Benjamin Russell
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Benjamin Russell

Montréal, Quebec, Canada

Montréal, Quebec, Canada
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"Criminally Underrated Artists/Bands ~ Benjamin Russell"

Quite often, listening to David Marsden and Ed-FM introduces me to fabulous music that I missed out on the first time around. Both DJs are committed to promoting underrated musicians, unearthing gems to share with their listeners. As a result, we are are always the winners.

Benjamin Russell is one such criminally underrated artist. I first heard his rare and obscure 80's song “Miracle” on Ed-FM’s Retrospect show from CFRC. A while back, I attempted to research and write a “Criminally Underrated” article about Mr. Russell, but wasn’t able to find either ”Miracle” or much information, at all. Lucky for me, he recently left a comment on one of the playlist postings; it lead to some correspondence, culminating in today’s interview. So, sit back and take a few minutes to experience this uber-talented, charming, and endearing musician.

Benjamin Russell Interview ~ 4-1-2011

Q – When did you know that you wanted to be a musician?
A – When I was about 2 years old, I heard “rock’n'roll” on the radio, loved it, and tried changing the channels to get the songs I liked. Ever since then, I dreamed of being the one making music, but never thought I could do it until my sister got a guitar and learned to play. I figured if she could do it, so could I. I never looked back.

Q – What/who inspired you to choose music as your profession?
A – It was the crazy days of the late 60's, early 70's when there were no rigidly defined genres. You had bands like King Crimson who did the heaviest rock imaginable, but they had sweet beautiful music on the same record. Elton John’s first record was all over the place. When I heard Dylan doing” Tambourine Man” and “The Sounds of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel, I realized I didn’t need a band to get started, so I jumped in.

Q – What artist(s) influenced your music back in the beginning, and now (if different)?
A – I’ve always tried to be original, but I listen to everything I can. As Elvis Costello says, “It’s not IF you steal, it’s WHO you steal FROM.”

But my thefts always get filtered through my bent sensibilities. The best example is MIRACLE. My producer actually tried to get me to cover “Let the Music Play” by Shannon with the idea that our version would come out in Canada before hers and we’d basically steal the sales. But I just couldn’t do it. To appease him, I sort of turned it inside out and put my thing into it and that’s MIRACLE. Can you hear Shannon in there?

One HUGE influence was the B52's. I can clearly remember walking down St. Laurence in Montreal and passing an open door with a jukebox playing “Planet Claire” and it was like a switch went off in me! Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams”, Gary Numan’s “Cars”, XTC’s “Respectable Street” – those were the magnets drawing me away from The Clash when I was doing my “Pop Modern(e)” album for TGO.

Q – Who do you currently listen to?
A – I’ve got a long list and it just keeps on growing. I still love most of what I’ve loved since I was a kid, but there’s amazing new stuff every day. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to The Black Keys new CD. I really like the last couple of Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco CDs. K’naan is a big fav. Adele, Ray Lamontagne, Keane, Kenna. Geez, there’s just so much good music! One of my new discoveries is pretty old stuff, but it’s new to me – Shostakovich – I’m enjoying his string quartets. The guy had to write this stuff in secret because it wasn’t state approved in the Soviet Union. I relate to the underground aspect and the emotional intensity.

Q – Which comes first – the music or the lyrics, and why?
A – That’s changed from when I first started writing songs. In the beginning, it was always words first, then music. But now I hear stuff in my head, try to grab it before it flies away, and often it’s the music first. Sometimes I have these amazing dreams where I’m writing a song and playing it for someone at the same time. I wake up and just write it all down – it’s like words and music spontaneously erupting together!

Q – Have you been recording steadily over the past 20+ years, or have you taken a break?
A – I have never stopped writing and recording. Simultaneously with me being nominated Most Promising Male Vocalist in the nationally televised CASBY Awards, I had “irreconcilable differences” with TGO, my label, and had to get a lawyer to get out of the deal.

