On a dreary, Thursday afternoon, I walked into Big Picture Media’s offices to interview self-produced synth-pop artist Ben Talmi. Much like the soggy New York weather, Ben is mellow and quiet at first encounter, but ultimately exudes a peaceful confidence in his music and ability to create distinctively unique sounds. As the previous front man for orchestral pop band Art Decade and composer of the short film “Duke and the Buffalo,” Ben has extensive performance and composing experience that allows him to craft differently from most of his synth-pop peers. His new album “My Art of Almost” released May 26 takes a peek inside the Ben’s art of expression and the intricacies that lie within his songwriting.
20something: Let’s talk about your new album for a bit. How long has “My Art of Almost” been in the making for?
Ben Talmi: It’s been roughly a two year process. I did a lot in my studio in Bed-Stuy. I moved from Boston and felt really inspired coming to New York and trying to make a comment on the whole artistic process — the whole self-analytical kind of psyche and how I create. That’s really what the whole record is about.
Do you have a favorite track off the record and is there a story behind it?
BT: There’s a track called “Brighter in the Past” which is Track 9 or so. It’s like a deeper-cut. It’s probably not a song that would be a single or anything, but it’s the most interesting to me. It came from an exercise of writing music totally just on sheet music, not playing an instrument or sitting down at a piano. Just sheet music, pen and idea. The sound that came out is where I think I’ll eventually go with the next album. It’s an interesting look at where things could go.
So you really just took pen to paper then?
BT: I was sitting with my friend Mike Thomas, who is an incredible musician. I was having a bit of writer’s block and he said, “why don’t you just write something with cello, flute, and clarinet and do something cool with that?” I took that idea and wrote something.
The creative process is something you’ve mentioned as important to you. What does your songwriting process look like?
BT: This last album was just taking an organic sound in the studio, recording it so it entered this realm of digital world, creating worlds in that way and writing on top of it. Songs came out of a experimental phase. Nowadays as I’m looking forward to writing the next record, I am abandoning all of that and trying to write music A to Z, finishing a song on acoustic guitar or piano before I record anything. If anything, the process for this album was entirely fishing in the dark for something to hold onto. Now, I am building the structure of the building before I piece it on.
After composing across a spectrum of genres, what has been your favorite genre to work with so far?
BT: The goal of any film composer or anyone who has done composition for TV is to be called upon for your own voice within the composition. A good example of that would be someone like Jon Brion — he’s not called upon to score film to just make a typical sound, it’s to get the sound of Jon Brion. Or Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead has done the last Paul Thomas Anderson films and it’s the same kind of thing. For me, my favorite kind of thing is when a director tells me to come up with my own thing rather than fill a certain mold. I think when I naturally write, there’s a specific kind of sound.
A lot of your album art and music videos are geometrically inspired and bursting with color. What was your thinking behind this aesthetic?
BT: There’s an artist named Mark Warren Jacques. He’s an incredible painter. I saw his artwork and it resonated with me for a few very specific reasons. He does everything by hand, nothing digitally, yet everything has hard lines and it’s very geometric. It almost looks like it’s done on a computer, but he paints everything. I feel like that aesthetic represents the music I was making at the time where everything is totally from an organic source, but ultimately ends up on a grid in the world of ProTools — in a hybrid of analog and digital. If anything, I saw that and it felt like a perfect visual representation of my music.
Are you inspired to keep going along with his artwork?
BT: Yeah, I would love to keep working with him. He’s a genius.
Where did you first encounter his artwork?
BT: A friend of mine back in Boston introduced me to him. He does huge murals and designed fashion and architecture installations as well.
How has your relationship with New York affected your music and changed from when you lived in other cities?
BT: I find it really difficult to concentrate in New York. New York is like a living version of the internet. There are so many distractions; every second there’s a birthday party to go or drinks to have or some opportunity to pursue. It’s very difficult to find that inner silence to access the inspiration that’s inside of you at the moment to write something. I prefer to write in complete isolation. I’ve gone up to Hudson, New York a couple times where there’s no one, rented an Airbnb for a week or two and all of a sudden music just pours out of me.
So you prefer to write in isolation?
BT: I’ve never done too much meditation in my life, but when you access that kind of songwriting moment when it all starts pouring out, it’s probably the closest thing to a clear horizon, a meditative type of state where there’s between your thoughts, your goal and the blank canvas.
If you could describe yourself using any TV character, who would you be?
BT: Larry David.
Having expanded a lot into film and TV, how has scoring for someone else been different from scoring for yourself?
BT: When you’re doing film composition in general, you’re filing their vision always. You are trying to tell the story through your music and that is a great challenge. I love it. When you’re songwriting, you face a blank canvas and you can do whatever comes to you and feels real at the time. You can reflect on the moment you’re in and in past moments and in future moments. For scoring film or TV or a commercial, you’re just furthering the story that is being told by someone else. You have to take off the hat that you wear and put on any hat that they give you.
Have you faced challenges with that?
BT: When you’re presented with a genre that’s outside your comfort zone, it can feel difficult to do it justice. There was this TV show that I scored for in the realm of Country-Western-Americana music. As much as I love that kind of music, I don’t naturally do it, so I found myself doing more research that I would normally. Then I did a cooking show once…and it was like, “where do I draw inspiration from when I’m scoring for someone flipping a steak?”
How did you go about that?
BT: Usually they’ll give you a temp score, which is a piece of music that you mimic. It’s always that kind of saving thing, but at a certain point you see something and it comes out of you. Just happens.
If you could have scored any popular film that came out in the past three years, what would it be?
BT: This is tough…I would say Star Wars. I would replace John Williams.
Would you have scored what he scored or done your own thing?
BT: In all honesty, he is the greatest film scorer of all time. I pay all respects to him. I imagine I would show up and walk away because there’s nothing you could do to add to that score. In all fairness, the guy who did Rogue One (the first Star Wars film not scored by John Williams) was tasked with rearranging and re-embellishing all of John William’s big Star Wars themes, and it’s almost uncomfortable to listen to because these big themes that are ingrained into world wide culture are slightly different. It’s really bizarre to listen to and I almost don’t envy that guy’s job.
What are your immediate goals for the next six months to year?
BT: I’m already writing the next [album]. I’m pretty deep into writing the songs and I’m going to do play a bunch of shows for “My Art of Almost” over the summer. My real goal though is to write another album and have something soon because I’m in a really inspired phase right now. I can feel that this is my time to get a lot of work done.
How is your next album gonna differ from this one?
BT: I am really harping on every sound. Everything about it coming from real performances, nothing programmed or sequenced. I just want to get as much human life in it as possible.
What are your plans for “My Art of Almost”?
BT: I would love to tour on it and I hope I get to someday. It’s definitely a goal of mine.