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In contrast to its ethereal title, Ben Abraham’s Sirens is deeply human. Its songs were written over the artist’s developing years as a writer and, by now, the album has become a kind of musical documentary of the loss, longing and growth that carried him from his very first lyric to this, his first long-player.
As a teenager, Ben Abraham had made a few misguided steps in the direction of a mainstream pop career. The experience was “mortifying”, and so, despite his parents’ own previous pop-star status (this in his father’s native Indonesia), the Melbournian teen abandoned music for screenwriting, and immersed himself in a different world of telling stories.
Slowly but inevitably, music found its way back in. Abraham couldn’t help but pick up his guitar to help him process the relationships he was navigating. An unexpected watershed came during his studies, when he found a part time job entertaining kids in a hospital. He began writing “a half song” about his role, which he played to a teenager suffering from anorexia, and encouraged her to write a second verse. When the song was finished and news got out, Abraham was asked to perform it at fundraisers. “That’s when I knew music really could be something: it didn’t have to be whatever I thought it was before.”
Eight years on, Ben Abraham has toured with Emmylou Harris, co-written with Grammy-nominated singer Sarah Barreilles (more on which later), and made Sirens, his debut album. With a modest self-release in Australia, Sirens finds Abraham already encroaching on household-name status there, as the album gears up for a worldwide release via Secretly Canadian.
Sirens owes much of its narrative to Abraham’s insecurity regarding who he was, and what direction he should take. “It was about my naïve longing for something other – something that’s over there and not here, during a time when I trying out this and that sound. Am I the funny guy who plays a ukulele? Or the sad sack? Or the soul singer? These voices, like sirens, were saying ‘come here…’ But I emerged on the other side with a greater sense of self and identity. It’s why the album finishes with the same melodic motif, like a film device.”
His parents’ previous careers as Indonesian folk-pop stars had an influence –
“They were huge in Asia! They had such strong harmonies and melodies, and cheesy, literal lyrics. They don’t do irony, but once you’ve surrendered, it’s quite beautiful. I write earnest lyrics too, but that’s where I was when I wrote these songs. And maybe people are responding because they want something honest and spiritual, because so much pop culture explores destruction.”
Sirens was recorded with two local friends, Jono Steer (who was Abraham’s live mixer) and percussionist Leigh Fisher. A number of other Melbourne musicians joined in on sessions, including Gossling, whose angelic voice can be heard in the opening track. Gotye helped produce the haunting vocals on ‘Speak’, while experimental electronic producer Tim Shiel assisted on ‘This Is On Me’.
The story arc of Sirens is roughly in three parts. The first songs (from ‘Time’ to ‘You And Me’) encapsulate what Abraham describes as the “introspection and naive longing of my early twenties.” ‘Collide’ to ‘Speak’ represents “deeper themes” before the final act (‘Somebody’s Mother’ to ‘A Quiet Prayer’) “are more outward-focused. I wanted to release music that’s an evolution of my work, to tell a story, like I’m growing. I play it live in the same order.”
‘This Is On Me’, co-written/sung with Sara Bareilles, has its own story. “I’d found Sara back in the old MySpace days. She’s a great singer and songwriter, but what connected me the most to her was her lack of pretence – she wrote this sprawling, personal biography for herself, as I’d also done, and she was trying to find way through on her own, like me. But how best to get her attention? So I posted a song [‘To Sara, From Ben’] on You Tube.”
Bareilles’ fans began to Tweet the video and it grabbed her attention. When she played Melbourne in 2011, she invited Abraham up on stage (they co-sang a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire’), and so their collaboration was subsequently born. ‘This Is On Me’ is a fictional tale of a couple “who both know their relationship is over, but both are taking responsibility for it.” By the time it was recorded, Abraham had split with his girlfriend: “The song became, word for word, a scarily accurate story of what actually happened.”
With the focal points of Sirens being so deeply personal, Abraham plans to tour solo (on guitar, ukulele, piano and harmonium), as he ventures outside of Australia to seduce the world with his songs, stories and charm. The sirens are calling you his way….
There are currently no tour dates for Ben Abraham