To be fair, I don’t think Tony Green knew what he was getting into when he signed me. I’m fiercely independent artistically, and I was naive enough to think I could get away with it while suckling at the teat of the mainstream industry. I’ve made 9 albums since my 15 seconds of fame in the 80's. The newest one, ROCKHILL has some stuff on it that my fans from back then seem to like, STARVED, DECEMBER, DEEP MAGIC, QUIET, GHOST.

Q – What do you think of the availability of music electronically?
A – Artistically it’s the best thing that’s happened to me! Now I don’t need to bend to label pressure and can do exactly wha - Rave and Roll Blog


"Benjamin Russell’s New Album, Rockhill"

Benjamin Russell‘s excellent new album is an amalgam of avant-garde modernity, earthy tradition, and Brian Eno-like eccentricity. When the self-produced Rockhill (TCBE Records, 2010) hit the CIAMM desks this week, it was instantly noticed for its uniqueness. There is a brave, progressive vibe at play here; a production conducted from a vantage point above many a lesser player’s peak. Little was I to know the true width and breadth of Benjamin’s artistic expression, and family approach to his creativity. Prolifically talented as a young Saskatoon performer, his wandering spirit eventually brought him to Montreal, and the love of his life, Elyce. Together, they grew a whole musical family around themselves, and the roots of a music career that now spans 14 albums garnering national acclaim, and some 500 songs committed to paper…Literally, this man’s music is his life. His other form of expression, in the visual arts, adds yet another dimension to his fierce creativity. Benjamin is very generous with his abilities, many, of which, he shares as a music producer for an array of indie Canadian artists. Whether by paint brush stroke or music note, there is always evidence of an uplifting, unified strength in his work.

Learn how Benjamin Russell shaped his whole life in the pursuit of perfect expression, and of his long road to get there. To succeed on so many levels, you need an artist’s vision, so CIAMM presents this feature to serve as inspiration to all of our artists to Stick To Your Vision. We speak to Benjanim Russell, for this exclusive interview, via email, in the days leading up to the band’s next appearance at NamasThe, in scenic Ormstown, QC.

Download Let It Be Real, From Rockhill, featuring JF Dumais

Are you strictly a studio act?

The short answer is no.

Live performance comes and goes for me. Over the years I’ve performed in venues ranging from busking in the street to art gallery concerts, to clubs (I played the Rivoli in Toronto, and Club Soda in Montreal, for example) and I’ve played live on TV.
There have been long periods of retreat into the studio. I’m a painter too and for me, the recording studio is where I can prepare a sonic canvas and paint with sound in ways I can imagine, but couldn’t really do live without some serious fakery.
I love the freedom to do whatever I want. Whoa, back that up! I’m not free at all. I have a slave driver of a muse forcing me to do music that jumps from one genre to another in ways that would drive a band crazy. The studio is the only place I can make it work. Right now, I’m in a live phase. I’ve got my muse back in the bottle long enough to have played some shows over the last year, and I plan to do more.
Are there any live music opportunities in the horizon?
Yes. I want more. Spread the word.

I love playing live whether solo acoustic, with a band or, as I did last night, in a trio with Sandra Chechik on keyboards and José Sierra on bass and guitar.
Here are some links of me playing with Peter Marunzak on drums (formerly of Luba), Peter Patrick on guitar (formerly of Naked Lunch), Sandra Chechik on keyboards and José Sierra on bass:

Watch "Let It Be Real (feat. JF Dumais)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WJgy1JVf3E

Who are your collaborators on this project?
They’re friends, some very talented people.

