Ben Marwood

Ben Marwood: The devil makes work for jazz hands

Ben Marwood is on the brink of releasing the follow-up to 2013’s ‘Back Down’ and embarking on his first UK tour in three years. But it almost never was. A very intense year-long illness derailed not just his music career but his life.

Now that he’s returning with ‘Get Found’ (7 April), Marwood tells us about singing ‘Billie Jean’ as a child, facing his health challenges, overshare, “a breed of outspoken garbage humans who are just bullies”, and why jazz hands are the devil’s work.

It sounds like a younger you at the beginning of ‘Punched in the Mouth’. Where did you dig that out? And what was the idea behind starting the album with baby Ben?

My Mum is in a perpetual state of clearing out accumulated stuff from the family home, and one day she found these old tapes of me when I was really young. We played through some of them and I made a mental note to come back to it when it was time to make a new album. I like to stay in touch with the past and childhood is a special time, right? So, when it came time to collect material together I trawled through all these old tapes. A lot of them were me singing ‘Billie Jean’ but there was the occasional slice of gold. I’d like to pretend it was some kind of great plan all along to have little Ben start the album, but it’s such a contrast to everything else on the album it pretty much had to go at the very start or the very end, and so I chose the start.

In your blog posts you were very open about the health challenges you faced over the past three years. How are you doing now?

Hmm. Is “hmm” an answer? It’s the one I go with most often. I think I’m doing OK – I have my concerns but they aren’t concerns my doctor shares and they’re the ones with the knowledge. I’m a generally functioning human these days who has learned an important lesson about doing what my body tells me to and I think I turned it into a positive experience, or at least it’s had a far more positive outcome than it looked like it might end up having.

Did you ever worry you were sharing too much with people? And looking back on those posts now, do you think they in any way helped you deal with what was going on?

At the time, it never really occurred to me that I might be sharing too much and I just wanted people to know as much as I know, but looking back I’m completely embarrassed by the candid and/or dramatic way I dealt with the whole thing. That said, there’s not a lot of mystery to my act, I’m just a normal human being and at that point I was a normal human being who, along with a bunch of doctors, was trying to work out if he was going to die or not and every time it looked like I might be able to get better, I bottomed out to even lower than before. As for whether those posts helped me deal with this, I’m not really sure if they did but what they did help with was letting other people know why I wasn’t around and what was going on. And, who knows, maybe one day if someone stumbles across the timeline when they’re in a similar situation they might draw some parallels and feel a little better. The internet is the worst possible place to go hunting for clues on, for someone who has a bunch of symptoms and no diagnosis.

At one point, even playing guitar made you feel very sick. Did it ever cross your mind that you might have to bin this whole musician thing? If so, was it difficult to come to terms with?

Yes, and yes. I mean, I did bin it off for a while. Big emo blog post, general cancellation of expectations, but even though it was a big decision to make I left it until there was really no other option. It was a very definite moment, whereas I don’t remember making the decision to start again. I remember finding a studio on eBay, but I don’t remember the moment where I was like “OK, let’s look for a studio on eBay”. Maybe that shows the decline was steep and terrifying and so pretty memorable, whereas the recovery was a gradual process with a lot of trial and error.

And, with that in mind, how does it feel to be on the brink of releasing ‘Get Found’?

I’m both excited and nervous. As much as I really want people to hear it and hopefully like it, I felt a little sad for this chapter to come to an end. It’s been a test of strength and perseverance and throughout it these songs have been with me, and then I had to spruce them up all nice for other people and let them go. I think it’s going to be an emotional release day, not least because on release day I have a show in London which is as close as we’re getting to a hometown show on this tour, and it’s in a venue which I love.

According to the press release, only two songs on the album directly reference the difficult year you had. Was this a concerted decision to prevent the album from getting too “one-dimensional” or something?

Yes but no but yes (but no). All but two of these songs were written pre-illness, so there really wasn’t an opportunity for me to crowbar in many Illness Odes because ‘Get Found’ was more or less a complete, albeit unnamed, set of songs back then. Sure, I could’ve written more but chose not to, though it’s definitely going to pop up again if I do another album. One concern was: I’m not sure how relatable chronic illness is as a songwriting topic, so I didn’t want it to be overwhelming, you know? Sufjan Stevens released ‘Carrie & Lowell’ a few years back now which is a really personal record about coming to terms with death and the death of our parents/parental figures and his personal experiences during that, and it was pretty but I found it quite impenetrable emotionally because I am really lucky that I do not have that experience of what that’s like, whereas my friends who have been unfortunate enough to have gone through that part of their lives already got much more from that record. So, I held back on writing many songs about the dark times, but there will be enough references there for people to get a general idea. The point of me being here and doing this still is that I am not beaten and I’m still being a normal human being and if all I do is sing about blahblahblah darkness, blahblahblah woeful personal experience then yes, you’re absolutely right, I’m scared I’ll come off as one-dimensional. I don’t want to be The Ill Guy.

