Singer/songwriter showcases new album at Stone Mountain Arts Center
It can never be said that musician Ben Hammond isn’t loyal to where he grew up. No matter what adventures his life takes him on, the 2001 Fryeburg Academy graduate from Hiram, Maine always comes home to share his new life experiences.
This time he returns to the Mount Washington Valley with his first album, “[Reasonably] Honest,” for a performance at the Stone Mountain Art Center in Brownfield, Maine, on June 10 at 8 p.m.
“A lot of the bigger artists that go there talk about how nice it is to go back and play a small venue again, and for me it is like this huge venue,” said Hammond, who has been a staple of the valley bar scene on and off for the past few years.
The show is part of an album tour that has had Hammond bouncing back and forth across the Canadian border. Thus far he has had shows in London, Ontario, Toronto, Montreal, Burlington, Vt., Bangor, Maine, Norwood, Mass., and Boston. The tour will continue with another trip to Montreal and appearances in Portland, Maine, and New Jersey.
Hammond’s connection to Canada goes back to his years studying music technology at McGill University in Montreal. It is there that he developed his talent as a musician by performing in jazz, rock, hip hop and a cappella groups and where he established many of his musical contacts. When it came time to record his first album, it seemed natural to head back to the Great White North, and so this past November Hammond set off to Toronto.
The final product of his time in Toronto reveals an artist who is not your topical singer/songwriter. Many of the songs on “[Reasonably] Honest” start with a simple acoustic base and layer on elements of jazz, hip hop and reggae, sometimes within the same song.
“Having known Ben since he first picked up a bass guitar, I can say that he's always been both talented and ambitious,” said Kelly Muse who is performing with Hammond at the Stone Mountain show. “His jazz experience gives him the skills to write really intelligent songs, but Ben manages to do so in a way that isn’t forced. It’s a rare kind of organic smart rock that brings elements of folk, funk and jazz. His new album is a perfect example."
Dan Berglund, who has known Hammond since nursery school and will also be joining him Tuesday, agrees that Hammond’s diverse musical background makes him a fresh voice and performer.
“I think his new album is great,” said Berglund. “His voicings and harmonies are a clear indication of his musical intelligence, and the broad scope of the styles he writes in is a refreshing change from the commercial pop scene.”
“Let’s Get Alone,” the first track on “[Reasonably] Honest” perfectly encapsulates Hammond’s ability to blend genres. Starting out as a catchy, pop jazz song, it seamlessly segues into a rap interlude written and performed by Kweku, one of Hammond’s friends from his days at McGill. The track’s inventiveness is the ideal opener because it lets listeners know they are in the presence of an artist who is willing to take chances.
“We decided to put it up front almost like the way an emcee would introduce a show,” said Hammond. “[Kweku] is introducing a lot of the lyrical themes that happen on the album. I think it worked out really well in that way, and I think it gives a different texture.”
The songs on “[Reasonably] Honest” may seem like a straightforward collection of love songs, but there’s more going on. Hammond begins with the formula of a love ballad and gives it a twist. His songs feature conflict and struggle. They aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hammond is willing to go beyond the superficial and brush up against darker themes.
“Instead of writing break-up songs, I tend to write almost-broken-up songs, and I think those are a lot more interesting than either straight ‘I love you’ or straight ‘I hate you’ because who really feels one way or the other?” said Hammond. “I think on the first listen a lot of my songs you don’t necessarily catch that there are other levels happening lyrically because they can come across as just love songs, which is fine, I don’t mind that.”
There is also a craft in the production of the songs themselves that some listeners may not catch on to, but indeed the recording process for “[Reasonably] Honest” was crucial to its success.
“We did this one a bit different than most pop and rock albums,” said Hammond of the recording process. “We did it in more of a jazz way, in that everything was recorded at the same time and we added to it afterwards, but the vocals, the drums, the bass, the guitar and the piano were all done live in the studio and that was sort of the vibe we were going for with the album — the organic, live, jazzy, improvisational feel where it is loose.”
Once the album was done, Hammond knew he’d want to tour with it, but more importantly he knew he wanted to have a big show in his hometown area.
“I thought about doing a venue in Portland, but then I’d lose a lot of the North Conway crowd and vice versa I’d lose all my Portland people if I did a North Conway show,” said Hammond. “Something right near Hiram would be the best, so Stone Mountain is a perfect venue, not too huge, but big enough to have a big party.”
Joining Hammond in the party is a special guest band put together specifically for the Stone Mountain show featuring Hammond on guitar, Muse on bass, Berglund on drums and Gabe Nespoli on piano.
“I’m really looking forward to this group,” said Hammond. “Everyone involved is just such a great musician and has their own voice to give to it. I tend to look for that; I really hate playing with these sort of robot players. There are some guys that are fantastic, but they only play exactly what you tell them to play. For me my music is a bit more dynamic and improvised than that.”
It is that willingness and openness to explore different genres and what other musicians have to offer that Nespoli — who is coming down from Toronto for the show — admires most about Hammond.
“I have always envied not only Ben's incredibly diverse musical interests, but also the way in which he lets them influence his music and playing, making him quite the musical chameleon,” said Nespoli, who played on “[Reasonably] Honest” and has been touring with Hammond. “He values the influences of other musicians with whom he is playing, and is eager to incorporate what they bring to the table. This creates a very comfortable, unique and unified sound that is hard to come by these days.”
Hammond is hoping to run through the whole album at the Stone Mountain show following a solo acoustic set of older material. He also promises a few unexpected musical surprises.
“Touring with Ben has been a really enjoyable experience for me since we're not playing the songs exactly as they are on the album,” said Nespoli. “For the live shows we've opened the songs up a little more, making them edgier and livelier.”
Tickets cost $15 and are available at www.stonemountainartscenter.com. “[Reasonably] Honest” is on sale in the valley at White Mountain Cider Company, Cafe Carleo, White Birch Books and Cigar Emporium as well at Bull Moose in Portland, Maine and online at iTunes and at http://cdbaby.com/cd/benhammond.