Interview: Ben Montague
The London-based singer-songwriter talks about writing with pop’s top collaborators, starting The North American Guitar company and bumping into ex-girlfriends
ondon-based singer-songwriter Ben Montague may not be a familiar name to many people (yet!), but he’s certainly no stranger to the mainstream pop landscape. The single Haunted, from his first full-length album Overcome, became a firm favourite on the BBC Radio 2 playlist for five weeks in 2010, followed by Broken which also found a home on the station and was later selected to be the single recorded by the winner of Singapore Idol’s third season, Sezairi Sezali.
With his recently released new album Back To Paradise, Ben draws on the production talents of Peter Vetesse (Paul McCartney, Pet Shop Boys, Simple Minds, Mick Hucknall, Annie Lennox) and the songwriting skills of an enviable list of heavyweight collaborators, including Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran), Tony Bruno (Rihanna), Martin Brammer (James Morrison, Olly Murs) and Jim Duguid (Paolo Nutini, The Waterboys).
Between writing, recording and touring, he also manages to run his co-owned custom guitar business, The North American Guitar. It’s there, in the company’s guitar studio in West London, we find Ben ready to talk about his past, present and future in songwriting…
Where did you grow up?
“My mum and dad got divorced when I was quite young, so I started off in Kent, then my old man moved to Oxford and my mum moved down to Dorset. I was kind of split between the two of them, so I was at a school in Wiltshire until I was 16 years old and went to a school in Oxford which is where I formed my first band.”
What was your first experience of making music?
“I loved stories and I’d always be performing and singing, but I picked up the guitar quite late. As much as I liked learning an Oasis or a Beatles song, for me it was about trying to write my own music. I loved the idea of telling a story and building a picture around singing, basically. Funnily enough – my sister will probably cringe at this – the first song I ever wrote was about her. It was called Sweet Little Sister Of Mine and I was about 14 years old. It was about how great she was, and even though she was an older sister, I thought ‘little’ rhymed better. Even at gigs now, she’s still asking me to play it!”
When did it change from writing songs about your sister, to something more serious?
“It was only really when I formed my first band. I wasn’t going to share my songs with anybody – I was going to be more of the singer of the band and play a bit of acoustic guitar – but then, after we’d played a couple of covers, we decided to start collaborating and write our own songs. We’d all sit in a circle, strum a pretty simple four-chord pattern and I’d sing a melody – that was kind of my thing; melody came very naturally to me. We’d write about girls that weren’t talking to us, and how cool we could be, and that was about it really. We had a terrible name: we called ourselves Chiller, which we thought was very cool, but it really wasn’t! It was just nice getting all your friends together and doing local gigs.”
What made you decide to leave the band and go it alone?
“When I started writing songs on my own, that didn’t really fit with the band. After a few years of being at uni and trying to do the whole band thing, I was penning these ballads in my own way. I’d found this style of how I like to write, but I wouldn’t play them to anyone in the band, at the time, because they’d all be like, ‘That’s too cheesy, it’s too much of a love song.’
“So when I left the band, I entered the whole acoustic scene, went around gigging and I met a guy who said, ‘You should write with a very good friend of mine, called Jamie Hartman.’ Jamie came to a gig and afterwards he said, ‘We should write a song together,’ and I went, ‘Great, yeah that sounds like fun.’ That was the first time I’d ever experienced co-writing – I just thought solo artists wrote on their own. I remember he had this little writing room above a dim sum shop on Shaftsbury Avenue in Soho. We went up there and started talking about this ex-girlfriend that had completely broken my heart, that I couldn’t get her out of my head – that she was like a ghost – and wrote the song called Haunted really quickly. That was the catalyst that started me writing with other people, because we wrote that song and people liked it, a couple of publishers liked it, and that was it.”
Did you collaborate with anyone else?
“I was sent off to write in America and I was really lucky to write with Dennis McCloskey, Tony Bruno and a whole bunch of names. This was about five or six years ago now, so it’s a bit of a blur. Then I came back and did the same thing in the UK, wrote with Pete Vettese and then that’s when we wrote a song called Can’t Hold Me Down. All of a sudden I had this whole bunch of songs that made sense and I was really into the writing. I loved co-writing with people, because I think when you write on your own it can be quite an intimidating and scary process, because you’ve got nobody to tell if you if it’s bad or not! I put an EP together, released it and it got Record Of The Week on BBC Radio 2 with the song Haunted. Of course, once that happened I was then lucky enough to write with some amazing people.”
