|Ben Caron at home on the stage at Rockwell: Table & Stage|
1714 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles (Los Feliz)
With the advent of fan-funded projects such as the $5 million Kickstarter resurrection of the Veronica Mars film and the million dollars raised by Amanda Palmer for the recording, promotion, tour support and accompanying art book for her new album, there's no doubt that the concept is completely changing the entertainment industry. Los Angeles singer-songwriter Ben Caron is one artist who not only recognizes but embraces the power shift that is taking place.
"The music industry used to be modeled on this idea of the performer being up above and the audience being down below. There was this hierarchy of 'I'm the performer and separate from you. You are the audience that pays to come and see me, but you don't know me.' Since the Internet has come to be a powerful force, it has made the industry a lot more egalitarian so that the artist has come to meet the audience, and the audience has raised in power," he tells. "I want to find a way to eliminate as much of the disconnect between the audience and myself as possible, especially because my album was fan-funded. It's their music; they paid for it, and it was their enthusiasm that made the project possible. I don't have any room for there to be a disconnect because I am them and they are me. That's the relationship I want to move towards, that we are one thing."
In fact, his fans' contributions – collected via his personal website – funded a series of three EPs that were released over the course of last year, including January's Prologue, April's Wholeheartedly and November's Love Me Too. Ben was able to raise all of the money necessary to record, remaster and press physical copies of his 11-track self-titled full-length album, which combines the three EPs and is set for release on June 4. In anticipation of the album's release, Ben is doing a Sunday-evening residency at Rockwell: Table and Stage through June 2, and in keeping with the spirit of his open relationship with his fans, the show is going to be completely interactive.
"The plan is, when everybody comes in and sits down, there's going to be a song menu that includes all 11 songs from the album and four covers. Throughout the night I'm going to randomly choose a table and chair from the seating map, and that person gets to order a song off the menu. At one point during the evening we're going to do a completely improvised section. It could be that I pull up some friends to do an a cappella number or if I see a friend who's a drummer in the audience I might invite him up to play," he explains. "I'm trying to leave space for the unpredictable in the show so that whatever the universal energy is in the space can enter in and create something as well, and the audience and I can create something together. I don't think it's fair to ask people to come back every single week without giving them something different to experience. That's why I think this format will be really exciting."
"One of the most crazy and exciting nights of my life, I was here working and we were doing the 'For the Record: Baz Luhrmann' show. An hour before we were supposed to start, one of the actors called and said he wasn't able to make it, and nobody was available to go on for him. With an hour prep time I ended up going on for him," Ben recalls. "You have to focus so much because you don't know what you're doing at all, so if you're out of it for one moment, it's like being on a tightrope, you'll just fall off. But it proved to me that I can really do anything that I choose if I put my mind to it. It's really only me that's standing between my desire and achieving my desire."
You can tell that Ben feels completely at home at Rockwell, and it's no surprise that when I ask him about his favorite drinks and dishes, there is absolutely no hesitation before he responds.
"My favorite specialty cocktail is Boys Life [Larceny Bourbon with honey syrup, basil and Honey Basil Ale]. As far as food, the Roasted Cotija Corn Mash, Mashed Sweet Potatoes and Roasted Brussel Sprouts are really good, and the Braised Beef Short Ribs are pretty amazing. My friends and I did the Burger & Bottle deal the other night (a burger with fries and half a bottle of 2008 Chandon Pinot Noir Carneros), and the Blue Cheese Fondue Burger that comes with it is delicious," he answers. "Everything has a level of decadence, in the sense of richness and complexity of flavor. There's not anything on the menu that is a miss. The whole idea is, we want the entire night to be a cohesive experience. If you're coming in and seeing really amazing performers then you should also be able to experience really amazing food."
Although he lives near Hollywood & Highland, the community that surrounds Rockwell in Los Feliz has become Ben's second home, so I try to find out some of his favorite haunts.
"It's a cool dynamic that Los Feliz's Vermont and Hillhurst blocks have with each other. Each business does their own thing but supports one other. It has a vibe about it that is welcoming, even in the architecture. It has an East Village of New York feel, rather than a stereotypical L.A. feel," he shares. "Mess Hall is really cool, make sure to get the oysters. Spitz is delicious. Home is good. Alcove Cafe is amazing. I could be in Skylight Books for hours and hours. The Vintage Los Feliz 3 Cinemas is perfect. I love the movies that they choose to show. There are some great shops on Hollywood, all of these boutiques have amazing stuff. Co-op 28 is cool, and we know a couple of artists who work there. This whole neighborhood is really fantastic. If I didn't love how central I am at my place I would definitely move here."
