Sixteen years ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote a song entitled “Feel Like a Bird.” The lead song and the title of his first album, released June 17, is “Gimme Wings.” “I guess that suggests I haven’t got very far,” he jokes. In fact he’s come quite a distance, but with still a way to go.
“My dream is to be a songwriter first and foremost,” he explains. “With a wife and baby, I’ve given myself another year to go halfway to living off my music. It’s doable. I just have to work very hard and not to miss out on a single opportunity.”
Both Ben’s parents gave up musical ambitions to become academics. “Into folk and country, my American father went to Germany to study psychology. My German mother wanted to be a concert flutist; now she teaches literature.”
Born in Berlin and raised in Germany and America, Ben arrived in Japan six years ago and says he is now home. “This is not to say we might not live elsewhere, but I feel grounded here.”
Being good at languages helps, he thinks; after all, fluency is the key to success in any culture. “I was bilingual in English and German from childhood, then added French at school, some Spanish at college and did a crash course in classical Greek.” At university in London, he majored in English literature and linguistics.
He traveled. Worked as a sound engineer for six months. Then got a job teaching at an arts and media school in Islington, north London. “It had been a regular school but closed down for being too violent. Within a month of reopening, with state-of-the-art facilities, it was trashed.” Within three months, three out of 10 teachers had quit. To his credit, Ben stuck it out for one year.
“Thinking it would give me a sense of security, I started studying a hardcore martial art taught by a Chinese guy who had trained the Chinese military. But of course meeting aggression with aggression is not the answer. I learned a lot about nonviolent restraint, about holding kids (who were freaking out) firmly but safely, and getting them to calm down.”
But the level of frustration was high. “It’s the structure of victimization that’s hard to break.” Also, while unafraid on a physical level, it was hard to remain uninvolved. So when he saw a newspaper ad — “English school in Japan hiring teachers” — he thought, “Wow, check it out.”
He had always wanted to come to here. A friend in high school had been into haiku and noh. Also, Ben had studied judo as a kid. “But that’s how naive I was. I came thinking everyone was into martial arts.”
The English school job lasted four months. “It wasn’t bad, just not for me. Instead I moved into teaching at elementary school level — far more enjoyable.” The security enabled him to concentrate the other 50 percent of his time on his music, because all through the years he had been writing songs, with a current catalog of some 120. “Am I singer? By default. I like singing my songs, but most of all I like getting other people to sing them.”
He likes being onstage, though. And he can most certainly hold a tune, as “Gimme Wings” proves over and over, with 10 original songs, backed by Waddy on guitar, Tetsuya Heike on sax and coproducer Masa Fukui on keys and beats. “Right now the album’s not being released through any official channel, because I want to keep full rights to my songs. My first artists agency set me up with a deal with Daiki and EMI, but the contract they wanted me to sign was out of the question.”
Ben and his producer made a counterproposal, saying, Can’t we negotiate?
“With a family to support, they were breaking my back. Really, only a very naive and desperate person would have agreed to such terms.”
He got his first break when he was approached by 79.0 Tama Lakeside FM to front a radio program. “That was in December 2005.” Then in April this year, Studio Cueve made its own move, suggesting they add a home page and a blog and start podcasting.
The result is Ben’s Network (with the album track “Spring” as its theme tune), broadcast every Monday night at 10:30 and cohosted with Miki Yatabe. “It’s a 30-minute talk show, featuring guest international artists. We go down memory lane, analyze lyrics, get up close and personal, you know . . .”
Ben also works as a professional singer and has written songs for companies such as Kirin Beer, Pioneer and Seabreeze. The title track “Gimme Wings” is the theme song for “A Mini Cooper Travel Video.” “Just starting out, I’m actively seeking other commercial tieups. It’s a lot of legwork, but I’m very determined.”
All his songs, he says, are “supercatchy.” It’s important that melodies stick. However deep and meaningful the words (“and some of the lyrics are not so easy to grasp”), a chorus must be simple and catchy.
Studio Cueve is associated with ProMobile, a mobile content and service provider. One album Ben knows of has 273 assorted commercial links to the mobile market. It’s not “Gimme Wings” but, as Ben says, “It could be.” The track “Gimme Wings” has been converted to a ring tone, and there’s a trance remix in the works.
This is where music is going as a business, he believes: digital, and branding. “In an ideal world, music should be known for its intrinsic value, but sadly the emphasis is placed on the superficial: brands, image, who you’re sleeping with. The trick is to remain grounded and true to oneself, never to sell out solely for money.”
Over the next few months he will be showcasing “Gimme Wings” in as many venues as he can find — at MTV’s Cafe Studio in Tokyo’s Harajuku on Aug. 10, for example. “I want to communicate with as many people as I can. Music, words, are about communication before anything else.”
Well, it’s as “Clear as Daylight” (track three) that this singer songwriter is “Somebody Who” (seven) is going “All Out” (nine). This album may be his “First Time” (10) but it is most definitely “Where the Flavor Is” (four). With a lesson from his parents, Ben is on his way.