Sandra Chechik is a film composer (she has music in a Brian Greenaway film). I gave her a poem called “Time” and set her free to do her thing. The track on the album is her music and arrangement (I threw in a few bits like the electric slide work). Sandra is a keyboard player, but didn’t consider herself a singer. I forced her in front of a mic since she was in the studio, and she sang backups on “Magic”. She likes to sing now.
Jean-François Dumais is a producer and multi-instrumentalist. We’ve worked on a lot of stuff together, but only a couple of things ended up on this CD. “Believe” started with sampled drums. JF heard it and asked to play drums on it. He also added percussion on “Water”. You can hear him on my website in a song on another album called, “Let It Be Real”.
Peter Patrick lead player for Naked Lunch, a legendary East Coast psychedelic band, and one of the tastiest acoustic players I know, played on “Connection”. Pete has an impressive guitar collection. I hit on him to borrow his vintage Vantage 12-string electric for some of the tracks.
I co-wrote “Space”, “Breakaway” and “Garden” with my wife, Elyce. I’ve been collaborating with her for a long time and she’s written songs with me that have appeared on earlier albums.
“Belong” was written by me and Elyce with help from our son, Oliver.
“Quiet” was originally a pure punk song written by me, Elyce and my drummer from back then, Mike Bessette.
Fred Lemlin played drums on “Hunger”.

Where do you find inspiration for your lyrics?
I get some of my favorite songs from dreams. I try to turn my base self into gold, to tell the truth, not literally, but in some - canadaisamusicmec.ca


"Quotes"

"…his new CD, Rockhill, an impressive, original work... Benjamin has a wide and expressive vocal range and is a talented multi-instrumentalist."
- Ralph Angelillo, Muzik Etc.

"I love this (ROCKHILL) CD. It brings elements from the exciting times of the late sixties and early seventies and makes it fresh and new again, sounding totally modern."
- Duke Eatmon, CBC Radio One Homerun Show

"Combining elements from his punk era with his better remembered electronic Miracle ‘80s pop career, Russell is nothing if not prolific..."
- David Farrell, FYI Music News

"Benjamin Russell‘s excellent new album is an amalgam of avant-garde modernity, earthy tradition, and Brian Eno-like eccentricity."
- zoot aloors, canadaisamusicmec.ca

"An impressive display of staccato, claw hammer style of guitar playing, redolent of Harvest -era Neil Young. His voice is smooth and tuneful, evocative of Ian McCulloch from Echo & The Bunnymen."
- Noisography

"Russell is loaded with talent!"
- The Hamilton Spectator

"...may emerge in time as one of our better singer-songwriters."
- The Montreal Star

"A master of the crafty melodic hook."
- Graffiti Magazine

"His style, voice and playing are right on the money."
- Fanfare Magazine

"A sound and persona of his own."
- Share

"Benjamin Russell did a fantastic show. The interaction was almost unbelievable."
- The Plant

"Benjamin Russell has a very special talent."
- Sunday Express
- various


Discography

Still working on that hot first release.

Photos

Bio

Fans who still request “Miracle”, one of Toronto radio station CFNY’s top songs of all time, and for which he was nominated "Most Promising Male Vocalist" in the CASBY Awards, or who watched the “Power of Love” video when it played in high rotation on Much Music back in the ‘80’s, were pleased to discover Benjamin Russell launched a new CD in 2010.

"Rockhill" is a collection of songs written in a high-rise hideaway in the late '70s and never recorded until now. Back then, Russell was criticized in the Montreal Star for, "... running the risks of confusing eclecticism for dissipation of focus...". "Rockhill" shows the artist embracing this "fault", making it a virtue.

The album's glue is Russell's unique artistic perspective which runs from the gritty sampled folk pop of "Starved" through to the beautiful sentiments of the pure country song, "Garden", touching and infusing this diverse collection of 17 songs with his wide palette of influences.

"Love is the miracle that keeps me alive" - MIRACLE (Miracle of Love) is an unabashed pop rock soul song featuring electric guitar and bass, drums, banjo, keyboards and a prominent tenor sax.

Benjamin Russell is a multi-genre artist who has divided himself in parts for those whose tastes are less wide ranging. RIVER OF STONE is his acoustic folk style project whose first song, FOOTPRINTS IN THE SAND was recently released. BABYLON BABIES was the first song from Russell's next album under his own name. Finally, there's his electro dance project, GURU GROAN…

Live, Benjamin Russell shares his love of solo acoustic performance. His songs are real songs that work no matter what the arrangement, not relying on production gimmicks, and while Russell is a master of these techniques in the studio, he gives it to you straight in his live performances.