The tale of an Australian screenwriter-turned-songwriter who famously collaborated with a 13-year-old hospital patient and then American songstress Sara Bareilles
Name: Ben Abraham
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Style: Described by some as cinematic folk; certainly not Indonesian pop
Look out for: Ben’s debut album Sirens out now
Having grown up in a musical family – with his parents both singers in a moderately successful Indonesian pop group during the 70s – there’s perhaps no surprise that Ben Abraham has become a talented singer-songwriter. However, at the point when he finished school, it was a movie career rather than a music career that was looking most likely. His first love was film and went into studying screenwriting with the intention of completing a degree in directing, but then picked up an instrument and took a detour.
“I originally played piano, but then I picked up the guitar and started writing songs on that,” recalls Ben. “I was always a pretty neurotic film student, so I was incredibly self-conscious and always wondering whether I was any good at screenwriting. Whereas, when I started writing songs and playing them to people, the response was always much more confident and people seemed to really like what I was doing. I think that really helped the transition out of film. It’s much easier to know that the idea is working when you can see the look on someone’s face.”
It would be an even more unlikely career choice that would become the catalyst for the 21-year-old Ben Abraham to become a songwriter. Working with Australian charity, the Starlight Foundation, he found himself needing to entertain seriously ill children in hospitals around Victoria. Sometimes that meant just having a chat, but they encouraged Ben to use whatever skills he had to engage with the children. “So I picked up the guitar for the job and wrote a song with this 13-year-old girl who was an eating disorder patient. My bosses really liked it, so they flew me around the country to sing it at all these fundraisers. That was the first moment that music and storytelling collided.”
[cc_blockquote_right] I KNOW THE WORLD OF FILM SO MUCH MORE THAN I KNOW THE WORLD OF MUSIC [/cc_blockquote_right] That song, Let Your Light was his take on the hospital experience, but with the entire second verse written by the girl and having found its way onto YouTube, the song and their story became widely known across Australia. This was enough to encourage Ben to turn his attentions from film-making to musicianship and continued writing songs, but screenwriting would continue to be an influence. “My instinct to write has always been very strong, but I know the world of film so much more than I know the world of music. I don’t think of my songs in terms of stories or characters, or anything, but the ability to reflect has definitely come from screenwriting.”
Several years later, another interesting co-writing relationship would arise with American singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, who had already found success with the Top 10 single Love Song. But this was a result of sheer determination rather than just luck, as Ben explains: “Australia is such a difficult place to get any kind of opportunity, so you really have to think outside the box and be creative in all aspects. I remember thinking with Sara, I just loved her work, loved her voice and followed her career. When I saw that she was touring, I wrote a little song and sent her the video that was basically like a song invitation of lyrics to sing.” The proactive approach worked and they sang To Sara From Ben together at her show in Melbourne. They even became friends and co-wrote the song This Is On Me, which would go on to feature on his debut album.
Such a positive experience gave Ben the confidence he needed to commit to being a fully fledged singer-songwriter, but also led him to write for other artists, such as fellow-Australian Wafia and American musician Josh Farro who was formerly Paramore’s lead guitarist. “I love collaborating and writing with people. I don’t necessarily do it very much for my own stuff, so if they’re going to be co-writes I’d rather they happen naturally rather than forcing it.”
When we caught up with Ben, he was in Seattle about to embark on a US tour with Secretly Canadian label-mate Damien Jurado, and intended to continue performing live in the UK and through Europe. His musical ambitions have clearly flourished beyond earlier expectations, and we wouldn’t rule out his success in any country – maybe even Indonesia. Ben’s debut record is only a few days old, but his direction is already focused on the sequel. “My first album was really about coming of age – it covers my 20s and I was a kid who’d never really played guitar at the start. I feel the story resolves to this idea that I know how to write a song and the next one is: ‘what does the artist want to say once he has skills to actually say something?’ So that’s what the whole next record will be about, and that’s why I’m excited to branch out and start getting a bit weirder with things.”
Ben Abraham’s debut album Sirens is out now on Secretly Canadian. To find out more, check out: benabraham.com.au