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It's impossible to separate Ben Gregory's majestic, multi-faceted and emotionally wrenching debut solo album, Episode, from a period of deep personal upheaval. In 2019, Blaenavon, the band with whom he released two highly acclaimed albums, disbanded. Not unrelated, Gregory was receiving treatment in psychiatric hospitals.

"Everything in Episode goes back to my struggle to interpret, or reinterpret, my life and its central relationships, after having my concept of reality overturned," he says. "It may sound dramatic, but it's hard to know if you can trust how you feel about a partner, a situation, a future, when you've sat in a hospital bed, shredded a newspaper, sat back and watched it come together."

Due out 7 April, Episode is a record of incredible capacity, where you find true catharsis, the kind of record you don't often find. There is a musical fusion between its rawness and its superb production. Ben Gregory's debut album is euphoric and reflective, with heartfelt and even funny moments. But most importantly it highlights his immense talent as a songwriter. “The songwriting journey begins in the bedroom and it ends, inevitably, in the bedroom” says Ben in a genuine and must read essay published last week in The Quietus. It is an incredibly sensible and exciting piece; coincidentally two adjectives that define his debut album.

The use of the word episode is also a perfect way to define this album. Not only because of the clear reference to living through difficult times, but structurally. Going through different genres, the most innovative thing about the logistics of this album is its length and the permissiveness that the artist has brought to the structure and construction of the songs; it may seem like we are listening to two songs in one, but it is more than that, it is the ability to capture the different range of emotions contained in a single narrative as a way of being true to the moment that may have inspired these songs, and their changing nature. And when it comes to mental health and its social conversation, this is a real asset.

Deathbed Hangover was the first song we got to hear from this project, back in late 2022, and it's a strong and powerful starter to get us into Ben's solo music; as he says "it represented my comeback in the most jarring and abstract way". Manifest* came in second place earlier this year with a great chorus, and a great video directed by Dave East that coincidentally ended up being shot in Berlin, in the very place the song is about. The lyrics are some of the best of the whole record (No lip could move, a quivering worm / An expression that's hard to discern / But I get uptight when they question our worth / It's uncountable, some things can't be martialled into rows).
And a month ago we were able to discover the colossally ambitious ten-minute centrepiece of the album blue sea blue, an amazing piece that begins to build ritually and takes us on a journey of catharsis and the good that can come out of struggle. 10 minutes of incredible song and a video directed by Natàlia Pagès Geli that is a fantastic representation of the lyrics for an art film in which Ben is the traveller and we are the passengers on this emotional journey. Blaine Harrison (Mystery Jets) and Matt Twaites helped Ben produce the album in what we imagine is the perfect setting for creating music after hard experiences; enjoying good times with mates you trust.

But there is much more to this ambitious album, written in 10 days. Episodes will be released on 7 April and contains the singer's ability to capture through stunning writing the state of human relationships as we struggle in a time when technology creates constant alienation at both ends of communication. (poetic moments, witty observations, gorgeous metaphors and a lot of reflection) that uniquely represent Ben's experiences, through his tender voice that feels both determined and gentle. It is one of the best British albums you will hear this year.

