside of both our comfort zones.”
The end result isn’t so much a straight ‘House’ album as, Ben says, “House-inspired. It’s turned into something else over time; there’s so many different angles you can come at with a House album, it doesn’t just have to be Kick Drum/Hi-Hat/Clap/Bass. You don’t have to be confined by one genre, you can branch out. It’s not a ‘club’ record. I’ve slowed the tempos down, I’ve worked guitars and folk techniques into the sound, I’m focusing on song-writing craft… My sound isn’t banging, lairy music, which is kind of what’s in clubs at the moment, I’m not there to get people’s hands in the air. I wanted to make an album you could listen to in your home, in your car. It’s timeless, and not of a trend; I’m not rinsing the ‘sound of now’ to sell records.”
Where his debut was the fruit of five years’ labour, its follow-up has taken a mere six months to complete, which Ben attributes to finding his groove again, feeling comfortable with what ‘Ben Westbeech’ music should sound like. He’s not looking for anyone else’s approval anymore.
“On this record I’ve made tunes where I listen to them and I just feel, oh God, this is me, this is what I want to listen to right now,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff about love on the album, because I fell in love just as I was beginning work on it. I never thought I’d write songs like that, but having met someone I’m really into, which hasn’t happened for years, gave me a positive boost. It’s made me grow up a lot, look at life differently. I feel excited about music again, like I’ve got my mojo back, like I’ve found myself.”
Asked to name some influences for the record, he supplies an eclectic list of legends: Kurt Cobain, Tracy Chapman, Eric Satie, Henryck Goreki. His music might not sound like these artists, but his learning from their lessons. “I was listening to a lot of David Axelrod records,” he adds, “and it’s amazing how forward-thinking he was, as a producer, composer and arranger. I love timeless music, and that’s why I want to go against the grain, to buck all the trends, and to make the music I want to make.”