Special thanks to Jenelle D’Alessandro for her wonderful transcription help!
Ben and Vesper are a married couple who also happen to record together as Ben + Vesper for Sounds Familyre, you know the Holiday at the Sea/Habañero Hour favorite record label of Daniel Smith. The couple recently recently released an EP called LuvInIdleness, and I recently caught up with them to find out about how their faith affects their art, their relationship with Sufjan Stevens and what’s next:
A question you probably get asked a lot is about being married and being in a band together. Does that present any challenges? Is it great?
B: We love it. It comes really natural to us because that’s sort of the context in which we met. That’s always been the way we worked together.
V: I guess I realized recently that it’s actually been the best thing for our marriage.
V: It’s brought us together time-wise. We’ve always spent a lot of time together because we work at home, but I think it just created an understanding between us artistically. It added another level to our relationship.
We found that when we had to communicate on an artistic level, it helped our communication on an every-day level. It brought us to a common ground, to a place of being flexible in understanding one-another, but also to really challenge each other and try to bring out the best in each other. It’s really worked both ways, it’s stretched us in our marriage towards a healthy direction, as well. For us, it’s just always been a part of our relationship.
Did you meet through music?
V: We met kind of on a fluke. We were playing at the same music festival which wasn’t really a festival, there were about 5 people in the audience, and most of them were playing that day.
B: It was an outdoor festival. The stage was the size of Woodstock. It was giant, the biggest stage I’ve ever seen, let alone played on.
V: The whole attendance could have sat on the stage, easily. It was very uncomfortable.
B: It was “the stage that was set for our first meeting.”
V: Something went off in me as soon as I saw Ben, and I knew I was going to marry him. But it was another year and a half before we started dating. I think because neither of us were interested in casual dating at all. Yes, it was a long, excruciating year and a half of pining.
But you were both doing music prior to meeting.
B: We were in separate bands.
How was the transition then to doing music together?
V: We’d always played music together, even when we were just friends because we clicked so closely. Ben was doing a folk-duo, Simon and Garfunkel-type duo. I was just doing my own folky thing. It was really kind of easy to sit in on each other’s stuff. We played together a little bit.
When we got married I was mostly doing the most active song-writing and performing. But Ben would accompany me. We’ve always done this together but the difference was that this project–meaning Ben + Vesper–is that it started when I was just about to have our 2nd child and I really wasn’t finding time at all to do our music. So Ben conceived of this project as a way to give me a chance to sing without a whole lot of preparation or intense work. We conceived of this just originally just being Ben playing electric guitar and the both of us just singing in unison. Quite a different sound than it wound up being.
For those who might not have heard you, how would you describe your music?
V: That’s the question every musician hates.
But every interviewer loves to ask.
V: Someday we’re actually going to craft an answer to that question.
B: Well, the closest, in terms of our latest EP, the closest we’ve come in describing it in words is: if you watch the movie Xanadu then right after that watch a video production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
V: An amateur production, you mean?
B: Any. And then you go to sleep. The soundtrack to your dreams, after watching these two movies, will be LuvInIdleness, our latest EP. That’s the best we can do.
V: Or I guess you can call it ‘indie pop.’
Do you have a typical song-writing process?
B: It’s pretty straight forward for this project. I start with the words and then craft the melody, and then the basic guitar or accompaniment around the melody. It’s really always in that order. I just find that any songs that pushes me to create the melody that is “the truest” to the words and the concepts that I want to convey. Then I’ll bring it to Vesper and she’ll write all of her parts, all of her harmonies. And then once we have it at that stage, then it depends on the tour, on who we’re recording with. They will bring their stuff to the table. We really enjoy that part of the process, because depending on who you’re playing with, you give them time and the music will mutate and transform into something completely different. That’s what we love to be surprised about. That‘s sort of been the process for the past 3 albums that we’ve done.
How did the relationship with Daniel Smith and Sounds Familyre come about?
B: That came about probably 10 years ago.
V: It came about through Sufjan because we used to hold a house concert series in our home. And we had a lot of different types of songwriters come through. So I was doing an interview on a radio station about my music, because that’s what I was doing at the time, and the DJ after we were done just handed me a CD and said, “Hey check out this guy, Sufjan Stevens.” It was his self-produced record called “A Sun Came.” It had just come out. So, I really enjoyed it, and I thought he’d be really interesting to have at a house concert. He had never played his music live before. We actually just found the photos of that concert. We have these historic photos. He just showed up with his banjo and just kind of winged it. And, I think it was maybe a year and a half later that “Seven Swans” came out. Through him I think we went to one of the shows and met Daniel. Or maybe he had submitted some stuff from Sounds Familyre for a different project he was doing. But it was all through that that we had this relationship with them and, like I said, when Ben first conceived of this project he really felt like this would be something he wanted to submit to Sounds Familyre. So I think this whole process between–he took a week to write the song, we recorded the demos in a day, I had the baby, and the next week we had a record deal.
