BWW Interview: Ben Moss of BEN MOSS & FRIENDS at The Duplex
Ben Moss's social media has been blowing up. For an entire month, every day he sat at the piano every day and wrote. When he was finished at his work he played on his piano and sang his composition on camera to post on his Instagram and his Youtube channel. It was a 30-day challenge, the like of which can be seen on peoples' social media all the time - but this was a challenge to create something.
And he DID it.
Now the industrious singer/songwriter/actor is taking those songs to the stage so that those of his fans and followers lucky enough to live in New York City can hear the finished works in one night of cabaret theater. January 18th Ben Moss & FRIENDS will entertain the audience with a variety show like the ones we all watched growing up -- only this is a modern variety show with a cool, groovy, young person with a fresh point of view and more enthusiasm than can be measured in one sixty second Instagram video.
Deep in preparations for his premiere, while continuing to travel with galpal Alexandra Silber to do the concerts for which they have become so well known, Mr. Moss took some time out to talk to me, I in the cold winter weather of New York City, he lounging by a pool in Miami.
Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Ben, what are you writing these days?
In November I challenged myself to a 30-day songwriting challenge and it had been a really long time since I had taken the time to write songs, like this, and my goal for myself was to sit down at the piano every morning and just allow myself to be taken wherever my mind wanted me to go. I never sat down at the piano with an agenda or even an idea at all. I just would sit down, put my phone on record and just start playing until I found something that felt good in my body and my voice. My task for the day was to write a verse and a chorus of whatever song it was -- roughly about a minute, a minute and a half of music. The reason I wanted to do that is because it felt doable. It didn't feel like it was something that I could give up on. One other thing that I was wanting to do is hold myself accountable, so I would publish these songs every day. I would make a video recording of them and I would post them on my Instagram and put them on my Youtube so that I would have this external accountability from my friends and from people who followed me. And much to my surprise, it worked beyond my wildest expectations. I wrote the first minute and a half of 30 songs ranging in styles from pop music to old fashioned musical theater, from folk music to ballads, fast songs, rock music. It was very surprising to see what I was able to produce when I just didn't set any limitations on myself. My only real job was to write SOMETHING. And I would say out of the 30 things that I wrote, only a really small number of them are things that I think I probably won't return to. And that's what I've been doing since I finished in late December. I've been going back and I've been finishing the songs one by one and a number of those songs that I wrote, and which you can find the beginning of on my Instagram and my Youtube, I will be premiering the entirety of at The Duplex.
How did your journey as a songwriter begin?
I started writing in high school. I grew up in Westchester County, New York, and I was always interested in theater, but I also played the piano and I played the violin and I went to music camps I was writing music in high school but I was writing classical music. I wrote a six to eight minute piece for piano and orchestra that I premiered and I really thought I was going to be writing classical music. Then I thought I wanted to write music for movies but when I went to college, I started writing music for musicals. I had musicals produced that I wrote, but after finishing college I came to New York, and the writing went to the back burner because I was pursuing a career as an actor. Then I found myself musical directing because I felt like the songwriting was not getting the bulk of my attention. I find myself influenced by ... the musical influences that I have show up in my music, from classical musical theater to pop music, what I'm hearing on the radio today, what I love to listen to as a kid. Also, I'm discovering people now that I didn't know. I just saw the fantastic Netflix documentary about Linda Ronstadt. I had, embarrassingly, never... I'd heard the name, but I really didn't know much about her. I don't have a real huge knowledge of pop music of the sixties and seventies. I just am not that familiar with it. So I saw that documentary and I was so swept away by her and I probably spent a month only listening to her catalog and I have absorbed so much of her energy and I know that she didn't really write all the songs that she sang... but the songs that she sang, have really influenced the writing that I'm doing today. I would also say an artist like Maggie Rogers who's singing pop music on the radio today -- her music also really influenced me, as well.
When you are writing songs, do you sit down and say, I'm going to write a pop song or I'm going to write a classical song, or I'm going to write a musical theater song, or do you just sit down and see what comes out?
I really do just sit down and see what comes out. The first song that I wrote in that challenge was a rock song. When I sat down at the piano, all I knew that I had was the rhythmic idea that was going to start the song, which was a hard rock power cord sort of thing. I sat down and started playing the power cord and that took me off. The music really tells you where it wants to go. That's actually one of the reasons why I thought the way that I structured the challenge for myself was going to be particularly fruitful because I felt like if I could get a verse and a chorus out, the song would reveal itself to me, as long as I showed up for it. You know what I mean? I think that the bridge of a song is so much connected to what's around it - I knew that if I was able to just start something, the rest of it would come.
Do you have a favorite type of music that you write?
I really like the more pop music that I've been writing. I think it has a soulful edge to it. I write on the piano, I don't play the guitar, so this kind of like a piano pop feels really comfortable to me, both in my hands and in my voice. I've done a lot of different types of musicals, a lot of different types of music -- classical, rock musicals.. but this sort of this pop music, I feel very comfortable singing. And I'm also seeing that style makes it easy for me to express whatever emotions are coming through in the lyrics that I'm writing 'cause it feels like it's very much me -- I'm not putting on a persona, I'm not trying to sing in somebody else's voice. I really just get to be myself, which is extremely liberating.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I do. (Laughing) Oh my god... I wrote it at... I went to a music camp in White Plains, New York, a Day Camp, and I guess I was in a songwriting class and I wrote this song that had a descending baseline. I think the first lyric of the song was "I saw my, saw my life, saw my life in a seashell." I don't know what I was going for, I don't know what that means, but my dad liked it so much that he made it his ring tone... back in the year 2000 when making a ringtone for yourself was kind of a complicated thing. (Laughing) It was really like a rock song, which was weird because I didn't listen to rock music. That's what showed up, that summer in White Plains.