We had the chance to listen to the whole thing and talk to Ben about the creation and production process, what's behind the lyrics, inspiration, the music industry and other pretty interesting things.
Hi Ben, how are you?
I’m ok, thanks mate. I’ve been slightly under the weather of late but am about to head back to London for the first time in a while, which I’m pretty excited about. Making lots of cool new music with lots of nice old friends.
There's less than a month left until your debut album is released, how do you feel now that it's done and about to be released?
To be honest I’ve felt a little confused and scared about putting myself out there again: both out of fear of spectacular failure and simply because I quite like my privacy. But it felt like a bit of a turning point the other day when the song blue sea blue and its video were released. That work is one of my proudest achievements; it’s been heart-warming and deeply gratifying to work with those incredible people on it, and to feel the way it’s connected with the community, my friends and my family. A real reminder of why I started doing this in the first place. I’m hoping the album’s release is similarly fulfilling. But, either way, my work on it is done and I still think it’s great.
The turning point of your solo career is this work, which was born out of a difficult period in your life. As mentioned in the press release, it is an introspective journey about "your struggle to interpret, or reinterpret, your life and its fundamental relationships, after your concept of reality has been overturned". It also talks about the difficulty of trusting people when you are in a difficult situation. How did the process of creating your new music help you cope with this feeling?
In terms of trust, basically everyone involved in the production and in the release of the album are people I’ve known, and loved, for years. So, that was no issue. Indeed it offered a catharsis that was sort of multi-layered: I could, personally, gradually come to terms with those difficult feelings in the act of the music’s composition, and then that sense of recovery was supplemented by sharing and exploring the songs with those great people I got to work with.
The lead single, Deathbed Hangover, is definitely one of the best songs released of 2022, and a great introduction to the album. The title, the electronics, the story behind it - everything. Technology has certainly changed our lives recently in questionable ways. You've said that "you like to think that the original chaos remains". If so, it's an interesting and relevant chaos to pay attention to. How did you approach the inception of this song and to what extent were you satisfied with it once it was finished?
That is very kind of you! I think that quotation was a reference to the chaos of the demo version in contrast to the slightly more polished final release, but it’s interesting and cool the way you’ve read it more as a reflection of theme. In terms of technology vs. chaos, I think the more random and endearing elements of human interaction have been tapered by us constantly exploiting our own whereabouts in attempts to render our lives enviable. Two old friends meet but there’s nothing to talk about because they both know exactly what each other’s been doing, and it looked cooler than it was. I miss bumping into people and sharing surprises. To be honest it’s something that makes me deeply, deeply sad and feel quite alien a lot of the time. It’s getting harder to recognise what experiences are ends in themselves. I guess Deathbed Hangover was my attempt to distil that sense of loss and voicelessness onto a tragic, electronic battleground. I wasn’t totally satisfied with the result.
You mentioned that it was important to keep the songs as real and raw as they came out, because it helps to see an episode as part of something bigger. Does this help shaping the album?
I think it did help to shape this album, if we’re labelling that an episode, because it adds a sense of cohesion to it but still lets it exist as a part of a wider entity — one record within a catalogue. It meant that I was slightly less picky about minutiae which no-one will notice except me. I was still quite irritatingly picky, though. Regarding realness or rawness, it was about maintaining a balance: terribly recorded demo parts encased in just enough studio gloss to not scare people off.

I felt very identified and moved listening to the album, not only as someone dealing with depression, but also as an outsider who can understand the experience, even if you haven't specifically lived through the same things. Was there any other music or art that helped you understand and feel better about your own experience?
I’m really happy that the music connected with you in those ways. I set out to make an optimistic album but couldn’t deny the part of myself that’s in quite a lot of pain. For me, transmuting sadness into sound is the best way to not let the pain win. I guess Elliott Smith was the master in that field — I’m aware of the contradiction there — but more recently I’ve been feeling that heart-wrenching, euphoric catharsis from Bill-Ryder Jones.
Musically Episode is a great mix of sounds that gives the album authentic sounding songs, how did Blaine Harrison from Mystery Jets and Matt Twaites help you achieve the sound you were looking for?
Mainly by being incredibly kind guys who play cool things on silly instruments. At times it was a bit of a free-for-all, mucking around making ridiculous sounds. Matt would be producing some skippy beats, whilst Blaine twisted the nobs of a synthesiser almost imperceptibly slowly. I’d be at the end of the room recording a melodica through the worst-placed microphone in recorded history. But, genuinely - although that last part was also genuine - they created an inspiring and encouraging atmosphere in which we were all free to try out any ideas, even those about which one was quite insecure. No pressure, or stress (except from my end). I loved it.
“The trouble with breathing is holding it in”. It's a great image, it says a lot without saying it. If you know it, you know it. We hear it near the end of the impressive opening track, Storm of Conversation. How did you come up with this idea?
Ah mate, it really means a lot to me how attentively you’ve listened to this record. Those lyrics at the end of that song were actually the only ones written in the studio, during the proper recording process. Previous versions of Storm of Conversation ended without that coda. I suppose it’s a reflection of my state of mind during recording, as opposed to writing, which makes it quite rare; the feeling of intense pressure, being trapped under the weight of your own creative insecurities which are themselves your only outlet. The push and pull of pride and loathing is a difficult feeling to delicately record - I’m really pleased that you think I achieved it.
At some points on first listen of the album it reminded me of some big and different Brit Pop names like the Stone Roses, Embrace or even Bloc Party. What are some of your favourite British bands?
Oh wow, I hadn’t connected it to those artists, myself. British bands that I really like: Joy Division are the best one. Regarding brit pop, I think Blur’s 13 is a perfect record, but I guess it’s not really brit pop at all. With an eye on what’s going on at the moment, I am incredibly lucky to have heard the debut album from Do Nothing and it’s absolutely amazing. A wondrous array of self-winking songwriting and the best lyricist around at the moment. Bangers to boot. I listened to that album straight for several weeks and it’s the only thing that stopped me punching myself in the face on the U-Bahn.
Manifest* has a great and intriguing chorus, it gives a sense of hope, but also resignation. Why did you choose it as the second single, and how did you enjoy the recording of the video for it?
Thank you. I like those lyrics because they blur between the line-endings quite oddly. I think it made sense for the first track taken from the record to be Deathbed Hangover, because it represented my return in the most jarring and abstract way. Then manifest* felt tied to it sonically but also reflected (what I consider to be) some of my best songwriting­, in the more traditional sense of the term. I’m really proud of the story that that track tells, and some of its images transformed memories of mine in a way that I’ll hold on to forever. It was a pretty cushty day making the video. Good old mate Dave East came out to Berlin and we shot something beautiful. Weirdly, the film was shot in the area about which the song sings. This was completely coincidental - we were only in Berlin for logistical reasons, and I didn’t choose the specific location - and it’s something that still leaves me slightly goosebumpy.

