Photo by: Laurie Kang
Multi-instrumental singer/songwriter Ben Gunning makes warm, Kodachrome-tone R&B. His songs are immersive worlds unto themselves — each fantastical and delicious and wildly inviting.
The maximalist aesthetic, Gunning's main mode, calls on a mastery of four decades of recorded sounds in the traditions of soul and funk, yacht rock and hip-hop (and many more, I'm sure, bubbling just below). The tracks are 9000-piece expert-level puzzles or intricate stained glass compositions, but made durable like a rubber bouncy ball — the neon ones with a swirly pattern. You could imagine the author of this wily, technicolour multiverse regarding fondly the works of like-minded weirdos Michael McDonald or Prince.
To create the bustling, buoyant world of Massive Love LP (streaming exclusively at Chart Attack), Gunning teamed with producer Kieran Adams (DIANA), along with a supergroup of Toronto players, listed below. We exchanged emails with Gunning to learn more:
Ben Gunning's Massive Love is available now via the artist's Bandcamp.
Chart Attack: Does this collection of songs tell any sort of story? Was there something you were trying to capture here? Something you were playing with?
Ben Gunning: My last record was a very calculated, organized concept record and consumed a lot of my lyrical energy. I didn't want to go that route again so there's no specific tie between the songs this time around. However, I think I am learning to write more impressionistically (for me that's just loosening the oppressive responsibility I put on myself to control the listener's interpretations of every line). Up to now I have had a very monolithic opinion of lyric writing - that each song should be a deliberate, defensible and cohesive island. It really informed my workflow but I'm realizing, over time, that opening up is necessary and healthy as well as good for the end product.
Despite the fact that I was not adhering to a preselected, overarching concept, I certainly gravitate to certain themes. I am always interested in identifying and examining the evolving and elusive system that we are living within and its impact on the spirit. I am also interested in the internal struggle to be positive and ethical and how that system influences that struggle or vice versa. I have an education in Anthropology and I know it has had an enormous impact on my outlook and thus on my songwriting.
Tell me about your many collaborators. How'd they help realize your ideas?
I have experienced some deep, tear-welling frustration over my musical career trying to stick to my path and sometimes feeling very alone. This time around I feel like there's more of a "we" vibe and it feels really good.
I think Kieran's main impact on the tunes (beyond his beautiful, feely drumming) was to encourage a more "open" element to contrast with the more intricate aspects - I think, to great success. Throughout the whole process, he was able to ensure that the purpose of the song was not crushed under my fixations - for example, keeping an eye on whether the vocal delivery supported the narrative, as opposed to whether it was technically perfect. It's really easy for ego to screw up your perspective when it comes to recording your own songs and he provided a sensible perspective in many situations, advocating for the song when I was losing sight.
The credits on this album reads like a supergroup of the best - if underrated - musicians in Toronto. How did you get them all on one album?Kieran - who played all the drums and drum machines - wanted to have Thom Gill and Bram Gielen provide all the keys and bass as he had been working with them regularly. They are both coocoo-bananas on multiple instruments so that was a welcome strategy. I have been such a fan of Thom's music and playing over the years so it is a total honour to have him on the record and to have his voice on some of the songs.
Most of the players are folks that have been playing in my group for a while now. I'd like to highlight each musician and what makes them so amazing but there are eight of them (Kieran, Thom Gill, Bram Gielen, Robin Dann, Alanna Stuart, Felicity Williams, Michael Davidson, Joseph Shabason) so I will simply say this: they are diverse and all have their own incredible projects but they have taste and maturity in common and those are top traits. Nothing musically corny ever happened. You don't get that by coincidence.
I feel connected to a lot of these players and I feel like everyone involved is excited about the outcome. I have experienced some deep, tear-welling frustration over my musical career trying to stick to my path and sometimes feeling very alone. This time around I feel like there's more of a "we" vibe and it feels really good. I feel less likely to question what I'm doing this for when it seems to also be important to others that I respect so much.
How would you describe the palette and types of sounds you're working with here?
I really try to steer clear of instrument clichés (there are too many per interment to cite) so, although we tried to combine and contrast natural sounds and synthetic sounds, many of the natural sounds were processed or sampled, sliced and diced. The sonic choices we made were mostly made in the interest of creating a unique world for each song that a listener would have to adapt to. I really want people to be surprised and attentive when they listen to the songs so I'm hoping that this is the effect we have on those who choose to listen.
The biggest disappointment I experience as a listener is when 30 seconds into a song I realize I've walked this path a million times before and the remaining three minutes validate my suspicion. I really try to focus on making sure that others don't feel like that when they listen to my music. The sonic palette is one of the more surface set of choices in a song's creation, so those choices alone can't guaranty this goal is achieved, but they are certainly part of the equation.