Ben Rice | Future Pretend (debut album, interview)
In "Everything Changes," the opening track to Future Pretend, the debut album from Brooklyn singer-songwriter and producer Ben Rice, there is clearly no beating around the bush in getting this intimate and immersive musical journey off the ground. Barely one bar in, we hear Ben lead off with: "I don’t recognize my city | Oh I must be aging | I better do something | Before everything changes." This upbeat, rocking number immediately engages the listener and draws them into the solid songwriting and storytelling in the songs that follow. Future Pretend transports the listener with its expressive, illustrative lyrics and stories that elicit fleeting glimpses of NYC streetscapes, baseball sandlots, childhood and rock 'n roll memories, along with hopes and dreams for the future.
"Everything Changes" responds to the uncertainty and seeming chaos that change can generate with a big "So what, can't you smile? | We're only here for a little while." Ben remarks, "Over the past few years, I've seen my city and my world change so much. I've dealt with the loss of friends and family, gotten engaged and gotten to be a part of some amazing projects creatively. I knew these were all such significant life moments that it felt imperative that I was truly present."
In recent years, Ben has produced for Norah Jones and Valerie June, laid down studio guitar work for Fletcher and the Jonas Brothers, played in indie rock bands (Surefire, Blackbells), and shared the stage with artists that include Arctic Monkeys and Brendan Benson. After spending his early 20's with bands on the road, he laid down roots as a producer and session musician in Brooklyn, NY at his studio, Degraw Sound, where he recorded Future Pretend.
In early 2020, Ben was hard at work with various artists, producing a number of exciting projects at Degraw Sound when the pandemic hit. Eventually, he was forced to close the studio for an indefinite period of time. Looking back, Ben reflects, "After grinding non-stop for as long as I could remember, I was forced to take a few weeks off, like an extended snow day. Having that time made me realize how burned out I really was and gave me a moment to reset. I had spent the past decade immersed in other people's music and had shut off a certain creative lobe in my brain, but with this pause, lyrics and melodies for my own songs started coming to me again."
It was just a matter of time before Ben decided to take the next step. He relates, "By early April I was starting to go stir crazy and was feeling inspired to write, so I started going into the studio by myself." With this fresh determination and focus, Ben began making the brave trek into his studio every day on foot, walking eight miles armed with a mask, hand sanitizer, and tissues. In those quiet days where he was free of any schedules, music biz demands and artistic constraints, Ben found himself self-producing and finding ways to balance creative exploration with maintaining perspective. He recalls, "Once I realized I was making a record, in order to not start constraining myself I decided that I would just go for it and reminded myself that I could always ask for help from some of the producers that I know to get it across the finish line."
After working alone for a month or so, Ben reached out for some assistance on drums and programming. "I called Charlie [Culbert] and asked him if he'd be up for coming in to play some drums on the stuff I was working on and he was game for it. We basically just wore masks and stayed in separate rooms and stayed as safe as we could." Along the way, additional musicians became involved in the recording process (Gian Stone, Harper James, Greg Wieczorek, Pete Remm, Abner James).
From a production perspective, Ben wanted to bounce some ideas off another safe, trusted expert in the field. He remarks, "There were a few people that I could have imagined going to with it, but Gian [Stone] really just felt like the right and obvious choice for this. He's one of my best friends, incredibly talented, we've worked together on so many projects and we can be really honest with each other. When I had the record in place where I had tried out everything I could think of and really pushed as far as I could, I called him up and played him the record." By chance, Gian was going to be in New York for a few weeks, allowing him and Ben to go into the studio together to work on some additional ideas.
If you listen closely to the lyrics on Future Pretend, you'll find a number of references to the sights, culture, history and other aspects of Brooklyn and New York City throughout. There are mentions of Brooklyn pizzerias (Two Boots, Rosario's) and looking out for The Strokes in "Everything Changes," catching drinks on Cortelyou (Road) and walking by the baseball sandlots in "Parade Ground," along with mentions of Brooklyn, Gowanus, Bronx and West Harlem. Future Pretend is very much an honest, down-to-earth New York City indie rock album. Ben remarks, "I tried to write about what I know, and I realized that meant a lot of stories about New York City. I've spent so much time here and have had so many significant moments here that the more honest I got with my writing, the more I found those bits popping up."
The entirety of Future Pretend is outstanding, fresh and heartwarming. The top-notch, less-is-more production aesthetic is predominant throughout. This is one of those albums that, after just one listen, will have you recollecting bits and pieces of lyrics, infectious guitar hooks and Ben’s emotive, heartfelt vocals. Every track on Future Pretend could strongly stand on its own as single material, with several ("American," "The Hard Road," "Taste Like Sugar," and "One and Only") having already been released in advance of the album drop.
Future Pretend takes its name from lyrics tucked into "The Hard Road" where Ben sings, "I want a life filled with good times, I hope we shine 'til the end | I get lost in the history, stressing 'bout a future pretend." Ben elaborates on the album's central theme, "We spend so much time mired in our memories or fixated on a pretend version of a future reality, that we can miss out on experiencing our lives as they are happening. For me, the main concept of the record is the pursuit of being present, framed by the experiences that have taken me to this place."
In a nutshell, the entirety of Future Pretend is impressive and engaging. My personal favorites include "Taste Like Sugar" (with its delightfully upbeat, punchy vibe that makes you want to dance ... plus it's the only song I know that mentions Gowanus in its lyrics), "One and Only" (a strong rocking number with warm, shimmering guitar hooks and a power-packed intro) and "Parade Ground," Future Pretend’s beautiful closing track that is credited solely to Ben (vocals, acoustic guitar, Mellotron and piano). This nostalgic, delicate and sentimental song feels truly special and warm. Ben reveals, "I wrote it about my fiancée and the times we’ve spent in New York together and the times that I hope we get to spend here together. It kind of sent me down memory lane a bit, thinking about how the things that have been important to me have shifted over the years. I wanted it to feel very old-timey New York in a Walt Whitman meets Frank Sinatra kind of way."
My introduction to Ben Rice, his music and story was incidental and ironically consistent with the underlying "sound thread" premise of this music blog. In the early days of blogging (2017-2018), I discovered the music of several Brooklyn-based independent artists (Eighty Ninety, Queue (now Forever Honey), Goldkey, and AMFM), had written posts about their music and noted a common thread among them: producer Ben Rice and Degraw Sound recording studio. In the summer of 2017, Ben organized Degraw Fest, a half-day, live performance event in Brooklyn that celebrated the studio's fifth anniversary and showcased music from nine artists the studio recently produced. When the second annual Degraw Fest (2018) was announced with ten current artists performing at Brooklyn's Littlefield venue, I decided this was worth a road trip.
It was at Degraw Fest where I first met Ben and developed an understanding of the key role he'd been playing to work with and mentor these talented independent artists with his insight, experience, production skills and genuine friendship. At the time, Ben had just released his debut solo single, "Getaway," and was one of artists who performed at the event. From the informal chats I had throughout the day with Ben and these exceptionally talented musicians, it was clear that there was a great deal of mutual respect, support, collaboration and camaraderie within this group. To this day, Degraw Fest 2018 remains as one of the most memorable, enjoyable and welcoming live music events I've attended.
Finally, if you're interested in catching a Ben Rice virtual concert celebrating the release of Future Pretend, you are in luck! Pick up your virtual tickets at NoonChorus to watch/stream at 8:00pm ET on Thursday, February 25 (check their website for additional times).