Benjy Ferree | WIG187 | Released: 29/01/07
“Is this a good time? Sure it’s a good time. Let me just put the lid on.”
Benjy Ferree leaves his dinner to simmer for an hour and tells his 32 year-old tale. It makes him think of a film, but for the moment, he can’t think which one. Born in Silver Springs, Maryland, he left Prince Georges County, where he was raised, for California convinced that his passion for cinema could be turned into a career in acting. In spite or perhaps because of the fact that music had always been there – Nick Cave, Shellac, Curtis Mayfield, Fugazi, Jimmy Scott, the Baptist hymns of his childhood – Ferree never considered that songs might be something he might actually create. His first attempt came late. Aged 21, when he realised he couldn’t afford to buy a Christmas present for his brother, he sang him one he’d prepared earlier.
Thereafter, there was no stopping him. A flood of songs followed during three years spent being “Hairy Poppins” to the three children of a famous L.A. scriptwriter. At night, he would leave the airy, salubrious confines of the house where he nannied, and return to the only rented accommodation he could afford – an annexe adjoining the house of an eccentric landlord, who had seemingly sprung fully-formed out of a Tom Waits song. “This guy, Michael, he wore a wig which belonged to a friend who had passed away in a psychiatric ward some ten years previously. He kept wild animals, as a result of which his house smelled of ammonia the whole time. Most people would lay down mousetraps for the mice; but Michael laid down food for them. He painted collages from the 1984 Olympics – a subject which, for some reason, seemed to obsess him.”
If you had told Ferree, aged 15, that he might have gone to Hollywood and met David Lynch, he would have stayed frozen to the floor. “Twin Peaks was my teenage obsession,” he confesses. In fact, Ferree got as far as overseeing playdates with Lynch’s kids and those that Ferree was employed to look after. But acting began to lose its appeal and long days spent entertaining children became like BabyBio to a nascent songwriter’s imagination. “I remember entire months spent singing Dylan and Beatles songs together with those kids.” Occasionally, Ferree even threw his own creations into the mix to see how they went down by comparison. Watership Down inspired the brilliantly Iggy-tastic pop clatter of Dog Killers! But Ferree didn’t need to be around kids to mainline the world from a child’s perspective. Cock an ear to several of the other nine songs on Leaving The Nest (In The Countryside, Hollywood Sign) and you’ll see that Ferree shares with Daniel Johnston (another hero) a purity of heart that, in most other souls, disappears with the news that Santa Claus is just, like, this made-up old guy with a long white beard.
Until his adolescence, Ferree continued to worship another made-up old guy with long white beard. Those Baptist hymns were a soundtrack to his earliest years and, you can hear as much on the magic worked by Ferree on his arrangement of Johnny Cash’s A Little At A Time. Childhood ghosts are also awakened on You Were Here – a simple song which pays respects to lives already lived on the very soil where we now get to take our turn. Listening to The Desert and Leaving The Nest (It’s A Long Way Down), Ferree’s sepia sketches evoke a young Ray Davies – as, indeed, does the careworn half-smile with which he seems to impart them.
As befits the untutored erudition of an autodidact, Ferree’s fascination with history produced another standout on Leaving The Nest. The woozy waltz-time chamber pop of Private Honeymoon was, he explains, inspired by the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Monticello slave Sally Hemings – which was said to have yielded six children.
In 2000, after three years of childminding – and a spell at Starbucks in Hollywood serving Jay Leno, Gwen Stefani and Big Mike from Goodfellas (“Nice guy – always asked for two ice cubes in his red eye” [a regular cup of coffee with extra shot of espresso in it]) Ferree returned to the homestead. To quote another of his heroes, Marlon Brando he coulda been a contender – now he became a bartender at a Washington DC joint called Aroma. He continues to work there, but for how long, who knows? The songs just keep coming, and word of mouth has its own magnetic force.
“The gigs are getting further and further,” he enthuses. Then, suddenly, he stops dead in his tracks. It turns out that he’s remembered the film that had been nagging away at his subconscious. “You like Truffaut?” he chimes. “You know that film, The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cent Coups)? For some reason, I related to that kid, Antoine Doinel, so much. And at the very end, after his parents turn his back on him and he runs away to the ocean shore, you see the word, ‘FIN’ come up. It’s the end of the story, but it’s also a beginning.” Somehow, an hour has elapsed. Benjy Ferree lifts the lid. His dinner is ready now. And so are you.