Did having children affect your artistic outlook?
B: Definitely. Absolutely. We are always very quick to say that when had our first child that’s when our artistic endeavors really became more focused. There’s sort of a common eye-line that lifted off. We found a completely new inspiration when we had our first child. And then our second child, it just increased. Our children have really blessed our efforts because they really just provided a new framework for us to write and to perform. There are just as typical challenges now as when we didn’t have kids, but in terms of a life-style, we really enjoy doing music and art as a family. So, we’ve really found it to be a symbiotic relationship: parenting and producing art.
Vesper, you do visual art also, right?
V: We both do. We both have degrees in art.
Is the creative process similar for the different mediums? How do they relate to one another, or do they?
V: I think they definitely relate to each other. I think it’s also interesting because Ben and I have very different approaches to our artwork. He’s much more an expressionist kind of painter. I’m an illustrator. So, what I do is a lot more of straight-forward communication. You better get it within the first 10 seconds, or I haven’t done my job. Whereas, his work is much more layered and nuanced, in terms of the communicating meaning aspect. I think that our song-writing is very similar to that, too. My songs are much more straight-forward, trying to tell a story or really craft an image for you that means you should really get it on the first hearing. There’s not much…it’s more in the folk tradition. Ben’s is much more…he really experiments with the way words sound together. It’s a much more experimental style of writing, I think.
B: I think it’s just that I want to, in m y writing, just appeal a little more to the subconscious level, rather than telling the story in a didactic way, but telling it more in a way that draws out the listener. Even if the meaning of the song isn’t apparent on the first listen. I think Vesper’s right in that that’s much more of the way I paint, visually. But they definitely work together. Whenever I am painting, I’m a better song-writer. When I’m not painting I think my songs suffer. So it’s really important for us to be doing different aspects of art at the same time.
V: I also think that one interesting thing has been how we’ve cross-pollinated. We did much different artwork before we got together. So my work now takes on a lot more expression and Ben can definitely take out the double “o” brush now and add at a lot of detail. We’re actually sitting in front of a painting that Ben did and it is a very literal painting of a horse on a very, very detailed grass. It looks like something I did. Except that the horse is beady pink. That’s a little different. I probably wouldn’t choose that color.
How does your faith influence your art?
B: I think about it in terms of that we’re both Christians and we both in the Word of God as the absolute foundation of our life and everything we do and think and feel. And so, naturally, it comes through anything we try to express, any endeavor that we put our hand to is going to be informed by our deepest convictions. That’s really as simplistic as i can make it. For us it’s not really a conscious decision about a certain genre that we’re aiming towards, artistically. It’s more a matter of how does our beliefs enter into not just our production of art, but our production of everything: every decision we make, every thought process, it has to be informed by our relationship with God. So, it’s never been something we think too much about in terms of coming to a crisis point of “are we Christian artists, or aren’t we?” I think the short answer is: we’re Christians and we’re artists. We can, sort of, let others play with what that means.
V: For me, one of the values I really hold highly is authenticity. And I think that if you really believe that your entire life is under the gaze of God, your entire life and everything you think and everything you do, then you better not try to BS anybody. And you better not try to push people into a paradigm that they aren’t interested in. Does that make sense?
In terms of what a lot of people try to do, they either try to be so completely overt in their music with the gospel message that it ends up just becoming propaganda and people that don’t believe don’t want to spend the time listening to that. It’s not their paradigm. Or it ends up being, “oh, we have to try to infiltrate some sort of ‘culture,’ so let’s just suppress what we believe and intentionally not speak of it. Both of those are lies. I don’t think God thinks kindly to that approach.
B: I think it’s a question of context. It’s knowing your context, knowing the proper context for the creative output. One reason I respect Daniel Smith and why The Danielson Family has always been such an important band to me is that he is always very clear about his context. He’s clear about what he’s trying to do with his music and the people he wants to speak to. He’s created a universe and world where he has certain parameters and his audience is very much in mind. He’s 100% authentic. He can speak about his faith the way he wants to and he doesn’t let anybody dictate the rules. He creates the rules of what he feels comfortable with. But his intention is communication. So his words, lyrics, his song-writing is very specific and very important to his goal of communication to a specific audience. I really, really respect that and that’s something that we also feel very strongly about. So there’s absolutely…it’s wonderful if you feel that your music, your art, if you want to try to communicate the entire gospel message.
