Sunday Sessions 6 - Ben Ashbridge
By: Emma Corcoran
'You can have great versions of a cover, but if it’s a song that you’ve written yourself, as corny as it sounds, it’s a piece of yourself. It’s a representation of yourself that you’re throwing out there for people to listen to and say, ‘Look, this is something I have done, what do you think?’', says Ben Ashbridge, a third year from Lancaster. Ben currently works as the Student Music Officer for Music is Love, performed live on STAR Radio and plays bass guitar for the Edinburgh-based band Mt. Doubt. We recently spoke to him about his role in the society, his personal pursuit of music and his hopes for the future.
An Interview with Ben Ashbridge:
ST.ART: What first sparked your interest in music and how long have you been playing?
BA: My dad’s very interested in music, so I grew up in my house, like in one of my living rooms, with like vinyl and CDs all over one of the walls.
ST.ART: Does he play?
BA: No, he just likes music and he likes going to shows, so I grew up with there always sort of being music on in the house.
ST.ART: Any specific style or band?
BA: He likes things like Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, that sort of thing, so I grew up listening to a lot of that and then started buying my own music. I grew up listening to more music than playing. I just liked it. It’s what I do with most of my time. In St Andrews, I do things like Hearing Aid Magazine, I did a ‘New Music’ show on Star Radio, I do Music is Love... It’s just how I spend most of my free time... just sort of playing and listening, going to see shows. I just enjoy it. I’m not great at sports, but I like music. It’s what I would choose to do with my time if you just left me in a room; I’ve got my guitar and my laptop to listen to things. There’s always music going on in the background.
ST.ART: So when did you first pick up a guitar and begin to play?
BA: When I was fourteen, I wanted a drumming kit. My parents wouldn’t buy me a drum kit, so they bought me a bass guitar, so I learned bass guitar to begin with. I played bass guitar until I was eighteen, and I still play. I play bass in a band called Mt. Doubt. The lead singer is a guy called Leo Bargery. The rest of the band is outside of St Andrews, but we play in Edinburgh. We played at Electric Circus. There were a couple hundred people there. Leo writes all the music. He’s super talented. I just play the bass for him and turn up and do that.
I went on a ‘tragic gap year’; I spent six or seven months living in Africa. You can’t really play the bass on your own, but I wanted to carry on playing music, so I bought an old second-hand guitar. I had been playing a bit of guitar beforehand, just picking it up, because you can’t play bass on your own. When I was out in Africa, I picked up this old second-hand guitar, and that’s when I started writing songs, just wanting to be able to play on my own. But because I didn’t have any Internet, I couldn’t learn other people’s songs, so I just messed around, and it was fun.
ST.ART: So you wrote your own songs at that point?
BA: Yeah, a couple. Nothing that I still play anymore, really.
ST.ART: Do you still write music now?
BA: Yeah, I still write songs. I play quite a lot at Music is Love stuff. I did a Live Lounge and played a lot of my own stuff, and yeah, it’s just good fun.
ST.ART: Where do you find inspiration for your lyrics?
BA: All sorts of places, really. I’ve got a couple of songs which are stories, where I try to tell a story through the lyrics. I used to write poetry when I was in Secondary School, so I just do a lot of that basically. Sometimes it has a meaning behind it and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s just words that I feel fit, if that makes sense. I’m working on a song right now, and it doesn’t have any particular relevance to anything, but it’s about dreams. Like, ‘All these faces, they come from the strangest places. / Every time I dream, it seems like life is just a movie scene.’ Things like this: nothing particularly deep, but things that I feel like fit with the tone of the music... I found that when I try to write songs about something specific, like if I go in and say, ‘Right, I want to write a song about this’, the lyrics would be not as good as if I let it come naturally.
ST.ART: Yeah, it feels a bit forced?
BA: Yeah, so I maybe have an idea or a couple lines in my head that I think, ‘Right, that sounds good, where can I go with that?’ Some songs that I play the most, I started them with just two lines and then just ran with that sort of theme and idea, and everything fit with the music to make a whole.
ST.ART: Do you think after University you would want to pursue something with music?
BA: I’d like to do something with music. My flatmate, I play with him sometimes, and he is an amazingly talented technical guitarist. He’s actually better at working out harmonies and things with his voice, but he doesn’t write songs like I do. We did a show at the Botanic Gardens together, which was good fun. I’m not a great technical guitarist, but I like writing songs, and I kind of feel like that’s something I’m quite good at.
When I played the Live Lounge here, Amy Hill, whom you know, we work together for Music is Love, she said that she didn’t realise I had so many songs. And they’re not difficult songs to play, like I could teach someone to play them in not a lot of time, but I like coming up with the ideas and being creative with my lyrics.
ST.ART: What kind of involvement do you have with Music is Love?
BA: I am Student Music Officer, so it’s my job with Amy and Cat to put on things like open mics, find student musicians, put student musicians on in gigs like the Live Lounge or Acoustic Café. It’s really fun because, as cliché as it sounds, it feels really good to be able to give people a platform to play. When we do an open mic, loads of people turn up and play at the Byre, and you realise sometimes that people are really enjoying this chance to play. You get to listen to this music that you otherwise would never get the chance to hear, with people expressing themselves in their own music – that’s why we do it.
ST.ART: How long have you been a member of the committee?
BA: Only this year. I actually didn’t play my own songs in front of anyone until last year. Amy started dragging me along to open mic nights, just as something to do with my evenings, and I played a couple songs, and people seemed to think they were okay, so I just carried on doing it.
