What are the most challenging parts of being a working, touring musician? According to Seattle’s Ben Zaidi, it’s “making time for those magic moments of openness and receptivity in a world that wants you either entertained/distracted or productive every minute you’re awake.”
5 Questions with Ben Zaidi by Sam Shansky
1) As a Seattle native, what music had the earliest influence on you – were you itching to be a musician at a young age?
My parents had a rotation of classic singer-songwriters playing in the house at all times. Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. The first CD I ever bought was The Eminem Show. The combination of early 2000s hip hop and 1960s singer songwriters, as bizarre as it was, united around the power of lyrics to stir up & unravel things in your heart.
Bonus: Do you remember your first concert?
Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Gorge Amphitheater, September 1996––I was 3 years old.
2) How would you describe the current creative culture in Seattle? Who are some artists based there that you feel need more recognition, and could you explain why?
Stubbornly vibrant. Seattle’s become so unaffordable and uninviting towards artists that it’s amazing to me how many great young artists are here, finding ways to make it work. We have a strong lineage of mentorship and mutual support that I think has kept the scene alive. The previous generation of artists, like my friend Sol really helped me find my way as an independent artist starting out, and now I’m trying to do the same. Sol and I just hosted a little artist retreat on Orcas Island with 4 amazing younger artists, Claudine Magbag, Talaya, Don Grey, and Aramis (of the band Enumclaw). Each doing completely different things, but super inspiring to me in their sense of originality and voice.
3) You recorded your latest album Acre of Salt. at Sound City Studios in L.A. along with Ethan Gruska, Sebastian Steinberg (Fiona Apple,) saxophonist Sam Gendel and Kane Ritchotte (Portugal. The Man.). What specific musical traits drew you to work with those artists, and could you describe the overall experience of collaborating with them?
Tony Berg––who produced Acre of Salt.––has such a deep community of musicians that he could really pinpoint exactly who would be right for each song. Something that unites them is that almost all of them are songwriters themselves, and so have a great sense of what the song needs––playing into those spaces even if it’s something very subtle or minimal. Sometimes amazing musicians will overplay, because they’ve worked their ass off to be able to do a million different intricate things, and want to make use of them all. But the impressive thing isn’t always what the song needs.
4) You explore various themes on this album, one of which is racial identity. Could you share why that theme is significant to you and how your song “Jerusalem” reflects your thoughts on this?
“Jerusalem” was a watershed song for me. Even though I’ve been writing songs for over a decade, not once have I written about my mixed-race background––until now. The story is so complicated and messy that it doesn’t lend itself to a song… but when I remembered the metaphor my sister Katie once used in an essay––the city of Jerusalem (we have Muslim, Jewish, and Christian grandparents)––the messiness suddenly had a perfect container. A little snowglobe city to fit all the stories into.
5) You’ve produced several music videos in support of Salt. Could you share about the making of your music video “Listless” and explain how what went wrong ended up being just right?
The director, Evers Pund, had a vision for the video: we would recreate the feeling of the song––of being lost, aimless––by literally getting lost. We drove out to the Olympic Peninsula, about 4 hours away from Seattle, and shot deep in the rainforest and then out on the beach that’s the westernmost point of the continental US. We finished shooting on the beach at around 11 and drove to the nearest town, Forks, to find a motel. There were about 8 or 9 motels in town, and every single one of them was booked. I think there was a Twilight convention or something. The nearest room we could find was in Port Angeles, over 2 hours away.
It was past midnight now and we had been shooting for 16 hours. But we made the 2-hour drive to Port Angeles. On the way, we stopped at an abandoned gas station and got the gas pump shot you see in the video, where it looks like I’m doing some really good acting, having a sort of emotional collapse. But I can tell you, given the circumstances at that moment, it was only maybe 5% acting.
Bonus: Do you have a somewhat standard songwriting process, and is there a particular song that stands out on the record for its unusual conception or the unique way it came to you?
The strangest was “Eucharist” in that it was a complete stream of consciousness. In May 2020, my roommate got laid off, and we all got drunk in the backyard. The next morning I woke up super hungover, sat down at the piano, and basically freestyled the lyrics. The vocal I recorded that morning in my bedroom is actually the take that we used on the album.
Bonus: What are the most challenging parts of being a working, touring musician?
Trying to build a stable, consistent life around something that is so unpredictable. Making time for those magic moments of openness and receptivity in a world that wants you either entertained/distracted or productive every minute you’re awake.
Bonus: Is there a music video you recently watched that left a lasting impression, and could you explain why?
The video for Kendrick Lamar’s “The Heart Part 5” is one of the most arresting things I’ve seen in a long time. I’ve never seen technology used like that. It’s spooky as hell.