Benjamin Jayne interviewed about new album, “Theater”

Photo by Jen Wright

On their second album, Theater, trans-oceanic brother-sister duo Benjamin Jayne build upon their dark atmospheric folk-influenced sound with more of a rock edge and increased sonic experimentation. Benjamin Wright is based in Vermont, while Amanda lives in Barcelona. Their first album, Hi-Lo, grew out of their setting aside time weekly to catch up and remotely collaborate on music. Career changes led to Amanda having limited time for a follow-up, so Benjamin took more of the lead while ensuring his sister’s contributions were still an integral part. Benjamin Jayne is once again working with Drew Skinner on mixing and production.

“Theater” sounds a bit different than “HI-LO.” Did you have specific ideas going into it about how you wanted it to sound?

Benjamin Wright: No, I didn’t have any real specific plans to do anything differently this time around. Technically, the hardware and the software where all that stuff is the same. But the approach for the overall sound as well, there was no real intentional shift. That all seemed to happen organically.

Why wasn’t your sister Amanda as involved this time?

Benjamin Wright: She had transitioned into teaching, so she started teaching English and Spanish. And then it all went remote too. So she transitioned careers, and then the medium changed to online. So she was really kind of consumed by kind of playing catch up to the technology and getting accustomed to drawing up lesson plans and just navigating that world. So she was pretty, pretty distracted. She was just too busy to get involved as much as she would have otherwise liked to have been.

How did that impact the making of the album? Did working around her limited time affect the writing or production? Perhaps striving to find a way to have her impact heard despite her limited availability?

Benjamin Wright: I would have liked to have had her more involved, and I know that she wanted to be more engaged. I’m stubborn at times, so I might have kept on pursuing opportunities for her to be involved as much as I could. I think that paid off because if I hadn’t pursued her having getting engaged in certain parts, she wouldn’t have had as many opportunities to get on the record. So that was different than last time. Last time, it was intentional about us setting time aside every Sunday to chat and catch up and work on pieces. And this time, it was more like she was so engrossed in work. So it was more about me kind of always kind of saying, ‘Hey, have you got a minute for this?’ or , ‘What can we get you involved with?’ So that was a little different.

Was there any discussion of NOT using the “Benjamin Jayne” name with this release?

Benjamin Wright: Yeah, we had talks about that. The other component of this project, and this kind of takes away from the brother-sister duo component, is Drew Skinner. So there were really three of us that were working on the first record. All of us contributed to such a level that it was really a three-person effort. Drew was still involved. I was still involved, and Amanda certainly wanted to be there where she could. One of her songs was going to be on the record. And she did some writing on some lyrics and some backup parts, so it really just made sense to just have it exist as a place for us to meet. And if you were too busy with your other requirements in your life at that time, that’s fine. If your representation, the record was 10 or 20% this time around, that’s cool because you’re still part of it. And your energy is still there. And those parts she was on still, I think, bring a lot to it. So ultimately I just felt like let’s just keep it going, because this is our home, this is our place. This is where our creative outlet.

Could you talk more about Drew’s role?

Benjamin Wright: Drew was initially hired for mixing on our first record, and that was his primary role, mixing down and handling some technical components of it. But, he early on got involved in percussion and would add some bass parts as well and some production work. It was hard to ignore that his input can make things even that much richer. So that continued; I hired him hired on back to do the mixing and production again. But ultimately, it feels like he was mentioned as an honorary member, essentially a part of the project.

You’d said that there was no specific intention to make this album sound different, but did it evolve much from the first compositions/recordings to what we hear on the final version?

Benjamin Wright: It was initially happening organically the way things started to meld together, like the first couple of tracks. And then it felt like it had a vibe; it was a specific type of vibe or an element of atmosphere, kind of darker sounds going for it. The theme was certainly pretty clear to me, just about the year 2020 was and the difficulties we were all facing. It was a challenging year with a lot of distractions and a lot of chaos and anxieties. So it just seemed to be a pretty clear thread with the writing. So it took on then, in my opinion, kind of a consistent stylistic approach. A little bit darker, a little more distortion, a little more electric guitar.

What impact did COVID-19 have on the making of the album? Did it perhaps lead to you spending more time making it?

Benjamin Wright: No, on the contrary. I actually work in psychiatry. I’m a psychiatric nurse practitioner. And it was contrary to a lot of people’s experiences. I’m thankful that I was gainfully employed throughout it and didn’t lose my job. People have been really struggling, mentally, emotionally all around this past year. And so my patient panel was growing. My demand was increasing; people’s stress was very apparent. So it was a much more demanding year for me professionally, time and energy-wise.

So was music an outlet that helped you deal with that?

Benjamin Wright: Yeah. I’d say it was definitely an outlet. For me, the first record was a lot slower process. I think the approach was more thoughtful and slowed down, and nuanced. And this one was essentially an emotional support. A cathartic place for me to go with all the stress that was going on in the world around all of us that we were all experiencing, and the stress is coming out of my job. For me, it was definitely my own therapy for the year, just to really engage in the music.

