Sydney singer-songwriter Ben Ransom has been part of the Australian country music scene for several years – yet he’s called his new album 101. But that’s not because it’s basic, as I found out when I listened to it and also when we spoke recently. Ransom was the first artist signed to the new Country Rocks label and is on the bill for the Country Rocks festival in Sydney on 3 March.
Congratulations on the album, you must be very pleased with it.
Thank you so much. It’s been a long time coming. Eighteen months it’s been in the works and it’s all coming to a crescendo now.
I saw something saying it’s been the longest pre-production for any of your albums – what was the reason for that?
The real reason was purely financial. Being independent you have to finance these things yourself and it’s an expensive business. But on the plus side, that allows time for a lot more attention to detail, scrutinising things, backwards and forwards between myself and the producer with the pre-production and ideas. I’ve been working on songs since the debut album. I whittled it down from about 50 songs to the 10 that are on the album now, so it’s pretty much the cream of the crop in terms of the work that I’ve been doing. This is leading into why the album’s called 101. Initially it was called Dog Days and Highways, because I’ve seen plenty of those in my day. But everything I’ve been doing and working towards and taking in from music over the last eighteen months – actually between the first studio album and this one – has been consolidated and focused in this one release. So if you want to know about myself and my music, this is where you start. So, 101.
When you are choosing your songs, whittling down that selection, have you demoed all the songs or are some of them still written down only?
About half of them actually made it to the demo stage. I have songs that I recorded into my phone, which is a great tool. You’re writing down and you’ll come up with ideas and work on them from there. Then out of all those you think, This is going somewhere, and you complete that then demo it up. Because I worked closely with the producer, Chris Burnow – who is actually the drummer in the band – and he’d say, ‘Let’s try that one,’ by the time we went to go into the studio we had an idea of the ones we were going to do, so the ones that didn’t make the cut we didn’t even work up in pre-production.
With the songs that didn’t make it – particularly the ones that didn’t reach demo stage – do you feel like you should go back and work on them to see if they’re good enough for the next album? Or are you quite good at letting things go?
There’s always a bit of that. I’ve still got rough versions stored in my phone – in my last phone. I hope that technology doesn’t become obsolete! It’s funny, you kind of revisit things and you may even pinch a couple of best bits from one thing and then it channels off into another song. I have incidences where I’ve taken bits of songs that have hit the cutting-room floor and used them as bits in co-writes. So you never know what can happen.
Do you do much co-writing?
No, I don’t. I like to keep things having a personal appeal or that are about me in some way, and that’s what I focus a lot of my songwriting on. But on this particular release I went into a co-writing session with Allan Caswell, and one of the later additions to the album was a co-write. It’s turned out to be one of my favourites. It’s called ‘Heartland’. I’d already written this song and then took it into a co-write with Allan because it felt a bit unfinished in spots. He listened to it and loved it, and helped me to tidy it up a bit. It’s now because what the version is on the album. So that’s the only co-write that has made it onto the record and, indeed, it’s the only co-write that I’ve done over the past couple of years … I guess from my point of view, when I’m writing I might come up with an idea for a song, I tend to think about it, go away and come back to it. Other stuff will pop into my mind. I don’t suddenly get a gush of inspiration and go, ‘Bang, that’s it, that’s the song’, and it all just pours out at once. I do come back and revisit things, swap things around. So going into a co-writing session with someone, it’s somewhat counterproductive because I don’t always come up with the ideas right there and then. I do like the idea of collaboration, though.
But that’s what you do with your producer, to an extent.
That’s right, yes. A producer is key to a successful record. In my circumstances Chris has done a fantastic job and it’s probably his first major job that he’s done. He’s done lots of bits and pieces [before].
So you didn’t find him cranking up the drums in the mix?
[Laughs] He’s very attuned to all facets of the recording process. Drums are great to work with because they form a solid part of the rhythm section, but he was quite restrained. I find myself doing it – ‘You need more here.’
To take you way back, to before you first started writing songs and playing guitar, what did you grow up listening to? What was most formative for you?
Mum and Dad loved music – we had music playing all the time. Mum liked country – she was listening to artists like Kenny Rogers. John Denver was a big favourite of hers. She also liked people like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. And early rock ’n’ roll – Buddy Holly. She was big on The Beatles. And I’m the product of the disco era and listened to a lot of disco stuff. Dad’s mad on Irish folk. He actually plays bagpipes. He was in a pipe band. I grew up listening to a lot of Australian pub rock and that has influenced the kind of stuff that I do. You’re always learning and grabbing ideas from everything that you’re exposed to. It doesn’t really matter what genre but I think a good song is a good song and if it appeals to you for whatever reason, it appeals to you. But when doing my songwriting it always comes back to those rootsy kind of influences.
And in terms of who your parents liked: they were all great entertainers regardless of the genre. When you started to play music and to think about being a performer, did that form part of your awareness of what the job would be?
