Making the Blues
TSKC's Bethan Screen interviews British singer-songwriter Ben Yellowitz!
Thanks for talking to TSKC for our Blue issue. You once described yourself as ‘A bluesy singer-songwriter who is drowning in a big melting pot of dark, R&B-alternative production’. Is that still the case?
I would say so.
How long have you been writing music for and was being a professional musician something you always wanted to do or something that you gradually came to?
I think it’s always something that has been in my line of sight. I’ve always been playing and writing songs. I wrote this really therapeutic song when I was like 13 years old and ever since then I’ve been writing songs for myself and to put out. Someone said to me, if you keep doing something for long enough you’ll pretty much be the only one left over and therefore just end up doing it as a career. I think thats what’s happened here.
It’s interesting that you say that, by calling the magazine The Skinned Knee Collective we hoped that the work we created and shared would allow us to form “scabs” over old wounds.
My first song was about something really horrible and good things have come from it.
I am always interested in different writers’ and creatives’ processes. Some people say you need to have the discipline of writing, set aside time and treat it as a job with hours. Others say that they can’t do that and need to wait until inspiration strikes. Those are two opposite things, but is there either one that you subscribe to more or is it always a mixture of both?
I think it’s waiting around to be honest. I write things all the time and I produce stuff. I have to have the confidence sometimes that it will come back again. I’ve gone through the motions of thinking about careers too much and/or what is required of me. I don’t really enjoy it and there is no point if you’re not enjoying it. I think just wait around until it has a purpose for you.
Have you ever had times where you haven’t written for a while?
I set myself a challenge recently, if I feel like something isn’t flowing. I’ll say to myself don’t write anything for 3 weeks. Don’t even pick up the guitar.
It’s like you need to get hungry for it again.
I like your unusual song structures. They are really non-traditional and a mishmash of styles. What are your influences right now?
The album I’ll be releasing, that I’ve just finished, has such a range of influences. It’s been made over such a long time. My influences definitely range from the singer-songwriter vibe (more energetic) Ben Howard, John Martin, Tracy Chapman. Then it goes to the more pop and R&B stuff.
There seems to be recurring religious themes in your work. Do you agree with that and if so where do they come from?
I’ve always had a natural draw to some kind of spirituality. I grew up in various different religious institutions. I was born Jewish into a liberal family, went to a Jewish primary school and then quite a strict Catholic secondary school. Going from one to the other I had a lot of influences telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing. At the moment, I feel the freedom of knowing I can be as big as I want to be and I don’t have to answer to anyone else. I only do things because of my own morals, my own decisions, I don’t give a shit whether it’s right by anyone else, maybe I do. In terms of religion, it’s been a big part of my past.
The theme for this issue is blue, what do you associate with blue?
I associate it with calmness, it’s my favourite colour. Me and my friend are obsessed with teal (or petrol blue). I was living in a warehouse for the last couple of years, we decorated everything teal. I like the coldness of it too, frosty and bright. Electric. Actually, the cover of my new album is blue. It was made by my mum.
How come you got your mum to do the cover?
I like to think I’m fairly good with visuals, and I turned around to myself and said I don’t have do everything myself for these projects. I have so many amazing creative people around me. Why not give myself the opportunity to receive their creativity and also for them to share their work? I think this comes from this DIY obsession we have at the moment. It’s the way to go. You have to go DIY before anything big can happen. It means, however, that you constantly want to do or oversee everything, but really collaboration is everything, it’s the best thing ever.
You have toured a lot over the last few years, what was your favourite place and how has that influenced your work?
I love touring and could be on the road all the time, to be honest. I think that I’ve learnt about different lifestyles and about myself. People think it’s crazy and it is, but also you have to know you’ll wake up tired and on some mode of transport on the way to the next gig. There is something about resting time on transportation, I really enjoy a forced moment of reflection.
You’re from Birmingham but you’ve been in London for years now, how has that influenced you?
I’ve become more accepting of other people and the ability to look at something in spite of all its wealth and power and consumerism. People here are consuming things, because it was originally good. I mean we are sitting in Shoreditch now, it’s been consumed to death but it’s not the end of Shoreditch. Just because it’s not what it was 5 years ago, doesn’t mean you can't enjoy it. There are so many people doing amazing things. London gives you the chance to it to do what you want (creatively) however you want to do it. But, you can’t be faking it here.
You mentioned you have a new album coming out, when can we hear it?
Early 2019, no exact release date yet.
What are your plans for the next year?
There is a separation between a chart artist and a touring artist. My touring is going really well and really smoothly and I see no reason to end that so I can focus on how many radio plays I can get. I prefer an organic audience. The main thing I want to be doing is touring and going to new places. I have an Italian tour in January. Not to mention, touring around Estonia and Lativia, Germany and then Peru and Vietnam. I’ve also just started this new project. I’m doing some vocals for an electronic producer called Dmitry Nuage. He’s Russian, so hopefully I can do some gigs in Russia.
Where can we find out more about your work?