Is that song still in your repertoire today?
You know what, it's not in my repertoire today, but after telling you about it, maybe I should sing it at The Duplex.
Many musicians are self-taught. Did your musical talents come to you naturally or did or was it a completely learned skill?
I had a parade of Piano Teachers as a kid. I was drawn to the piano because my older sister was taking piano lessons -- neither of my parents were musicians but we had this piano growing up. I started taking lessons and I didn't cycle through the teachers as in no one could handle me -- I would just move from teacher to teacher. I started with a classical teacher, and then I had like a jazz teacher, And in middle school, I started working a teacher who was very serious but an incredibly wonderful piano teacher who I stayed with until I graduated and I did upload to Costco repertoire. I went to a high school, I went to John Jay High School which had, and I think still has, a really wonderful music and arts program where I was playing the violin and was in the orchestra, and the director would like to have me conduct the orchestra on some of the pieces, and I played piano for the crowd, and I also sang. I was given so many opportunities to be part of the music, which was extremely lucky.
You keep really busy. You've done Broadway and regional theater and nightclubs. What is your ultimate goal in the business?
That's something I've been thinking a lot about lately. I have had an interesting time in the business because I find myself drawn to so many things. I love performing. I love conducting, I love music directing, I love writing, I love orchestrating. And somehow I really have managed to do all of this. I guess the best way I think I can put it is that my goal is really to be in a place that I can do what I want when I want to do it. I was just in Milwaukee doing the play Two Pianos Four Hands with Joe Kinosian who's also an actor and a pianist and composer - he wrote Murder For Two. I loved doing that play. I love being in a play where I got to play the piano and I love coming back to New York, I love that I'm about to do this show at Ars Nova where I will be music directing and also singing in it. I want to be in a place - and I guess I kind of am in that place - but I want to continue to find the places where I can be utilizing everything that I have to offer -- as a writer, as a singer, as a performer, as a conductor, really just things that make me feel like I'm vibrating at my highest frequency.
You're prolifically active on your social media, where you're always sharing the songs you've been writing. Does it worry you about privacy and people possibly reappropriating your art?
I thought about it that initially with the music, and I was kind of like "What could people do with this? I'm not Justin Bieber or Beyonce with something that's unfinished and someone will take it..." I don't have a big following by any standard. And I decided that it was more important for me to have this external accountability than worry about keeping it to myself in terms of protecting it. I mean when it comes down to it I could point to the fact that I posted it on November 26 and say that I put that online on that day. You can see it's been there since then and you obviously took it from me. But it's a very valid question.
You're also very open on your social media about your personal life. Do you think that gay men in the business have it any easier today than they did when their personal lives had to be kept private?
I do. I think the fact that we all are able to live openly and proudly and don't have to worry about reprisals for our personal lives... I think it's important that those of us who do participate in this business and who have people across the country and across the world tuning in to see what we're up to. You know, young gay people who feel like they can't be themselves, wherever they are, for them to be able to look to us and see that we are thriving and living happy open lives, surrounded by people who love us, who support us. I think that that's really important. It's something that my friends and I in the business discuss, not that we have a real responsibility, but that it's not unimportant that we are going to live our lives the way that we lived them, and that we can be an example of something for someone to look at and say, "Wow, there is a really great place out there and I know what's possible." That is very, extremely humbling. We really want to do good.
So now about your show on the 18th - what's your audience in store for?
I hope that this will be the first of many and a regular engagement. Maybe on a monthly or bimonthly basis, depending on my schedule. Like a music-driven variety show. I play piano, and I perform in a comedy scene sometimes -- I've done a bunch of shows at The Duplex and I was in a bunch of performances at The Slipper Room. I did a monthly variety show there called the Bongo hour where I was the music director and one of the regular performers. And that stuff was all comedy. When you go to see a comedy show, it's a variety show, but it's comedy first. And I wanted to kind of make this something that maybe was pushing music first, but that was also grounded, and a great time. How can we put together an hour-ish of different musical experiences and fun things? So you'll be hearing a bunch of these new songs of mine. I'll be joined by Freddie Hall who is a guitarist I met during the national tour of Spring Awakening and we've remained friends -- He's a Broadway guitarist and a songwriter and I love his songs. I will be joined by Peter Smith and then we will do some chatting and have some fun on stage. And, the thing I'm most excited about is being joined by Heather Christian whose show I will be music directing and performing in at Ars Nova later this year, in March. So what to expect is lots of new music, maybe some covers and some old favorites, but mostly just a good time.
You've played a lot of different clubs in this city. Do you have a favorite?
Oh wow. I really love The Slipper Room. I think it's a great little theater. I love what they do there. And The Duplex. That grand piano that they have on that little stage I think is just very, as a pianist, it's very exciting to me. I've played that piano many times and I just like playing that piano.
You are constantly working.
I found that I really thrive on work. I love working. I think what I would really love to do is: Monday through Friday, in a day job sort of way, wake up and go somewhere and do theater, make up theater with people. I love being in rehearsal. I love going to rehearse from 10 to six and leaving it at the end of the day. I just really think it's a wonderful thing and I would love doing that all the time. So, so good.
Photo by Stuart Wieten