Although he's adjusted to life as an Angeleno, Ben is originally from Iowa, and growing up in the midwest definitely had an impact on his musical taste. Both of his parents are very supportive of his career, but his dad isn't very musical and his mom is incredibly musical. She purchased Ben's first guitar while she was pregnant with him and filled his childhood with song.
"She brought music into my life since before I could remember. Some of my first memories are of her singing to me, and she had very eclectic taste. There was Journey, Genesis, Madonna, Elton John and James Taylor. Growing up in the midwest, country music had a strong presence, so there was also Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson and Clint Black. My music ended up being a combination of my mom playing oldies, the country influence – which is so much about storytelling and melody – and listening to a lot of Top 40 as a kid," he begins. "Over the last four years, another element has also been added because of a band called Vintage Trouble. They started off with residencies around L.A., and a lot of the friends I have now were made from going to their shows a couple of times a week. They're a soul band, so that was the icing on the cake of the foundation of the Top 40, oldies and country. A lot of my newer stuff has soul influence in it. The record has songs that I wrote when I was 16 all the way up until now. There are a lot of different musical periods from my life included in the one record, and so I think the newer songs you can feel that Motown soul influence but the older songs you can hear the Top 40, oldies and country too."
Ben cultivated his love of music and performing while attending a small high school in Iowa and begin to form his own identity as an artist.
"The high school that I went to had 300 people in the entire school, so everybody had to do everything because you couldn't maintain an arts program, football program or anything in a school like that without everybody being involved. It created a really cool environment where you didn't have the social hierarchies that exist in other schools," he remembers. "My high school experience was key in developing the type of artist that I am because I am an actor, I am a singer and I also paint and write. I do a lot of different things because as I was growing up, everybody in my life said, 'Do everything you want to do, and then later on you can figure out what you want to focus on.' I grew up with a strong foundation in a lot of disciplines, so every time in my life when I've said 'I'm just an actor' or 'I'm just a musician,' there's something in my spirit that says, 'No, that's not the case.' I only feel fulfilled when I'm expressing myself in a lot of different ways."
"According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county I grew up in is the whitest county in America statistically. To move out here to go to Cal State Los Angeles, where you have people from all walks of life, my mind just exploded and expanded," Ben recalls. "The people that I met, the experiences that I had and the points of view I was able to understand – I don't know if I would have necessarily been able to get that experience at any other school in Los Angeles. Everybody on campus was working so hard to be there, it didn't feel like anybody was entitled or felt like they had to go to college because their parents said so. Everybody was there because they wanted to make a better life for themselves, and that was so inspiring to me."
He started out as a double major but eventually had to choose acting over music in order to finish classes and graduate in a reasonable amount of time. He spent the first year after graduation hitting the pavement as an actor then realized that his life didn't feel complete without music.
"I'm trying to figure out how to keep the balance between these two forces because it takes a lot of time and energy to maintain a career in either one of them, and it can be exhausting to juggle them at the same time. In prepping the album a lot of my energy has gone to the music side of my career, but I have a feeling that at some point in the future acting will rise again and there will be an ebb and flow between the two."
Aside from preparing for the release of the album, Ben has also created a YouTube series with another L.A. singer-songwriter, Anthony Starble, who also contributed background vocals to Ben's self-titled release. Each installment of "Ben, Anthony and the Loft" consists of the two artists performing a cover song or mashup of tunes they love.
"The one that we've gotten the most response to is the very first one, a cover of two Fun. songs mashed together, but I had the most fun doing the mashup of Emeli Sandé's 'Next to Me' with 'Colors of the Wind' from Pocahontas because I'm a big Disney nerd and I know every word to every single Disney song. For me to be able to sing one of those songs in a non-cheesy environment, to make it work as a real song, was really fun," he says before revealing that his favorite Disney films are Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid actually gets a mention in Ben Caron's closing track, "Molly May," and perhaps a "Part of Your World" cover will make its way into the YouTube series or onto a future EP or album. As for what else lies ahead for Ben Caron musically, all he can express is excitement.
"I usually fall in love with the song that I'm writing at that moment, so when I started recording the album I consciously made the effort to stop writing because I knew that if I kept writing I would have wanted the new songs to be on the album and not the older ones. I really needed to take the songs that already existed, put them on a recording and get them out there into the world before I could move on. I've just started writing again, and I'm really excited," he confesses. "I'm excited to take my music in directions that it hasn't gone before and explore different genres and sounds that I haven't before."
Ben Caron's self-titled debut album will be available June 4. Ben Caron performs at Rockwell: Table & Stage on May 26 and June 2. For more information, visit bencaron.info.