Mumford & Sons’ Ben Lovett on New York City as creative
inspiration, working within and without the industry, his musical journey, and songwriting
by Ben Finane
Steinway artist Ben Lovett is a founding member of the band Mumford & Sons and also co-founder of Communion Music, a London– and New York–based concert promoter cum record label. Lovett spoke to Steinway & Sons’ Editor in Chief in New York City pre-pandemic, and then more recently by phone.
What are you doing here in New York?
We’re working on getting some songs rehearsed for the Newport Folk Festival, which we’re playing as a surprise appearance next weekend.
Hold on, I’m just tweeting that out.
Yeah, exactly. I lived in New York for six years. It’s my main inspiration — as a city — in the world. I love New York.
New York inspires a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. What does it do for you?
I think growing up in the UK, the idea of America is a very romantic one, still — and through my teens I imagined taking a trip there. I got the opportunity to study for a while at Stanford; that was something that I worked toward for a few years in my teens, and something which fueled the passion that I had for the country. In 2008, we were doing our first ever Mumford & Sons tour of America and arrived in New York on the cusp of the Williamsburg wave and the excitement around Brooklyn being a playground for creatives. We had an amazing time over the course of a couple of days playing at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and wandering through the streets there, and I could tell at that point that there was just something special about the energy.
And then, in 2010, I spoke to my partners with Communion [Music] and we talked about how we needed to expand our footprint to the States, and I thought, “It would be a dream come true for me to go and lead that charge in America — and I’d love to do it in New York.” And so I came over — and this was before I even realized just how fruitful it would be as a place to write songs. And it was only when I actually lived here... I had a furnished apartment with a grand piano up on Canal and Wooster. Living on Canal Street was crazy, and I did it for two months — with the city bustle below. All you’re aware of is the horns and the street salesmen and there was this juxtaposition between how crazy it was out there and then this sort of womblike cocoon of the apartment, and it felt very safe. My view of New York is that it’s just always on. Lights are always on.
Indeed, it’s the city that never sleeps.
You can go there and feel almost liberated to create anything, and I wrote more songs over the course of those two months than I probably had in my entire life up to that point. I realized that this was where I would go on to write a bunch of songs, both for my band and for other artists as well, and it’s just a gift that keeps on giving. I made a lot of friends here. Creatively, I think there’s a different city for every artist, but for me it’s New York.
Since you mentioned Communion Music, let’s talk a bit about the philosophy behind your creation of this artist-driven label.
It was around 2006, and I was nineteen, and I was in a band at the time with a guy called Kevin Jones. We were working with a producer called Ian Grimble and we were in a studio in West London complaining about how it felt like the industry was stacked against you if you were just starting out. And it felt like you had to kind of fall upon a miracle — like know someone who knows someone, or you had to look a certain way — and all these kinds of clichés about music and the film industry, they were seeming very true in 2006.
If we fast-forward to present day, is the problem more that the industry has crumbled altogether? Or are the same problems that led to the founding of Communion in 2006 still present today?
I think they’re very much still there. The guys who run the show, they’re still running the show; the people who sit at the top of the major labels — and the structures within them — are still intact. Interestingly, over the years, we actually learned to work with some of those people in a very positive way, and found a way. And there are, I’d say, genuinely some very good people who work within the system, so initially we were outsiders looking at this industry feeling like it was all rigged and we decided to create a world that was a safe haven for artists to not feel like it’s all a competition, and to feel respected. Initially, it was about making sure that people got paid to play gigs; it didn’t start as a record label. It was about promoting shows and not saying to an artist that you get paid depending on how many people watch you, but rather based on the fact that they had done the hard work — which is to write songs and rehearse them — and all the other sacrifices musicians make to be able to put together an hour-long set of original music. And our philosophy was we’re going to go and do the next sort of ten, twenty percent of hard work and get people in the room, and that’s what a concert promoter traditionally did, and inspired by the Bill Grahams of the world.
“Initially it was ‘screw the system,’ and now it’s a bit like the system and everybody else are going to have to change to keep up with how people are listening, consuming, and discovering music.”
That was the origination of Communion: it wasn’t so much as a label, initially. We were doing that for a couple of years and artists really appreciated that we were picking up the slack rather than putting all the pressure on them. We decided to apply those same principles to a record label In 2010, and we now have done a whole range of artists over the last eight years. It’s been great, and like I said before, we work in various ways, but have found that there are elements of the old and elements of the new that can be bridged to great effect, So I think I’ve grown slightly more mature, I suppose, over the last few years. Initially, it was “Screw the system,” and now it’s a bit like the system and everybody else are going to have to change to keep up with how people are listening, consuming, and discovering music. We can all see that happening in real time, but Communion can help with a degree of curation and steering and helping artists feel the kind of personal touch of a small independent feel, but also working alongside labels such as Universal, for example, whom we partner with to help get records out. Yeah, it’s a hybrid concept now, but it’s still kind of independent and we’re very proud of that. It’s kind of a baby that exists, that predates Mumford & Sons, but it helps, I suppose, to give me an outlet for something different than the music that I make. It reflects a different side of who I am as a person in the way that I partner with artists and work alongside my partners at Communion.