Were you published at that time, or did you approach those co-writers by yourself?
“It’s always been off my own back. I’ve taken guidance from publishing companies and I’ve worked with people that have got quite big deals, so they’ve helped me, but I’ve never signed a publishing deal. There was this amazing woman called Whitney Daane – I think she worked for Kobalt – she helped me with songwriting sessions over in America. I wrote with Jake Gosling and Chris Leonard before any of the Ed Sheeran stuff had blown up for them. We wrote a song called Never Enough which I ended up putting on my first album in 2010, and that was literally because a friend of my manager knew Chris. Then, moving forward – once I’d become mates with them – seeing it all blow up with what they were doing, I was just so amazed and proud of them. Then recently, Jake said let’s do a day together and we wrote a belting tune called Serendipity.”
There’s a lot of criticism of the ‘writing by committee’ approach in pop music. Would you use a song that was written by a team?
“For me, I don’t think I could put a song on my album, if there wasn’t some form of truth in there; if there wasn’t a feeling or a situation that happened that created the emotion that made me write the lyrics. Obviously there’s still a matter of ‘painting by numbers’ to a degree, because you still want to get in the hooks; you want to get in the lyrics that are hopefully going to hit home and there’s a structure to a good pop song. In many ways, you could say that they’re the boxes we have to tick, but the idea still has to come from you.
“I always tend to write songs about things that happened to me directly or things that are going on in my life – I find it hard to write about things I don’t have any kind of relationship to. They have to be very honest and real. I have to feel that I’m singing about something that has actually happened to me, otherwise I feel like I’m lying, in a way!
So are all your songs autobiographical or are they just loosely inspired by your experiences?
“They’re pretty much all autobiographical. As much as that’s got me in trouble with girlfriends in the past! Not every time, obviously. There’s a song on my new album called We Start Over that’s literally a day-by-day account of what was going on in my life when it was a bit of a nightmare. I wasn’t really planning on writing that song, but sometimes it just happens like that.”
Does your songwriting process typically start with that this sort of situation?
“There are two directions I tend to go in. I either start with the title – actually, I learnt that from another songwriter: literally write loads of titles and ideas, on a notepad or on the iPhone – or the other way a song is born, especially when I’m going to co-write with somebody – when I won’t want to go in completely empty – I’ll take two, three or maybe four ideas that I think have got some legs.”
What do those ideas normally consist of?
“What I’d normally do is sit down in my studio beforehand, I’ll start on guitar, naturally, as that’s my main instrument, and start with a chord sequence. From that a melody would naturally come, and once I’ve got the structure, I’ll get a Dictaphone or my iPhone and record the idea. From that I’m trying to get some kind of hook in there. There’s no lyric really at this point – it’s all just melody and hooks that I’m trying to get – but more often that not, I’ll press record and a lyric will come out.”
“I wrote a song called Liberty Road with Iain Archer. I was standing on the corner of Great Marlborough Street and Carnaby Street, outside the Liberty building, and bumped into an ex-girlfriend of mine. It was one of those moments that was really awkward, she went one way and I went the other, and I thought to myself that a corner of a street must see so many things. I wanted to come up with a song that had a lyric about what the street corner sees, but in the context of what I was doing, so I told Iain the story, played him a guitar riff and bang – we’d written the whole song in two and a half hours! It just worked.”
Have you had any experience of writing for other artists?
“Yeah, I have done the whole sort of trips to Sweden where you go away with a group of writers and I really loved them, but I don’t think I shone as much as I would’ve liked to. Although, one of the biggest ones for me was getting a song cut by the winner of Singapore Idol and I think that went to No.2 in the charts over there, which was quite cool. It was a bit of a weird thing because I saw the music video on YouTube and it was of him sat there, penning the lyrics that I’d written about an ex-girlfriend of mine!”
Tell us about your involvement with The North American Guitar company.
“I love guitars – I’m obsessed with them – so when I released my last album, I started importing a couple of guitars at a time, from individual luthiers based all over in America. It was like a side-project to me, but it basically reinvigorated me. I’d felt so beaten up by music, after putting out two records, I’d hit a wall and thought it was getting harder and harder. It actually got to the point where it was so bad, I was going to pack it in, but The North American Guitar company is actually kind of like my saviour really, for me wanting to do another album. That’s the reason we’re here now!”
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Ben Montague’s new album Back To Paradise is out now and his next single Another Chance is due on 31 July. In the meantime, you can watch the official video for the album’s lead single and title track below. For more on Ben, check out: www.benmontague.co.uk