There is something very interesting about the structure of the album in terms of the number of songs and their length, as well as the sonic progression of each one. The main example of this is blue sea blue, can you tell us a bit about the development of this song?
This song is what happens when I am under literally zero constraints. Actually there was a moment when my hard drive ran out of space, but other than that, I just spent a day exploring every weird idea to its awesome or immediately-delete-worthy end. It’s a style of song that I’ve always admired but, maybe, never had the guts to work on myself. Each section just fell into the next and it was a very satisfying and (excuse the repetition) cathartic experience. I think it was only a subconscious intention, but the song ended up seeming to retell the experience of having a mental breakdown from its various, strange and diverse perspectives. For example, the psychological frustration and angst of part one in contrast to the stark, sombre, more-distanced recollection of part 3 (‘all the memories you can’t stop…’). I think it was the most inspired I’ve felt in my life, which is weird because that excessive sense of creativity is of course a part of the psychotic experience. In that way the song’s emergence parallels its object in a slightly healthier but notable way: a song about Bipolar that’s borne of one of the great parts of the illness.
In the text you published when you announced the end of Blaenavon, you refer to the music industry as “a sickening stain on the underbelly of the arts". In recent years, and even more notably after the pandemic, more and more musicians talk about the difficulty of making a decent living working in the industry. Not only because of the dangerous dynamics involved, but also because touring and bearing the costs of live music are creating mental health problems for artists. What are your thoughts on this?
I think something drastic needs to change, not just within the music industry but in a wider way, regarding how people consume and indeed how they expect to be fed. Streaming has many benefits but it created a culture in which hard work (in terms of music-creation) is immediately undermined at the moment of the product’s release. You dedicate your life, time and (probably) own money into something you think is singular, for it to be fired into the clogged swamp of all-music-ever.
You started the band Blaenavon when you were 14. What are the positives of being young and so musically creative and having a platform to express it?
I had the best fun ever and there was always an outlet available to me to process my emotions. However, just because quite a lot of people start listening to and enjoying that outlet, it doesn’t mean that any psychological difficulties are being overcome. Also, my sense of self became slightly askew from quite an early age, which was not ideal. So the platform starts to contribute to the problem, which is weirdly the source of the art which gets you the platform. If that’s not a vicious circle…
Mother's Son is a very beautiful and sweet song, and also a great example of how some of the best music an artist can make comes from their heart and honesty. Has your mother heard it? What was her reaction?
Yes, she heard it quite a long time ago. It’s hard. She is a warm, thoughtful and supportive person, so her reaction was delicate and understanding. She’s been a big presence on this record and in my journey to making it. I’m very grateful to her.
God Bless You is the perfect way to close the album. 'Every crisis is existential, when every white wine is dry' sums it up pretty well; a bit of humour and light on hard experiences can make us place certain episodes where they truly belong when seen from a zenithal view. Was it important for you to close the album with this?
Exactly (laughs). Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to imply some optimism or at least a knowing nod in the direction of life’s general absurdity. I can get so fixated on things, things that seem inescapable, and then a few months later I can’t even remember why I was so upset. Moods, brains, chemicals are weird things that require - alongside genuine exploration and care - being trolled sometimes. I guess God Bless You is kind of like the lol at the end of a text you quite seriously mean.

Antonio Rodríguez
Neelam Khan Vela

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