By Jim Kellar

BL Newcastle Herald

A musician’s torment is always ‘Am I good enough?’ The final judgement, almost always, has to come from within because when it comes to making money in the music business, the odds are heavily stacked against success.

Ben Leece, the co-owner of Novotone Studios rehearsal rooms at Carrington with Ryan Wilson, has invested 15 years in the Newcastle music scene. And, as a working musician and studio owner, music remains a sideline, like an unrequited passion.

Leece was raised in Quirindi, on the Liverpool Plains south of Tamworth. He grew up with guitar in the family home, and formed his first rock band, Wooden Jesus, with mates in Quirindi as a teenager.

After spells in Sydney and Thredbo, he moved to Newcastle in 2003 to play in a rock’n’roll band, Dragline – he had successfully auditioned to be the band’s lead singer. But that dream was a dead end. “We didn’t get anywhere,” he says. “Eventually it fizzled out.”

He played in No Heroes (“a southern rock metal type thing”), Every Word (“hardcore”) and then led Delta Lions, which began with high hopes before crashing. I reviewed the Delta Lions debut CD Post Code (“Hammering guitar riffs, catchy lyrics and full throttle tempo”), giving it 3 ½ stars out of 5, but never saw the band live.

Read The full Story Here

2018 marks 20 years since Chris Whitley’s Dirt Floor record. I wrote about my experience with it for Post To Wire. If you are unfamiliar with this record, I urge you to seek it out.

 

2000 was a particularly big year for me personally. I’d finished high school in rural NSW the previous year and had transgressed to the metropolis of Sydney. I spent the year between two share houses, one in La Perouse, the other in Petersham. I’d be embarrassed to label it anywhere near poverty, but I was certainly struggling, studying and working hospitality to keep the roof over my head whilst my diet consisted of mostly Vietnamese baked bread and potatoes. At absolute point of desperation, one night without enough change for a train fare, I walked from Double Bay to Petersham after a restaurant shift. Despite the tough life lessons, I was an 18 year old kid from the bush in the big city and my brain was split wide open, nut-shelled by the night I sat opposite an Asian lesbian couple on an Oxford Street bus. I’d come from a country town where men were men and homosexuality was outlawed, and the Chinese restaurant inside the Commercial Hotel was about as foreign as things got. 

In Petersham I shared a busted old deco semi with Dan Leffler and his older brother Dub. Dan was a guy a couple years my senior and was actually a large part of why I pursued music. At school, lunchtimes were spent in the music room sitting in awe of his fast, fluent Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman riffing. Dub was different. Thinking on it now he was still somewhat lost and figuring it out himself and perhaps he’d recognised that in me. Dub was a blues guy. He’d already tipped me to folks like Ry Cooder and both Elmore and Etta James, via his incredible sketched portraits Blu-Tac’d to the walls. One day he was playing this swampy turnaround in an open C# tuning on his old Valencia steel string guitar. It was ‘Scrapyard Lullaby’the introduction to Chris Whitley’s 1998 record Dirt Floor.

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Chris Whitley’s music was never garish, or over exaggerated, but on the three albums that precede Dirt Floor there is a definite polish. It was almost inevitable that if you were making an American major label record in the 90s, you had to be sure your production was wet and tightly compressed – God damn how I hated the tight ping of a piccolo snare, thank goodness the trend was retired. Just to be clear, they are great records. I love them, I really do, and technically, by standards of the day, they are sonically sound. All three were met with praise and those who knew, knew. But despite the critical acclaim, Whitley never really sold enough to appease the majors. I believe Dirt Floor was his reset. Things had fallen apart and he put it all back together the best way he knew how, by reinterpreting the raw Delta blues he’d grown up on.