You were an outsider when you started it and then you became an insider, and now you can still travel back to the outside and have empathy for people across the board — so I imagine it’s a nice grounding option, to be able to take that vantage point as well.
Yeah, it is, and it actually keeps me pretty sane when things have been, at times, completely unexpected for Mumford & Sons; the journey has been so wild at times in terms of the hype that things have reached that I’m reminded daily of how challenging it is to get there, and to experience both things. I could jump from a call about how do we put together a great show to talking an hour later about how do we get a new artist’s song one spin on the radio station; it’s the dichotomy of it that I find very balancing.
Tell me about your involvement with Save Our Stages. [Visit saveourstages.com to learn more.]
Before Save Our Stages as an initiative was formed, the immediate impact of Covid was to leave a lot of independent modern pop music companies, venue owners, record shops, promoters, all feeling very isolated and exposed. This is a very social industry where people often get into it as a means to elevate, support, develop musicians, and interact wherever they can with people who love music. So, quarantining — and then a government mandate both sides of the pond to not spend time in public gathering spaces like venues — led to the need for more communication. A group of very organized people, and quite exceptional characters in these times, set up a thing called the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA). And the idea with NIVA has been to provide a bit of solidarity for all of these operators across the U.S. And one of those initiatives is Save Our Stages, which is really a lobbying effort to get support and awareness out there to take action on making sure that we actually have performance spaces on the other side of this pandemic. While everyone’s been hit hard by the pandemic, the reality is that these venues continue to remain closed. And the rent continues to stack up. Now the ability to perform, more so in 2020 than ever before, is a really important line of income as well as expression. But it’s a really big part of how we survive as artists. I was watching an interview with an oboist from one of the Broadway shows on the news the other night. And it hits you that every single orchestral pit in every Broadway show has just been told that they will be closed until June. And then every concert hall. Every rock‘n’roll venue. Now these places are just shattered. So, that’s really taken up a lot of time and trying to help raise awareness and fundraise. There have been streamed fundraisers, and there will be many more. The outlook has, I think, in a beautiful way for those that care — which many people do — really highlighted just how powerful music is. How people need it in their lives. This isn’t just a livelihood for those that live off it, but for those that receive it, appreciate, listen. It’s a reminder of the role that music plays because we have taken it for granted, I think, a little bit. This year, as a musician myself, I’ve turned back to that need of playing purely as a way to make sense of everything, and being able to play piano —
Order out of chaos. That sort of thing.
Yes. Being at home and to be able, with my own abilities, to create that order out of chaos. It’s been a great avenue for release. It’s always about writing and playing and performing, but this year that has really been stripped back to something a bit more raw — and a direct relationship with the piano as an instrument that I really appreciate being able to use. At the end of one of the more stressful days of all of this going on, being able to turn the piano. . . . I think I will continue to advocate that wherever possible people should to try and unlock it as a skill in their own lives.
There are a lot of things that go into your musical aesthetic. Could you speak to the musical influences that helped you shape your music?
It was a fairly random journey itself, which probably has led to the output being pretty unidentifiable. From the age of four to twelve, I was playing classical piano taught by a fairly strict but wonderful Scottish lady. I didn’t come from a musical family at all, but I was very deliberate, even at a very young age, about doing my piano practice, and there wasn’t really anything else going on. My siblings were playing bits and pieces of R.E.M. and whatever was popular at the time in the Nineties. Around the age of twelve, I was really struggling with repetitive strain injury, kind of over-practicing and also over-challenging myself at too young an age, probably without the best technique, but I was taking on pretty elaborate works and my hands were just too small — and I had to stop playing for piano for about six months. I had really hurt myself, and in that time I met a guy called Nick Etwell, who was teaching jazz piano as a peripatetic third-party teacher at the school that I was attending, and he was really cool and lured me into the idea of learning jazz piano.
“I couldn’t imagine a world where I didn’t have access to a piano; i’d feel entirely constricted and unable to say things that i can only say through the piano.”
And a year later, Marcus [Mumford] and I, who had known each other since we were eight, decided to try putting together a jazz band, and we created a five-piece jazz band at I guess twelve, thirteen years old. And I didn’t really go back to classical piano at that point. My whole teens were spent gigging; we did our first paid gig when we were thirteen, gigging jazz real-book covers, basically, but learning every week from Nick and a couple other guys who were coaching us as this young teen band about the value of improvisation, of finding your own voice, and through that time I discovered what became one of my biggest inspirations, which was Keith Jarrett. The journey of Keith Jarrett fascinates me as a piano player, and I ended up really studying his music, especially his improvisatory work through my teens. That kind of took us up to eighteen, nineteen, and at that point I hadn’t really written any music; I’d done a couple of pretty awful jazz originals that I hope were never ever played by anyone, but we were fairly active, taking five or six gigs a month as a teenage jazz band.
