If you’re a musician and someone asks you to write their story, there’s probably a good chance that it’s going to come out in song. That’s precisely what happened when Seattle-based musician Benjamin Doerr set out to write the stories he collected from his grandfather who had come of age in France under the German occupation of World War II, then joined the Free French to fight for the liberation of his country. Though the stories may still find themselves into print in some form someday, Doerr found they initially came out as songs. Eventually those songs evolved into a band and a self-titled 11-song album, St. Paul de Vence, named after a town in Southwest France where Ben’s grandfather was stationed for a time.
Now if you’re yawning and thinking who cares about something that happened decades ago and ocean away, well… I’ll skip the cliche about those who don’t study history, even though it’s true, because the album isn’t a history lesson at all. It’s a collection of 11 catchy tunes with compelling lyrics that will appeal even if you can barely place France on a map, or didn’t know it was ever at war with Germany. It’s just even more fascinating with context. On July 16, I talked to Ben about the project from his home in Seattle about the project, the band, the album, what he’s working on now, and what’s next for St. Paul de Vence.
St. Paul de Vence is a collection of songs that completely captivated me from first listen. I was drawn in by its unique acoustic sound that is not only a radical departure from the more electric, power pop sounds of Doerr’s two previous releases, Sketches of a Real Life and One Door Open, but also just different, full stop. It’s a fairly unique project. Yes there are elements I could describe in comparison to specific recordings by certain bands, but try as I might I can’t come up with a formula that would be helpful to you.
It’s definitely music that’s situated in the general territory of Pop, but it’s thinking man’s pop, not afraid to incorporate other genres or cultures, and not afraid to break conventions. It’s also acoustic music, and very likely to appeal to those who are into the Folk and Americana scenes. The instrumentation is diverse and intriguing, making use of everything from guitars, drums and banjos, to accordions, autoharps and a child’s toy piano. It’s simultaneously fresh and contemporary, yet evocative of France during the 30s and 40s, with even an occasional down home accent. The lyrics, of course, come straight out of the stories told to Ben by his grandfather. They are complex and interesting, never cliché.
Perhaps much more enlightening is to hear Benjamin Doerr tell the story of the band and how their sound developed. In Part 1 of the interview at the link below, he told me how the songs came about, about the origin of the band, and how their sound developed. They didn’t really have a model. It was a much more organic process, dictated in large part by the material.
Click here to listen to Part 1.
Their first break came courtesy of Seattle’s famous KEXP radio station which put their music in heavy rotation. As they began playing more dates around town, demand began to grow for an album. This is where Ben pics up the story of the Band in Part 2 of the interview. Other topics include plans for the future, the Ballard Session videos, and co-writing a song with his 2-year old son.
Click here to listen Part 2. (At the end of this post you can find the video for “Mama” that is discussed in the clip.)
In the final part of the interview we continued to delve into some of the themes of the album. The debut CD St. Paul de Vence comes from the stories of his grandfather who was involved in the much lionized and romanticized French Resistance, yet it never falls into the simplistic dichotomies of many popular narratives of World War II. I began this portion of our talk by asking Ben if the concern for social issues evidenced One Door Open presaged the interest in the themes he develops from his grandfather’s stories. We went on to talk about some of the specific songs, including “Saints” in which the powerful line
“…won’t someone somewhere sing a song for me
And won’t you please save one for my enemies…”
is indicative of the tone of the album; and “Pink Wine” in which Ben sings the chorus in French.
Click here to listen to listen to Final Part of the interview.
St. Paul de Vence will be playing at the famous Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle August 31- September 2, and a bunch of other dates on the West Coast. They’d like to schedule some East Coast and European dates, especially as their audience is growing in these areas, but as is very often the case with independent artists, they have scheduling and funding challenging issues to work out. I’m certainly hoping to see them out this way soon! Watch the web site for news.
St. Paul de Vence – “Mama” // Ballard Sessions #46