My personal favourite on the album is ‘Nights’ – I love how the music sounds truly uplifting and yet there’s a darkness to the lyrics. Could you please tell me a bit about this song?

Well, I’m glad you like it. Thanks! I think it’s turned out pretty well, though the band had to persuade me to even put it anywhere near the album as I was going to put off finishing this one until The Future. Even though it’s fairly dark, I wrote it to cheer myself up. It’s about the real-life villains that have popped up in the age of 24-hour news and social media. I’m not opposed to social media, though I have my concerns about how it impacts on our everyday mental health, but in the age we live in there is a breed of outspoken garbage humans who are just bullies, and they have a permanent platform. They’re on Facebook, Twitter, the news, they’re political commentators or just out-and-out slimy racists and sexists desperate for attention. One of the reasons they can be successful at what they do is by being incredibly thick-skinned and unwilling to see the merit in anything that disagrees with them no matter where logic falls, so I wrote ‘Nights’ in either the belief or the sheer hope that there’s one night every so often where they can’t sleep, and they have these huge moments of self-doubt. They wonder why such a large section of the public hates them, why they haven’t made any new friends for a while, what happened to their old ones, where their time has gone. So to the nasty, the spiteful, the xenophobic and the bully it’s just a way of me quite literally asking: did the fear creep in at night? Are friends getting harder to come by? You.. realise you’re going to die, right? I did write it with one specific person in mind to start with, but his career collapsed so pathetically since I wrote this that he’s barely worth naming.

The Devil Makes Work For Jazz Hands’ is one of the best song titles I’ve seen in years. Not a fan of musical theatre then?

Well a) thank you for the compliment and b) this is MY favourite song on the album. I felt it was important to get off the fence and finally let people know where I stand on the very important issue of jazz hands. I didn’t realise until I was speaking to my friend Kelly, but some people think jazz hands are an indication of something good and fun. This news surprised me! To me, jazz hands somehow became synonymous with amateurs who don’t know what they’re doing. Are you a children’s entertainer desperately trying to inject some enthusiasm into your tired routine? Jazz hands! Are you a waiter who has accidentally dropped five glasses in full view of the public? Cue jazz hands and a weak “ta-daaaa”! Are you a supply drama teacher trying to get your uninterested class to have fun? You get the picture. It’s just.. really.. glee club? Something about jazz hands makes me think of fake smiles. I’m going to stop now because I just read this back, and I sound like the grumpiest man who ever lived. Anyway, this song is fun. Fun, I say!

You chose to cover ‘Baby You’re A Mess’. What made you choose this song? What did you connect to in it? What do you look for in songs you cover?

I absolutely did choose to cover this song, and I’m very happy I did. Here’s the score: I have been friends with the songwriter, Tom Crook, for a long time. For many years he was the indie DJ at a club I go to and is generally a really friendly person and he’s worked with a bunch of other artists. I’m not sure how we ended up becoming real, genuine friends but that’s by the by. Tom is a great songwriter and is currently leads a band called Band of Hope, he’s played on each of my albums in some capacity and once when we were recording, he whips out a guitar and plays me ‘Baby You’re A Mess’ and I love it from the start. Eventually Band of Hope released it as a single, so when I’m planning out my new album I remembered the song and thought I’d take it in a different direction. Despite the lyrics, the Band of Hope version is pretty upbeat and jaunty, so I thought I’d push it more towards the solemn end of the scale, more pitched towards Eels territory. Because I wasn’t sure how it would turn out I kept the whole thing a secret from Tom during the recording process, and then once it was mixed I approached him with it and he said we could go ahead and include it on the album like the gentleman he is. He seemed pretty happy with it, and I am too. I guess the most important aspect of covering a song is: what can I do with it? Can I make it different to the original, or is it just going to sound like I’m trying to impersonate whoever played the original version?

You’ve said “The general state of my day-to-day life is OK, but deteriorates quickly if I don’t look after myself”. With that in mind, how do you feel about the prospect of going out on tour again? Are you doing anything different now to prepare yourself?

I’m crossing my fingers really hard. Like, really hard. As tours go, it’s nothing ridiculous in terms of scheduling – this is a small island so the travel time is always bearable, and we’re only on the road for eleven or twelve days and playing ten shows. Beforehand, we set out what the plan would be and the things we absolutely had to do to make it work, and it bears no resemblance at all to the dates we ended up booking so I guess a lot of it will be learning by doing. My company on the road is going to count for a lot and I’m in good hands – main support on the tour is Non Canon who is one of my very best friends in the whole world and someone who I would go to the ends of the Earth for, and most of the dates on the tour are being opened by Helen Chambers who is someone who I know well and who is relaxed and kind and happy and friendly. Calm qualities are going to count for a lot. The test is going to be in the really stupid everyday things like: will I remember to eat like a normal human, or will I only remember at 3am when everyone’s asleep? I’m really hoping it all works out fine because there’s plenty riding on it – if it works out, I’m hoping to head out on three or four more tours for this album in the UK and Europe and, if I win the lottery, maybe America too.

  • Click here for Ben Marwood tour dates and tickets.

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