Interview | FFS 5 with Ben Fisher

Photo courtesy of Baby Robot Media

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has rarely been addressed in American music. But on Ben Fisher’s latest release, the Damien Jurado-produced Does the Land Remember Me?, the Seattle-based folk artist—who spent three years living in Israel—dives headfirst into an entire concept album on the subject, a bloodcurdling and somber meditation that humanizes those on both sides of the divide. Fisher’s metaphorical and literal interpretations are wreathed together in a binding, barbed-wire circle as he tackles a complex and heavy narrative. His skill as a songwriter and storyteller is a big part of what drew the interest of producer Jurado.

Fisher strikes a fitting balance between emotion and reality on Does the Land Remember Me?. By allowing himself to inhabit these real-life characters, he makes possible a deeper understanding of the dire state of this tiny strip of land and its people. And his experiences only seem to aid his desire for mercy, eerily feeding into each stark moment with enthralling insight. Does the Land Remember Me? is a career-making record, timely and crucial.

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

My parents forced me into piano lessons at the tender age of 5. A decade or so later, my insubordination caused my piano teacher to fire me. In middle school, I joined a mariachi band and played the vihuela, a little 5 string guitar with a rounded back. That’s how I learned guitar.

I wrote my first songs after my parents uprooted me from Atlanta and moved me across the country to Seattle after my freshman year of high school. A Seattle winter and being the new kid at school will make you want to start writing sad bastard folk music.

As an artist, how do you define success?

I’ve played music with and for people that I admire greatly at venues that I frequent as a fan. I have two albums of songs I wrote that I’ll be able to play for my kids. Damien Jurado, who happens to have written some of my favorite songs, produced my last record. Anything else that happens along the way is just icing on the cake.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

Monetizing my music. Because I work other jobs and don’t rely exclusively on making music as a source of income, I just want to give my LP to everyone who’s the least bit interested in my music. But you know what? That double LP on colored vinyl with custom sleeves and a lyric sheet insert cost $17.10 a pop to produce. Yikes. Or, if there’s a band I really want to put together a bill with, I’m liable to offer them a split that’s far too high for a show that I’m headlining, just because I really like their music. So I guess the hardest part of the music business is making it a business.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

With this new record, I’m hoping to get people involved and interested in Israel/Palestine. Maybe get a Jewish college student who went to Israel for a bar mitzvah a decade ago with his family re-invested in the country. Or to get someone who has never thought twice about the place to pick up a book about it or take a trip there.

And, on top of that, to have people who consider themselves staunch supporters of one side of the Israel/Palestine issue to realize that there is another valid perspective, another narrative on the other side.

The last time I was in New York, walking by Trinity Church in Manhattan, I saw a group of middle school girls in the graveyard. They were at the grave of Alexander Hamilton. Middle school girls engaging with early American history. If I can do, on a much, much tinier scale with Israel/Palestine what Lin-Manuel Miranda did with Hamilton, I’ll be very happy indeed.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

Books, both fiction and non-, are creative catalysts, as are movies, although I don’t watch nearly enough. Traveling certainly helps. Many of the songs I wrote for the new record began in my head while I was out for long walks in and around Jerusalem.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm (@jfrahm_)