Is that possible, though?!
B: I think it’s possible, obviously it depends on…it’ll be an aspect, or a shade, a color, or a face of the gospel.
V: There are so many facets.
B: In other words, whatever the Lord is leading you to do, that’s wonderful as long as you know your context and you do it in the context where it’s appropriate. So to get up and play a worship song at CBGBs…it depends. If you’re going for communication with that audience, there’s going to be a lot that’s wasted, because that’s music that is meant for an intimate with the Lord. So, if those people in that audience have an intimate relationship with the Lord, then maybe it’s appropriate. So, it’s really about knowing your audience. That is I think where a lot of people get hung up.
V: I just want to add one thing, too, in relation to our house concert history. When we were running the house concerts we lived in the parsonage of our church, so there were some questions about what kinds of acts we could bring in. But we really felt very strongly that it was not about–we had run the Christian coffee house circuit for awhile, I had anyway. And, man. Wow. What can you say? There were some instances in which I was treated so poorly as a performer that I remember the point in which I said, “I will never play in another Christian coffee house,” because it was treated as, “Well, you either have to push the whole gospel message…so that these unbelievers might darken the door of your church basement will get saved by the end of the night.” Or, you’re really just merely providing background music to the “evangelical” work that’s going on, which is people trying to evangelize the people at their table. And we just didn’t feel like we wanted to run that kind of concert. We just wanted it to be about music and beauty. We had certain boundaries, certain things that we asked of the artists. By and large, we felt that our job (our ministry, if you could call it that), was to provide hospitality to these musicians. And, whether they were Christians or not. We felt it was our calling at the time to show as much kindness and authenticity and hospitality to the people who may not receive it when they’re on tour, or just in a club. I think that we have a similar approach to our music right now. For us, it’s primarily that relationship…so whether it’s with the people that we’re playing with in a band, or the people in the studio, or the people that we meet after a show, it’s really just about showing true love to people, really.
We’ve talked about the pressure to sometimes explicitly state the entire gospel in every piece of work…how did we move, especially in the Christian subculture, from taking this entire body of work to judging artists by a single piece of work as a propaganda piece?
B: I think part of the problem that I find is that people are so, we need to redouble our commitment to the artist, to really explore beyond sort of the surface of a song, or even a collection of songs…to work hard to follow the artists that we love and support over the long haul, so that we can step back and get a greater perspective of what’s being said. Just as audience-goers, as listeners, we need to make sure that we’re not being lazy. We need to make sure that we’re being fans and supporters who are really committed to understanding what’s being put forward. I just think that’s really important. That‘ something I try to do as a listener, as a fan of the music that I love. I think that in that way, a lot of times artists who are trying to be light and salt and witnesses in this world, if you do look at the larger body of work, you will often find something that’s more encompassing…I think it’s more about stepping back, about not taking things out of context, but really looking at the whole.
V: Artists are human beings., we’re entitled to a few duds. We are entitled to make some mistake along the way. I think it really is about looking at the larger body of work. We’re sitting here right now looking at a Alexander Calder mobile. Some of them are absolute masterpieces (they all are really masterpieces), but some of them are, you know, might not have hit the mark. But you look at the overall body of his work and you know that this man was one of a kind.
B: I think it’s important for an artist to be able to try things and develop, and to do work that is half finished, but maybe discovers something new and pushes the envelope. And challenges the listener and the artist and can take the next piece off in a new direction. It’s important to make sure that there’s room for that. The industry isn’t necessarily geared toward that. But I think it’s the responsibility of the artist to “never mind” the industry and just to be a responsible artist to always be exploring, and to never feel the need to close the circle, to complete and perfect and tidy up their work, or to cross all their T’s and dot all their I’s. I think that’s where art really suffers, it’s where the artist knows exactly what they’re doing, and they know exactly how they’ll execute it. And then the art becomes meaningless and doesn’t really end up taking people very far, because there’s no give and take [buzzing], so that’s really on us as artists. It’s also the listener‘s responsibility, I think that’s where the relationship becomes really important.
On some level, and especially in the “Christian market” doesn’t this mean re-training listeners? How do we do that?
V: Early music education in schools! Absolutely. I’m really serious, by the way.
B: I think, honestly, that, and there needs to be a serious revival of Christian music like Bach. Where it’s music that is from a completely different era and paradigm. It needs to be so removed from the current industry. I think it’s true. We do need to retrain ourselves on our heritage. We need to understand our heritages as Christians and as artists. Because the problem is now, the industry the way it is, the only reference point that any teenage Christian has, or the music that they are looking for, the music that they like is: go to the Christian bookstore, or go online on iTunes and they’ll see a reference that says, “sounds like Nirvana…you’ll like these guys.”