I have vivid memories of my brother and I jumping around the lounge room using tennis racquets as guitars. And even when I started playing guitar – I guess I got this feeling and inspiration that that’s what I wanted to do. But I guess that’s the stars-in-your-eyes kind of thing. Until you actually get into the industry and start working in it, you don’t realise exactly what it’s all about. It’s a lot tougher than what you think. It’s really not all about fame and fortune. So what I’ve learnt as I’ve matured – actually, I don’t know if I’ve matured because the older I get the more immature I feel – is that really it’s about the songs and the connection with the audiences. They’re the most important things. I think the performance part of that trickles on from there. I’ve been doing live shows for ages, and it was all wild antics and getting the crowd going, that kind of thing, but now I’m focusing on how the music connects with the audience.
That’s always the best place to start but it’s particularly appropriate in country music, because the audience is very much there with you, as we see when Tamworth rolls around. That audience expects the connection, loves the connection and will maintain it with the artists that they like.
That’s right. I was living in England for a couple of years and the crowds over there were wild – it was literally like a B&S ball every night you played. I came back and I’d do some shows here, and people would sit and watch – and it’s so intimidating! [Laughs] Because when people are rowdy and going silly, it’s very forgiving in that you can kind of get away with a lot, but when people are quiet and sitting there, watching you, you realise, Oh my god – this has got to be perfect. But I’ve found a happy medium – we still get the crowd up and still try to do a good job performance wise.
I sometimes think with country it would be such a challenge for performers like you who could go into a younger pub environment but then if you’re doing shows in Tamworth, for example, there can be a quieter way of listening.
And trying to find something that connects with people across all age groups is a bit of a challenge. Which is why, in this new release, I think there’s something there for everyone. There’s varying styles but it all still falls under the umbrella of country music.
I mentioned Tamworth and you were in Toyota StarMaker in 2012 – would you recommend it to people?
Yes, it was a fantastic experience. It is worthwhile because it’s such a great level of exposure that you get. The support crew behind it are fantastic. The prize is amazing. You don’t even need to win the prize to get something out of it and get your foot in the door in the industry. I guess the only negative thing for me is that I don’t like competitions. I look at Australian Idol and The Voice – that kind of thing – and that’s somewhat different because that’s a multinational TV show, multi-million-dollar business that’s just about selling a TV show and, really, little to do with the music. I don’t like pitching people against one another. I understand what it is [but] I like the idea that everyone has their own individuality and something to offer, and it may not be the same as the next person.
It sounds like StarMaker gives you the opportunity to meet people, get some good experience and within your particular genre.
Yes, and such a great springboard to launch your career. I have absolutely no regrets at being associated with it – and I managed to get into it two years in a row.
You were the first artist to the new Country Rocks label – how did that come about?
What a great thing to happen! It was really great timing. Mick Bond started the label with Karen Waters and it’s probably only twelve months old. Great little independent label. I had been mates with Mick Bond for a while. We met in Tamworth, actually, through mutual gigging and people we knew. He had this idea for creating the label in the middle of doing this album – because it was such a long process – and we chatted about a few things and did some work together, and I guess it was the perfect storm and it all just came together. Karen came on board and she got a great deal through MGM Distribution, and it’s all happy days.
Along with the label, there is the Country Rocks Festival in Sydney in March, and you are on the bill. It must be nice to have a home festival, because you’re a Sydney boy.
It is great, and it’s a great initiative. It started off as the Sydney Country Music Festival, put on by the Hills Shire Council. There was a period here in New South Wales that all the councils went through this forced amalgamation and it kind of got pushed to the backburner. Six months turned to twelve months to eighteen months and they hadn’t really done anything with it. Then the Country Rocks team went in and pitched an idea to the council and it was just fortuitous timing. They loved what they felt the Country Rocks team could offer them. It’s now formed part of the Summer Concert Series out there in the Hills. There will be artists who are the cream of the Australian country music scene: Lee Kernaghan, Adam Brand, James Blundell, Tania Kernaghan … It’s going to be fast and furious. There’s a huge line-up. People are going to be blown away.
And I saw that the early bird tickets have already sold out, so clearly there’s a demand there.
It will be a great crowd. It’s also bringing new styles of country music to audiences who probably usually wouldn’t go to a country music festival. And it’s dispelling a few myths about the country music scene, and the stigma that can be attached to that style or that genre.
Do you like that festival experience?
I love it. I particularly think that my strengths as a performer are the live shows and particularly big live shows where you’re running around and really giving the people some good entertainment. I don’t like to sit still. So having a big stage and an opportunity to do that is definitely what I like. I don’t like the quiet gigs where people are sitting there watching you. I always remember one of the first big outdoor concerts I went to – it was Bon Jovi at Eastern Creek [in Sydney]. And just the size of the stage and the sheer volume – you can actually feel the music penetrating you all the way through to your bones. That kind of feeling gives me a buzz. That’s what I like [laughs].
Beyond March, are you planning to do some shows?
We’re putting a tour together at the moment. Starting in February but the big one kicking off in March with the festival. Some regional shows. We have some stuff already booked in south-east Queensland, north Queensland, and hopefully by the time Tamworth has finished we’ll have a whole lot of stuff locked in that will take us from March through to June.
101 is available now through Country Rocks/MGM.