Could you talk about your musical background? You went to Berklee?

Benjamin Wright: I did study at Berklee. Prior to that, I grew up, in a community that was just pretty heavy with music and arts. For a year and a half for my high school, I went to a kind of an alternative art/music school. There was a community near where I grew up also; it was a farm, but it wasn’t a farm in the sense of cattle and corn. It was like a nursery for plants and flowers. But it was a very creative place, and we all would meet there and create music when I was a teenager. So I was influenced by a lot of different people there, be it circuses that would come through, be it jazz bands, bands from Europe and kind of Gipsy Klezmer stuff. Just all kinds of stuff. Fusion jazz projects. Then went to Berklee and studied jazz performance and film scoring. I studied my whole life piano, alto sax, guitar and drums, and whatnot, had teachers growing up. But then Berklee was the real, heavy academic experience. I played in various bands and projects in high school and then college. I didn’t graduate [college]. I ended up leaving due to financial issues and did music, down in Philadelphia. And that was kind of a folk/jazz, rock/pop band that I put together. You won’t find much of that in my work today. Then went to LA, and worked professionally. If I got a gig, hired a guitarist or a percussionist or something like that, I would take the job. So I did that as much as I could and did an EP out there. And actually, one of the songs on my EP from LA is on this record, “Waiting For Life”. And that was 2006. So we’re going back a ways. I pulled that one back out of the grave.

And then really, I kind of shut music out of my life, just because of where I was in life. I didn’t play for a long time. So I think what you’re hearing from me nowadays, besides being influenced by Drew and Amanda’s influences and work, you might be hearing my musical tastes over the past five or 10 years. Because I wasn’t doing a lot of performing and writing. I was just doing a lot of listening.

What inspired you to get back into making music?

Benjamin Wright: I guess my kids. I had my first kid and so I started noodling some tunes for her when she was a baby. But it didn’t really take off too heavily until I had my second kid, and she had a real hard time sleeping. I used to put her in her stroller in my kitchen, and I’d put my acoustic guitar on the arm of the stroller, and I’d push her around in circles and play music.

She needed me to play. I had to play loud for her to fall asleep. So I started playing every day or so just to put her to sleep, and started accumulating just these noodled ideas. And I accumulated all these little snippets, and just again from that. Also, just from it being a stress reliever for being a new dad and having a new career, I realized I needed to get that back in my life. Because I needed to balance things out a bit. When I was studying to be a nurse practitioner, it was just flat out academics for five years. So after that experience and things settled at my job and all that, I had the time, and I needed to do it. So I started doing it again.

You mentioned accumulating musical ideas. Was the material on “Theater” generally written specifically for the album, or did older ideas find their way on?

Benjamin Wright: Well, one song was Amanda’s that we’d actually tried to do on the first record, “Hi/Lo”. We couldn’t figure it out on the first record. So I kind of threw away the style that we were trying to get that one together in the first record, just threw that out the window and went at that song a different way. That was “Shake The Volts”. As I mentioned earlier, “Waiting for Life” was pulled from 2006 and everything else … well, “Moonshine” is actually a public domain tune, a traditional folk song. That’s been done by so many people, like Bob Dylan, all kinds of people have covered that one. But everything else was written in the last two years. Most of it was written last year in 3-4 months.

What is the creative process like?

Benjamin Wright: So as I’ve evolved, it’s turned into more like just playing the guitar, and if things pop up that sound good, a little idea, I pop my cell phone out, and I’ll do a video. I’ll do it like a video of it, just because if I only do audio, sometimes I can’t remember how I was picking it or where the chord structures were coming from. So I’ll do a lot of little video snippets to just remember what the idea was, and then I’ll spend … sometimes they come out in the first first day or two and they’re done. That’s not that often. So then I’ll just have these snippets that I can do little videos, and I’ll just kind of loop them, play them over and over again at night, and just they’ll evolve. My phone’s got around 300 clips of me playing 20, 30-second parts. So really it’s about grabbing an idea, capturing that moment, and then revisiting it. Going through these recordings, or those that just pop out at me. I just go at it with those for a couple of weeks or a month. And then I start to do the actual recording process and develop it.

Do you perform live?

Benjamin Wright: I love to play out. The first record we did was released in August of 2019 and we did put a band together for it. We did an album release event down in Pennsylvania with that band. And then I did some solo gigs up in New England that fall and then one final performance with the band in the winter right before COVID hit. So that was basically it. I had basically one fall season when I was able to get out and play before the world shut down. But yeah, the intention would be certainly to get some players back together. Like I said, I’m a professional, I have a practice that I run at this hospital here in Southern Vermont right now. I can’t really walk away from it. But they’re super understanding about this as a passion of mine. So I guess the plan would be once the world is kind of back to where people are more comfortable with that type of behavior, I would take a week off of work when the band that I put together is available. Get a week and just do a stretch of shows for a week and then get back to work for a couple of months and then do another run of shows for another week. That’s the goal.

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