I like playing bass, and I play bass in the band, but that’s not very creative, it’s just fun to get on stage and do it with a group of people. My own stuff, I know it’s not gonna ever get me a record deal or anything like that, but it’s just a way of venting a bit of emotion sometimes. And it’s your own. I know people who spend their entire time trying to learn other people’s songs, and that’s fine, but I kind of feel like if I’m going to sit there and pick up a guitar and play in front of people, I want to be doing something that’s mine.
ST.ART: It’s more personal in that way, and it moves people in a different way. Also, if you’re playing a song by someone else, people have a certain expectation as to what it should sound like.
BA: I can make a mistake and no one will know but me.
ST.ART: So what’s been one of your most memorable performances?
BA: I enjoyed playing at the Botanic Gardens with my friend Freddy, my flatmate. I was unbelievably hungover, and I had cut my finger while playing, so there was blood on my guitar, and I thought I was going to throw up, but we were still there playing. That was an experience [laughs].
I also really enjoy playing at the Live Lounge. I played about forty minutes because the girl in front of me finished early, so I basically did all the songs I’ve written. Everybody seemed to really enjoy it. There’s a girl on the Music is Love committee who had never heard me play before, and she said, ‘I really didn’t expect you to be any good, but you are.’ I just like playing.
ST.ART: If you could perform a duet with anyone, dead or alive, or alongside any band, who would it be?
BA: Cat recently sent me a link to a guy that she thought sounded like me, and it was Joshua Radin. I had never heard of him before, but that was really flattering, so if Cat thinks we have similar styles, that might be interesting. My favourite band ever, The Hold Steady, and the lead singer, Craig Finn, is an amazingly lyricist – I’d love to play with him. His lyrics are great.
ST.ART: What about on any stage?
BA: Realistically, there’s a little festival near where I live called Kendal Calling, and all my friends go to that. That would be fun to play, because you’re not even on a big stage – just do it for the experience of it. Chris Andrews, for example – unbelievably talented guitarist and singer-songwriter. He could actually make it big; if he got picked up by the right person, he could do it, like he could actually be a singer-songwriter. I know that’s not actually gonna happen for me, I just do it because I enjoy. They’re my songs, and I just want to play them for people.
ST.ART: Is there anything that you’d like to add?
BA: Anyone’s who’s interested can come to Music is Love. I know a lot of the people we’re associated with and the events we do, a lot of it’s associated with singer-songwriters, which is great, because there are so many talented people in this town – I mean genuinely, so many talented people in this town. If you go to an open mic, we have a guy come along who is in his forties; he wanted to play an open mic, and it was great. He stuck around and said to us as he was leaving, ‘This is unbelievable that you can have three hours of music and there’s nobody who’ll go, ‘Oh, thank you for coming along but you’re not great.’ Every single person who plays is talented. That’s unbelievable.' We want to be associated with that, but we also want people to form bands. We’ve got Pink Eye on Picture Day, who are student band that had been formed, also Milk & Honey with George Kakas, and that's exciting, because there’s never really been a proper band scene in St Andrews. If that happens, that would be really cool. Hopefully it will expand.
I like the band I’m in right now, but we have to practice in Edinburgh because other members of the band are in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It’s really good fun because we play in really good venues in Edinburgh. Leo, who writes the songs, very talented, got some connections, and that’s so much fun, and his songs are amazing. But I’d like to play with people in St Andrews more because having to travel to Edinburgh to practice… and we don’t practice very often, we sort of have three or four practices before each gig, and we only have gigs every two or three months. They’re good gigs in front of 200 or 300 people, which is nice, but I’d like to play with a band in St Andrews because that would be fun. But we’ll see what happens. No pressure. It’s the fun. If you’re gonna to do it for a career, brilliant, you know? That would be amazing. Otherwise just enjoy it.
Everyone who is now good at music at one point has been terrible. The first song I ever wrote, I was in a band in High School and I played bass and my friend played guitar. It was two chords, not even a three chord or four chord, but it was two chords, E minor and C. It was terrible, but it was good fun, and now my songs are a bit better.
ST.ART: Well you develop your sound, you find your voice...
BA: …And a sound that suits you. Like Chris’s sound, it’s very personal and it suits him. It’s not him trying to do anyone else’s sound – it’s personal to him. He’s very intense in his performances; it comes from a very personal place for him. And that’s important when you’re writing songs: it’s your sound, it’s what you want to do. You can have great versions of a cover, but if it’s a song that you’ve written yourself, as corny as it sounds, it’s a piece of yourself. It’s a representation of yourself that you’re throwing out there for people to listen to and say, ‘Look, this is something I have done, what do you think?’
ST.ART: It’s also like taking a risk.
BA: And that comes with practice. The first time I played my songs in front of someone at an open mic, I was nervous. The only way to get over that was to do it. Amy dragged me along, and now that I’m doing her job, hopefully I’ll be able to drag people along. Music is Love can seem quite threatening to people from the outside if they don’t know anyone, but it’s the most inclusive society I’ve ever been involved with. Everybody is just really friendly. I’ve never met anyone through Music is Love I haven’t found very friendly and welcoming, which is important. We want people to feel like they can come, whatever they want to offer, whether they just want to listen to some music or they’re in a 12-piece band or if they just have one song that they’ve written they’d like to play, we want people to feel like they can come, if that makes sense.
Listen to Ben Ashbridge on STAR Live Lounge, about 21 minutes in: https://www.standrewsradio.com/news/milstar-live-lounge-no-3/