Ben Webb provides the low-down on his magnificent second album, taking us deep inside his rich world and many influences
Jinnwoo (Benn Webb) released the song Your Table earlier this year it was an instant reminder of what had attracted us to the Leicester-born/Brighton-based songwriter all the way back in 2016. A 21st-century troubadour who seemed to have an intimate understanding of the giants of the genre, as well as an ability to forge his own path, his debut album Strangers Bring Me No Long was a highlight of that year and has left us wanting more ever since. Not that Webb has been quiet necessarily, his work as a member of the bands Bird In The Belly and Green Ribbons has more than kept him busy. That said, we’ve missed the clarity of vision and dynamic modern folk sound that made his solo work so compelling.
Thankfully, the new Jinnwoo record, dreamcreatures, was released earlier this month. Another deep dive into Webb’s world, with his tortured croon still very much at the centre, it’s an album that rewards being listened to fully and repeatedly – allowing its melodic threads to both swaddle and constrict. Captivated and desperate to know more, we asked Webb to take us further inside each of the album’s 10 tracks…
I wrote this song after a friend of mine called everyone to tell them he was dying. He wasn’t. He didn’t. It’s a song about modern anxiety. Letting fear about health, or global politics, or work, or whatever replace your personality. But wanting to get back to that earlier version of yourself – before you were so terrified of everything. Trying to rekindle old relationships in hopes that it’s a shortcut to being the old, fearless you. I wanted to use a lot of apocalyptic imagery, mixed with sappy nostalgia – like the world is literally ending, birds are falling out of the sky and everything is on fire – but I’m a bit sad because I heard a song I used to listen to when I was 16.
This song is about a relationship that shouldn’t have happened, but now the two people are bound to each other forever by that. Whether they like it or not. When I started writing the album, I wanted to really examine the relationships that exist between men – whether that’s love, lust, brotherhood, sex, jealousy, abuse – particularly in the different contexts I have lived in. This song lyrically reflects on my youth – growing up in rural Leicestershire, and a relationship with a straight man. My producer Tom Pryor incorporated a lot of folk elements, to bring in that feeling of the rural landscape. Because of the themes, it sums up the album well, but sonically it’s a nice bridge between what I do as a solo artist, and what I do with the more traditional folk projects I am a part of – Bird In The Belly and Green Ribbons.
LETTER TO SL
This is the story of Saint Leonard, told from the perspective of a fictional priest who didn’t find the same fame or following. It’s about professional jealousy between people who used to be close. I wrote it between calls in a call centre I was working at. Just after my first album came out. Outside of my solo music I work with folk groups Bird in the Belly and Green Ribbons, and both of those projects have a heavy focus of folklore and folk stories. I like to look at historic narratives, especially those with a mystical element, and superimpose it over the top of my own experiences. Sort of write a version of myself and the things I’m experiencing through the lens of someone else. It sometimes helps me gain perspective, or slightly distance myself from my own narrative – it makes being honest about your situation easier when you’re hiding behind a character.
Just after my first record, I moved away from Brighton for a year because I wanted to get away from all the noise and chaos. I moved to the middle of nowhere, and had no friends, hated my job, got completely cut off. Tried to start again, but it didn’t work. I wrote this whilst I was there, obsessing over my old life. Sonically, this is one of the few ‘up’ moments on the album. I prefer to write slower, more melancholy tracks, but I like to incorporate at least a couple of pop elements onto a record.
I recorded this track with a few different producers, but it always ended up too polished and pretty. Although pop, I wanted it to maintain a slightly rougher edge, which is what’s been so great about working with my producer Tom Pryor. Sonically, I was very inspired by artists who get the delicate mix of adult pop right – people like Rufus Wainwright, Joan As Policewoman and John Grant.
YOUR RIGHT SIDE
When I first moved to Brighton, I used to hang out with all the old retired queens in this little backstreet pub. Listen to them talk Polari, and slag each other off. They told me about a game they used to play in an old London gay pub. The pub had a coffin for a table. Everyone had to put a pound on the coffin table, and if you’d slept with the next person to walk through the door, you’d win all the money on the coffin. It’s about being taken under the wing of older generations and re-learning their mistakes, I suppose.
I wrote this whilst I was still in sessions for my first album, so compositionally it’s much more similar to my previous record, but lyrically it fits better with this collection. We recorded this in Tom’s studio which is underneath St James Street (Brighton) in the middle of Gay Pride. There was something nice about being hidden away down in a basement recording tracks whilst the chaos of St James Street was happening above us.
BAMBI AND BEEF
I wrote this song over 10 years ago but forgot about it until the sessions for this album. It was written when I was a teenager; I’d just left the village where I used to live and had moved to a big city for the first time. The song tells the story of two young gay men discussing a funeral of their friend, and deciding they don’t want to go. I suppose it’s about gay men doing what they needed to do to survive in rural communities in the early 00s. And wanting to get away from that. I am a huge fan of storytelling songs – people like Bill Callahan. There’s extreme detail, but also ambiguity to his work, and I love that – same with songs like Ode To Billie Joe by Bobbie Gentry – the suburban gothic.
This song is a real stitch-together job. I wrote the chorus, the outro, 1st verse and 2nd verse all separately for different things, and kind of cobbled them together. Then the outro became the chorus, and the chorus became the outro. It’s a mess, but I’m strangely fond of it. It’s not a master class in songwriting. Maybe a master class in recycling.
I have a real fixation with nostalgia. I obsess over photographs or old letters, or emails. It’s glorious and unhealthy. I text someone telling them I missed them, and all these heartfelt things. He texted me back just saying “Stop looking at old photos xx”. And he was right. This song is about that. About how a part of us wants to sit and dwell, and we feed that part of us with photos or old songs.
This is one of the first songs I worked on with my producer Tom Pryor. I had been working with a few different labels and producers, and had had a few disagreements with people. I sort of lost my way confidence-wise and wasn’t sure if I wanted to do another solo record. Tom plays the violin (amongst other things) in one of my other projects (Bird In The Belly). He was a trusted friend, and took me into his studio, and would just leave me recording demos whilst he pottered about cleaning or making soup. Then he took the recordings and worked on them – so most of the album is first and second live takes. It’s the only way I could have worked with my confidence being as low as it was at the time.
THE NEW GHOST MOVES
This is a song about realising you and your friends aren’t the pretty little things at the party anymore. You are the strange old things lurking in the corner awkwardly by the drinks table. You are becoming the old people that you used to laugh at. You don’t know any of the songs on the playlist, and you should go home. It’s alright.
It was the first song I wrote on an autoharp. I bought the autoharp because I’m a terrible guitarist, and I thought it would help me focus more on the melody and singing, rather than worrying about what my fingers were doing. I heard Madeleine Peyroux’s version of Between The Bars by Elliott Smith years ago and wanted to make my own version of that sadness and romance. This is often my approach sonically – to try and recreate the atmosphere of a song that I like. I have little technical ability, so it always turns out sounding different, but I like to use that ‘making my own version’ as a starting point.
This was another song written for my first record. I can’t remember why it didn’t make the cut back then. I remember old versions of it being passed around different producers, and it coming back with dub beats and all sorts.
I wrote this song when I was maybe 22. My boyfriend at the time brought me a guitar, and it was one of the first things I wrote on it – a song for him. Ten years on, I released this track as a single from the album just as me and the same boyfriend were breaking up – so it’s a strange sort of bookends track for me. I don’t know if I like it.