Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ben McKelvey has spent the last ten years writing songs and performing the length and breadth of the UK. He achieved recognition after releasing his debut EP, A Hundred Thousand Welcomes and its follow-up Everything You Were Meant to Be which led to a tour of East Coast America. Ben, who also currently runs his own business as a personal trainer is not one to shy away from adventure, action or putting in some serious graft. As he prepares to release his debut album, Love & Life In England, he is also getting ready to support Wet Wet Wet on their 2016 arena tour, being on the go is all part of the fun as Photogroupie found out.
“Things are very busy,” Ben tells us. “I'm rehearsing for the tour, I've been clearing the album artwork, scripting, directing and shooting the music video for the single, yeah it's very busy. I'm having press interviews in between seeing clients, I'm not very good at sitting still for long.” He says candidly. Taking charge of his creative work is nothing new for Ben, his 'can do' attitude and ability to work alone has helped him to get his material released and enabled him to go on solo tours. “I like to be in control because I can make decisions faster and I know exactly how I want them done. It's more work, but it's worth it.” Of course having the ability to oversee all aspects of his music (he also plays all the instruments on his records and releases the material on his label) could potentially make him seem like, well, a control freak. “ You'd have to ask my band mates...” Ben laughs with tongue firmly in cheek “but I don't think so,” he says coyly.
All jokes aside, speaking to Ben you certainly get the impression that he knows his own mind, but doesn't come across as arrogant or controlling, just a young musician who has made mistakes in the past by listening to bad advice. “There are people in the music industry who try and advise bands who are not that confident at making decisions. In my last band (Fluid Lines) we made some decisions we weren't happy with, but other people said it was the right thing to do.” Ben explains without a trace of annoyance.
“I've learnt that you have to listen to yourself as much as you listen to other people, but always go with your gut instinct because at least if you make a wrong decision but you believed it to be the right one you can't really be that annoyed with yourself.”
Understandably he wants the next chapter to be on his terms, still this is quite a big responsibility having everything succeed or fall on your head. “I think it is, but the guys in the band are my best mates, and they just want to play music so they're more than happy to let me get on and get things done. The guys are great, I couldn't ask for a better band.” The band in question are The Firebrand made up of Matt Vince (bass) Michael Hickey (guitar) Marc Danecker (drums) and Paul Nagle, his right-hand man who has accompanied him on several of his tours.
Although Ben is getting a reputation as a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, he started off as a drummer but has said he found it limiting creatively. “I love making a load of noise on the kit, but you can't really write a song on drums, and I love songwriting so much,” he enthuses. “Don't get me wrong, you can be creative, there are some great drummers that can make or break a song, but I felt that I didn't have a direction of where it could go.” He continues, “When Fluid Lines split I could have joined another band, but I wanted to write songs so I learnt the guitar. At that point I never thought about performing I just wanted to write,” Ben says with passion and sincerity. “I loved my days a drummer in my last band, but I wouldn't go back.”
Ben's ability to not dwell on the past but continually move forward and keep on moving towards his vision is certainly inspirational, but also allows him creative freedoms too. From his records to the stage Ben's music evolves and take on a different sound and style due to the requirements needed for each performance. Now that he is playing alongside The Firebrand rather than just solo/duo shows, does this mean more work to create the musical arrangements? “That's the fun part,” Ben says. “For this tour, we are doing an unplugged set.” He tells us enthusiastically. “We wanted to play a folk version of all those songs. I couldn't do that without a band or it would sound a bit samey. After this tour we want to do some louder gigs where we are going to swap our acoustic guitars for electric and play really rocky version of the songs. For me, it's amazing because I get to play three different versions of the songs, acoustic, folk - suitable for radio sessions and then full band rock and roll.” The ability to adapt his music to different settings has certainly helped Ben to keep the songs fresh, and it really is all about the songs.
Inspired by Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and The Jam, Ben writes stories about what he sees and what he knows. “I like working in the studio by myself and I like to write on my own. To be perfectly honest it's more fun onstage with other people, you can share the experience. When you've had a great gig and you come off stage it's nice to share that. Writing is a very personal thing, but performing, I want to share that with my mates.”
For Ben being on the road with his band will be very different from some of the previous tours that he has done. Apart from taking a full band on the road, Ben will also be supporting Wet Wet Wet, a band who has sold 15 million record sales and over 30 UK hits. “They're such an iconic band, I remember listening to them as a kid and it's quite surreal to be supporting them. It hasn't really kicked in yet, to be honest.” For any young musician to play with such a well known and loved band is a pretty big deal. “It's so exciting and it's such a huge opportunity for me. I'm grateful that they're turned round and said 'we like this guy, we'll give him a shot and get him on the road with us!'”
Playing live is one thing that Ben has had plenty of experience at, playing over 50 gigs in 2014, so he's a pretty seasoned performer, but will he be nervous stepping out in-front of thousands of people? “ No, I don't get stage fright, just adrenaline before the show. Saying that I've never played arenas before,” his usual confident manner dips for just a second as he thinks about playing to all those people. “If I'm going to get stage fright anywhere it will be there,” Ben says in his usual relaxed, matter of fact tone, taking everything all in his stride.
“I started keeping a diary of the last few years and it's quite an entertaining read; any unsigned band could relate to it. The stories on the road are so funny.” Of course with so many gigs under his belt, there must be some treasured memories that stand out. “The most exciting gig I've played was supporting the Januskians at the O2 Academy in Birmingham, because the crowd were so into it. Bad gigs, how much time have you got?” He laughs. “A gig is what you make it but I think I've played more weird gigs than bad gigs.” He pauses for another brief moment before his superfast mind clicks back in. “The craziest one was where the sound was so loud through the monitors it was deafening. We only realized afterwards that the sound man was deaf!” With bags of inspiration from life in and off the tour bus, it's certain that Ben will be writing many more songs about the world around him and certainly keeping busy. “After this tour, we'll be doing more shows and the album will be out, followed by more singles, it's going to be pretty non-stop this year”, but Ben McKelvey wouldn't have it any other way.