Recorded in one day on a two-track and lone ribbon microphone in his father’s shed in Vermont, it could very well be Whitley’s Nebraska. Bruce put something out amidst a heavy trend toward slick, every-hole-plugged production to remind people that if the song is good enough, two SM57’s and a four-track is all you need. In an era of nu-metal and the decline of golden era hip hop, for me, Dirt Floor arrived just in time to explain it once again.

fullsizeoutput_bce2‘Scrapyard Lullaby’ opens the record and it immediately puts you right there in that empty barn on his father’s farm. You can almost see the sun spill through a clouded window to show up the dust bouncing from a timber floor as Whitley gently stomps a worn out leather boot, dragging the National along with its beat while his voice delicately levitates above it all, as if almost afraid to wake someone in the next room. Chris Whitley threads a certain magic and recurring alchemy throughout the record. The juxtaposition of existing in one of the biggest cities in the world, walking the streets with Dirt Floor through my ears completely illustrated the sense of isolation I was feeling. It was the sound of a world racing around me while I stood still. In ‘Wild Country’, Whitley sings about ‘breaking rocks all day on the avenue’ and at this very time I’d picked up a couple weeks work labouring with my uncle, a stone mason. You ever have that moment where you are convinced a record is written just for you? ‘Down on the pavement the laws are learned, so hard to get warm where it’s so easy to get burned,’ is wisely proclaimed in ‘Indian Summer’ by a man who so obviously speaks from experience.

The import version, the version known to me, included three bonus tracks, a cover of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’and live performances of ‘Living With The Law’, the title track from his 1991 debut and ‘Alien’ which closes his Terra Incognita record. ‘Alien’ is performed with his staunch daughter Trixie who has since gone on to forge a musical career in her own right. ‘You can see now I’ve got a foreign friend, everybody knows the alien,’ the combination of Whitley’s lyrics and modest production gives an other worldly presence to the song. It’s quite a thing to review the work of certain artists posthumously. Perhaps it’s easy to get caught in the romance of it all, but I look back at people like Chris and can’t help but think they were operating as medium or some sort of conduit to somewhere not of this Earth. They carry the burden as far as they can, before laying it to rest. 

Dub loaned me the CD and it did not leave my stereo for weeks – it may not have left at all had he not claimed it back. I taped a copy so it could travel with me while I trudged through the streets of Sydney, amongst the canopy of high rises, wide-eyed and alone. In recent years I’ve heard that same alchemy in the songs of Kris Morris and Matt Walker and I wonder if they had a similar experience with this album. I think it takes a special white man to sing the blues. Many who try fall short of conviction – just this bloke’s opinion. Whitley certainly sung mine and Dirt Floor will be a record I return to always.

Giving yourself a wrap is the most excruciating pain in the ass for any fair dinkum person writing and playing music, or anything creative for that matter, particularly when you don’t regard yourself that highly in the first place. The idea of art and commerce sucks, they were never meant to walk hand in hand and one should not drive the other, yet in order to exist as an artist they more or less do. So more often than not you’ll have people creating some of the best art ever heard or seen that live on or below the poverty line in order to do so and those who create shit to sell and live comfortably. It’s a fine line to walk and it’s hard not to get sucked into all the rubbish and politics that go along with it. For me this was ultimately born out of necessity to stay afloat – if not for pen and paper I don’t know what. I tried to walk away from everything a couple of years ago, but couldn’t. The upshot here is that you need to note the little wins you get along the way. On the bottom rung no one is going to sing your praises so you need to sing them yourself, excruciating as it may be.

So that little ceremony I posted about a while ago took place last week and the winners for the The Independent Music Awards were announced at the Lincoln Centre in NYC and the monicker Ben Bloody Leece was amongst them for Best Alternative Country Song. There is a fan (vox pop) judged category and an industry judged category and Trace, which was recorded with a couple of mates Trent Crawford and Tori Forsyth took out the later. The awards were judged by names such as Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan and Slayer amongst a bunch of other artists and industry folk and previous winners have included Ben Kweller, Macy Gray, Bright Eyes, Jackson Browne, Band Of Skulls, Flying Lotus, Killer Mike and Valerie June. So yeah I’m chuffed, particularly about being able to now put my name and Slayer in the same paragraph. Goes to show if you play Raining Blood every time you pick up a guitar and carry a black texta around with you for 25 years and write Slayer on everything in sight, if the stars align, just maybe, something like this will happen. You can view the full list of winners here.

What happens from here? Well, we’ll have to wait and see. I’ll continue to do what I do but if anyone would like to help you can tell your friends about it, save the songs into playlists in your preferred streaming accounts and come along to a show. If you are feeling particularly generous and genuinely like what this bloke is doing you can also sign up to the mailing list on the home page of this site. I’ve got some good stuff in the works and if you’re on that list you’ll be the first to know about it. As with most cases, it’s hard to establish anything without help, so any love anyone gives is absolutely appreciated.

