We chatted with Traverse City artist and musician Benjaman James about his new album, Growing Pains, blending genres and how living in TC affects his music.
Growing Pains debuts December 3 at Rare Bird Brewpub. The album release party will feature Benjaman James with his full band: Ryan McMahon, drums; Joe Vasquez, bass; Dutcher Snedecker, keys; Caleb Elzinga, saxophone; and Evan Taylor, trumpet.
The album was written, arranged, performed and recorded in Northern Michigan featuring several Michigan artists including Mark Lavengood of Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys and Katie Larsen of The Accidentals.
If you can’t make the December 3 show, see Benjaman perform at the Traverse City Tree Lighting December 2 from 6–9 p.m.
Describe your music.
I was raised in a small family—my mom, brother and me—that constantly had hip-hop and R&B pumping from the living room. My brother and I did our best to keep up with our mother’s dance moves. Until late in high school, these were the only genres I was familiar with, and eventually, I was force-fed more campfire-based acoustic music from my high school friends. I see my music as a direct convergence of these two different influences. If I had to describe my music I would perhaps classify it as funk/soul-inspired singer-songwriter pop. Honestly, I do quite a bit of genre bending. I am simply a storyteller who utilizes whatever genre is necessary to paint my canvas. No soundtrack is ever limited to a single genre and there are no boundaries in art. The major commonality is that it’s all rhythm-based, danceable music. Whether it’s via rhythm or an inspiring plot, my music is sure to move an audience.
Favorite song on the album?
‘Maybe’ offers a last-resort solution to save a relationship that is spiraling out of control. It is a song about writing a song: “But if I could write something we could dance to, a message you could hold on to, a melody to move you, maybe we could make it through.”
What do you hope people feel when they listen to Growing Pains?
For me, song writing serves as therapy during difficult times and I want listeners to feel inspired and be offered hope when they are also experiencing difficult times. I often treat lyrics as a solution to or escape plan from the current less-than-ideal scenario. I will typically find myself in a very difficult situation and begin to write my way out of it; whether the escape path is fictional or factual, it always offers me peace and hope in dire times. The past few years have presented some incredibly difficult events with respect to love and loss. Coping with these situations in volatile times—such as putting yourself through college and being everything but financially stable, or graduating and having your friend network scattered across the globe—has presented countless learning experiences. This record is a testament to those events and reminds me to make sure that every experience, good or bad, influences me in a positive way, and I hope it does the same for listeners.
Why the name, Growing Pains?
I received the Growing Pains album masters just before boarding a flight back to Traverse City this fall. I spent that flight listening to the final versions of each track and reflecting on the project as a whole. I realized that every track was unfortunately inspired by one of these less-than-ideal events in my life and that the theme was consistent throughout the album. I thought to myself, in my hypercritical state, is this a bad thing? Is this too dark and negative for people to enjoy? As I returned from my contemplation, I glanced at my neighbor’s book and the chapter she had just begun was titled ‘Growing Pains.’ I smiled in relief and disbelief.
What got you into music?
I began playing music on trombone in sixth-grade band, much like many other elementary school students. I continued with trombone through high school, and at one point actually quit the varsity football team at Traverse City Central because I wasn’t allowed to perform both the halftime show with the band and play the game with the football team. I had no immediate plans of pursuing music in college, but as I began to live with the void that the lack of performing left, I could not accept it. I decided to introduce myself to the director of jazz studies at Michigan State University, bassist Rodney Whitaker. Professor Whitaker was kind enough to listen to my sub-par playing and graciously offered the opportunity to perform in the last chair of the ‘beginner’ jazz orchestra. The humorous part about this position was that no other trombonists were assigned to the group, yet I was still assigned last chair. I was proud to accept the offer, and for the remainder of my academic career, I grew to study with world-renowned artists and mentors, perform with the top university ensembles and even did some mentoring of my own while balancing my engineering curriculum.
During my second year, I was granted an opportunity to study in Sydney, Australia. Following a hand injury and subsequent surgery, I saw this as an ideal opportunity to rehabilitate my hand while improving my two-chord guitar vocabulary. I purchased my first acoustic guitar to practice playing and singing ‘covers’ during study breaks. I would learn one song every week, then street perform at a beach walkway in Sydney which allowed me to polish these performing skills. Upon my return to MSU, I continued to invest in both skill sets and later graduated from the College of Engineering. At that time I returned to my homeland of Traverse City to pursue an engineering career, start a band known as Old Mission Collective and also work as a trombonist performing with many funk, jazz and salsa groups. As Old Mission Collective continued to gain traction, I became the only common piece in the band. I decided to launch Growing Pains under my singular musical identity, Benjaman James.
Tell us more about the release party at Rare Bird.
Rare Bird is our home base in Traverse City and generously hosted my project every Monday for nearly a year in the early stages. It also served as a sort of ‘proving ground’ for many of the tracks on the album. Without the opportunity that Rare Bird presented to share my music with the community, the album or even myself as an artist, may not exist. Hosting the release party at Rare Bird almost feels like a homecoming.