And then Marcus ran off to university, and I stuck around for a while and ended up getting involved in lots of other bands playing punk and then rock. And Marcus came down from university on one trip, he was up in Edinburgh, and I remember him coming down one day and playing me Ray LaMontagne for the first time. I think I’d broken up with one of my first girlfriends or I was definitely in a very emotionally open head zone and listening to Till The Sun Turns Black, the second Ray LaMontagne album, which opened a whole new world of possibilities to me, and was my window into properly understanding how lyrics can enhance melody. I had heard lots of bands growing up, but hadn’t resonated in a way that I understood there was something I could do with it. It was a massive, massive turning point for me, I suddenly felt like I had done so much work into understanding the power of melody and harmony and studied in quite a lot of depth anything from Mahler to Debussy to Coltrane, yet, until Ray LaMontagne, I couldn’t feel more than when I listened to “Naima” by Coltrane. I thought I was done, but then I realized that there is actually this whole extra gear that could be found if you could combine powerful melody with lyrics as well, and poetry, and so that set things off, and then a year later we formed Mumford & Sons with Winston [Marshall] and Ted [Dwane]. That was when we were twenty years old; that’s eleven years ago now. Most of the rest of it is public history.
You mentioned poetry, and that’s something I’ve noticed in your work is these extramusical influences that come in vis-à-vis literature and poetry. How are these elements brought in? This may lead us to a discussion of songwriting: do songs and projects begin as kernels or motives or ideas or is there always an overarching concept or plan to the music?
Well, I’ve grown up loving literature; I was an avid English student in high school. Plays, novels, poetry: I found it all very powerful, and weirdly I didn’t connect the two [music and words] until my late teens, so I was both enjoying instrumental music, and enjoying literature and poetry — and both were speaking to me. I found both emotional, but the combination of the two was a later revelation.
Nowadays, there isn’t really a set formula. It can come through either root, words or melody. Normally one of the two will present itself. It’s very rare that it’s something that’s kind of sought after; I haven’t had much success in deliberately trying to have that moment. For me, it’s about living life and being ready to capture those when they surface, which I think is from somewhere unconscious or subconscious, and recognizing them, whether it’s a melody or a lyric — and writing it down. I genuinely thank God for smart phones because how easy it is now for songwriters to capture stuff in the middle of the night.
I basically have a dictaphone and a notepad with me — in the form of my phone — at all times.
It can come at very disparate times. I’ve been writing a lot in my dreams recently, and I can’t explain why. A song will come in a dream that didn’t exist when I went to bed, and then I’ll wake up and I’ll start writing it at 4 a.m.
That can be a time where those knots are unraveling subconsciously.
Yeah, I guess so. I’ve been doing a lot of transcendental meditation over the last few years and the premise is that you kind of get down to those levels where there’s all sorts of activity, and you try and calm those more subconscious levels to give yourself a bit of a break and creatively it’s very interesting, getting down there.
When you write songs, do you write at the piano or can you be anywhere?
I can be anywhere. It’s funny, actually, I’ve had probably more luck writing songs away from the piano because I find myself getting distracted at the piano — because of the backstory and because of my history with the instrument, if I get stuck, like...
Your hands fall into familiar patterns, and that sort of thing.
Yeah, exactly, and I’ll just start playing. And I could play, and I have played, for hours and hours. I remember there was a time when I would play eight hours a day, just random, and it was almost incoherent thought, and that doesn’t help when you’re trying to articulate something. Bizarrely, I actually find that I either write with nothing and just form ideas in my head or I’ll write on an instrument that I’m not very good at playing, for example the guitar. The guitar for me is a very useful writing instrument: I can play what I need to play, but I can’t noodle.
I can’t go off on one on the guitar, so I basically have to stay somewhat in-lane, otherwise I get bored and I have to put the instrument down. Normally, I will transfer: once I’ve got the core of the idea down, I’ll use the piano to expand upon it, find new harmony, find maybe an extension of a melody. And when I’m collaborating with other writers, as we do in the band — there are four songwriters, and when the other three individually bring ideas in, the piano is my go-to because I have the largest vocabulary on the piano, so I can give back a lot more. It’s my relief: I couldn’t imagine a world where I didn’t have access to a piano; I’d feel entirely constricted and unable to say things that I can only say through the piano.
Speaking of access to pianos, Steinway is very excited to have you in the family.
It’s been amazing. I think the moment for me was with Steinway Hall in London. There are some practice rooms downstairs where I found myself — I was living in New York and visiting London, having bizarrely come back from being abroad and not having access to a piano. So to be back in my hometown and to have a few hours there and to be able to go and actually just sit and play on a beautiful instrument, and this was before any sort of arrangement had been made: the door was open to me and I was allowed to go in and play. It was awesome. I have a lot of gratitude for what Steinway does for us; it’s very cool.
Craig Terry [Managing Director, Steinway & Sons, UK] convinced me to cross the threshold on this really beautiful Rosewood 1910 grand that now sits in my apartment on the River Thames and I can’t wait to get back to London and enjoy playing it again.