How did we as Christians go from being at the forefront of the arts, to now just being copycats?
V: Fear. I’m just thinking a little bit of the Reformation here, too. I mean, I’d have to sit down and formulate my thoughts about that. When the Reformation happened, so much that was good happened, but it was also really iconoclastic, so it relegated the arts into teaching tools (which they kind of always were in the Church). But I’m thinking of Bach. Most stuff after Bach, what can you say, in terms of the Church’s relationship to the arts. The pendulum just swung too far over. I think it goes back that far. If you go back to the Reformation. And then I think when the Enlightenment happened they were the ones that were triumphing the new developing the new developments and the arts and we just went into hiding. There’s more to it…
B: I think whenever it really happened, we don’t really know, whenever the shift was it’s because we lost our vision for who we’re supposed to be in the world, and how we’re supposed to relate to the world. And how we’re supposed to be in the world, but not of it. It’s just we have a confused relationship with the world, just in general. Never mind the arts. If you talk about being copycats in music or in art, it’s only because we’re copycats in every other aspect of life to the world. The world still has so much draw to us that we end up lusting over things of the world. That really comes back to the fact that our love for God is not strong enough to the point that we don’t understand a relationship with God. We don’t understand how beautiful and lovely and worthy God is so our affections for him aren’t what they should be. Our affections for the world are out of whack and become much stronger. That’s when we begin losing our distinction as Christians. And losing our salt, because we don’t want to be salty, we want to be with the world, we want to be of the same substance of the world. And we forget that the Lord calls us out of the world. But, I really think it does stem from…something is wrong with our knowledge of God. We don’t understand who it is that we worship, we don’t understand who we serve, who we say we love. So we go after these other things. Art is just sort of an obvious fruit of that. It’s really the first commandment.
V: One of my favorite quotes is from M. Staples and she says, “The devil ain’t got no music. All music is God’s music.” And it’s the truth. It’s the devil that’s the one that counterfeits. The quote really echoes from Psalm 16 that says “at the Lord’s right hand are pleasures forevermore.” I think that if we as Christians really really understood the beauty of God, and really understood his pleasure, we would let go of all this…it’s very freeing when you realize that God is the author of life and beauty and truth and everything good. And there’s no conflict there. We’re free to pursue, under God’s gaze (obviously)…we’re really much more free, as Christians, than we think we really are to not only confront the world, but trump it. We have the trump card. We have the Author of all this truth and beauty that everybody really is seeking after. I think, Mike Bickle says, “if we understood just the primary pleasures, the secondary pleasures would have their rightful place.” And the primary pleasure is God himself.
Are there any practical ways where churches can help foster the arts again?
V: Preach the first commandment in the first place.
B: Yeah I really think it comes down to that. I don’t think it needs to be that churches need to open up all of these specialized ministries or outreaches, or try to be cool, or any of that. It needs to be at the root, to really seek as the Church, to become God’s temple again. Where he is worshipped and adored and glorified for who he is. The rest will follow. At the end of the day, music means nothing. Art means nothing, if God is displaced by our idols. Everything else becomes completely worthless. That’s what really what the church can do: to make a commitment to prayer and worship and to the Word. To love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And to love our neighbor as our self. That’s what it comes down to.
B: We are getting ready to go on a short 2 week tour. We begin next week. We’re going to be touring with Danielson and with Ortolan who is another wonderful band on Sounds Familyre. We’re going to be heading down to SXSW and playing several shows along the way. That’s our next endeavor and we’ll be playing all of our songs from the EP and just be promoting that. That’s what’s next. I’m working on some new material for the next recording. We have another full length that’s being mixed right now that we hope will be ready for the summer.
Anything else that you want people to know?
B: Something that I try to live by, creatively, is the idea that as Christians we should be first to be the most experimental and the most engaging and the most inventive in our creative pursuits. Because we have the most reason to be. We have the greatest example before us in Jesus, in the Father, in the Holy Spirit. We have the most reason to be the most daring in our art, the most reckless in our creativity, because there’s nothing more reckless and crazy than what Jesus did for us. So, how can we hold back in our creation? How can we be so conservative and safe, and just sort of boring, when we are sons of the Living God? That’s really what I try to live and work by, what Vesper and I try to order our lives. So just to encourage others that they have freedom, because our Creator is a joyful God and he’s worth celebrating.
- Visit Ben + Vesper at Sounds Familyre