Since first hearing Honest Life late in 2016 it’s been less than secret, my adoration for Courtney Marie Andrews’ song-writing. I’ve written about it, I’ve waxed lyrical to my friends. There are some voices where you struggle to believe a word spoken, then there are voices like Courtney’s where you can’t help but breakaway from the monotonous, mundane presence you currently reside to pay attention. There is a certain tone, a grit in her voice that heaves sincerity. The carefully constructed word play, turn of phrase and wit gifted in magnetic melody is, in my opinion at least, some of the best I’ve heard. Ever. In recent times, Courtney is easily my favourite songwriter and I have been eagerly waiting May Your Kindness Remain since hearing that first single a couple months ago. The whole song held me, but that 3 minute 20 mark…. Oh my f**king dear lord did it send a righteous wave of goose-bumps all over. The rest of the record doesn’t disappoint. Stunning song-writing wrapped in equally stunning production. If you do nothing else this weekend, allow yourself 45 minutes to sit down and listen to May Your Kindness Remain. Nope, no need to thank me. You’re very welcome.

Stream MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN on NPR right now!!!

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Pretty excited about this one. This pelican got his name on a list amongst some of the best in the country, some of who I am stoked to be able to call mates. See the story below taken from Tone Deaf.

As initially announced by The Industry Observer in January, Australia’s inaugural Americana Music Prize has now announced its fifteen-finalists.

The joint initiative between esteemed country musician Shane Nicholson, the Forbes Street Studios and Lost Highway Australia, the prize will take the form in an annual grant, set to support up and coming artists in the genre.

Selected finalists have been judged by a panel of experts within the industry, including Rod Yates (Editor, Rolling Stone), Jane Gazzo (Triple M) and Michael Taylor (Lost Highway/Universal). The winner will receive a $10, 000 prize pack, giving them the boost they need to kick off their already burgeoning careers.

The competition attracted an extremely high caliber of entrants – the final fifteen are some of the country’s finest

The Americana Music Prize of Australia – Top Fifteen Finalists

Andy Golledge – “1170″

Badgerhands – “Paper Throne”

Ben Leece – “Smoke Signals”

Dave Garnham – “Worst House In The Best Street”

Jess Dale – “Leaving Woman Blues (I Know, I Know,)”

Jordie Lane – “Black Diamond”

Karl S. Williams – “The Darkest Cloud”

Kelly Brouhaha – “As Long As There’s A Smile”

Larissa Tandy – “Harder Heavier”

Leanne Tennant – “Sorry”

Sam Buckingham – “Jolene”

Sian Evans – “Cold Feet”

Suicide Swans – “Horses”

Thomas Keating – “Begin Again”

Van Walker – ‘Wildgrass”

Some great news this week. Trace has been nominated for an IMA (Independent Music Award) in the Best Alt Country Song category. It’s an international award which makes it particularly special, with some pretty esteemed judges taking part including Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan, Slayer and Amy Lee. Trace, which ironically I had originally written off, seemed to be the song everyone dug from  last year’s 7″ Hank Volume 1. Recorded with Trent Crawford in his little studio on the NSW Central Coast, it also features the vocals of the extremely talented Tori Forsyth who is killing it right now. See below some more detail about the awards and below a link to the fan component where you can have your say.

The Independent Music Awards is a global community of innovative Artists and engaged Fans. We believe artistry, individuality and the pursuit of excellence should be rewarded.

The IMAs honor the most exceptional music, video, concert photography and designs by established and emerging talent.

Iconic Artists, Music Fans, Programmers, Press, Music Supervisors & Talent Buyers from performance venues throughout the Americas, Europe and Pacific Rim choose the year’s best self-released & indie label projects.

 

The Music Industry Has The Grammy’s…Artists Have The IMAs

The annual ceremony held at the iconic Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts in New York City celebrates the year’s best artists and their fans with performances and awards in 96 Album, EP, Song, Video, Producer, Photography and Design categories.

In addition to award recognition, winning songs are promoted globally on branded streaming playlists, in targeted 12 week campaign to over 650 terrestrial & internet radio stations  –  and ongoing performance, promotion and distribution opportunities.

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BEN LEECE HANK VOL 1