An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Ben Schrag

Photo by Daniel Hodges

Ben Schrag moved to Ames with his family only a couple years ago but if you didn’t know better you’d probably peg him as an Ames native. He’s got all the trademark Ames qualities: community-oriented, preternaturally friendly, plays in multiple bands, can be seen regularly at the Library (especially in his case since he now works there).

Plus, for the past year he’s also been running the Sunday evening Open Mic Nights which recently moved from the Iowa Music Store down the stairs to Vinyl Cafe. Can’t get more Ames than that.

His experiences of moving to town and becoming involved in Open Mics have made an impact on his songwriting as well, adding to an already sizable catalog. I chatted to him about songwriting last week:

You’ve written songs for a long time but I’ve heard you talk about how moving to Ames a few years ago seemed to unleash a new phase of productivity. Why do you think that is?

Initially, it was the energy of the move – anytime you uproot yourself like that, you go through a sort of re-examination of everything you take for granted about yourself.  And the decision itself had a distinctly bittersweet quality – I’ve often compared it to going through a breakup. It’s just hard on everybody to suddenly untangle your lives from one another.

But Ames itself also had a lot to do with it.  I’m definitely in the camp that believes that Art is not complete until someone experiences it. Unfortunately, I’d never lived in the parts of the Midwest that really had a scene.  Between geography and babies, playing out was rarely a possibility.

And part of it was just being ready to evolve.  The Ames version of me is at a different place and has different curiosities and questions to explore – all through new songs.

What kind of questions and curiosities tend to come out in your songwriting? Do you often start a song with a question or an idea in mind or do you find that the ideas emerge as you write?

Not a literal question, but often an incongruity that forms that initial foothold into the idea. I’m aware of the method of songwriting where you write the chorus first and then go back in to work out verses, but I prefer to start at the beginning.  The first verse is where you find that initial tension that helps everything else emerge.

When I first started writing songs, I had the most success finding that sort of tension through absurdity.  Nowadays, I spend more time with the ideas of connection, forward progress, and how we all have to fumble our way through confusion and/or loss.

Give me an example of an incongruity that formed itself into a song, maybe from something you’ve written recently? What about it compelled you?

Ha, so this was tricky to think of good examples, because the incongruity that drives the writing process doesn’t always emerge cleanly in the lyrics. But here’s maybe a couple:

The most recent (and easiest) example is a song called “In the Beginning (Was the Waitress)” which was written off the unlikely prompt of “Drunk Mormons”.  I think there were other parts of the prompt that I didn’t use. For some reason that one intrigued me.

As I’ve said before “You Once Called Her Home” was written right after you guys had Leo.  The song rose out of the feeling of excitement for the new chapter in you and Adrien’s lives and the simultaneous realization that my own kids have pretty firmly left that phase behind.

And sometimes it’s more internal, personal thing.  For example, a song I don’t play a lot but still kind of like is called “Waiting For The Other Shoe To Fall” which came from the very first day in Ames that I really felt stressed out and “down”. The move was such a positive experience and kind of an adrenaline rush in a lot of ways, so the experience of that first bad day was sort of an intellectual curiosity to me… and it spun out into a song.

Do you ever find that songs you write when you’re “down” or otherwise emotionally-primed are particularly compelling songs to you? Songs you find yourself wanting to play more often?

Not necessarily.  I mean, sometimes that heat of a really primed song is an indication that the idea is already full of tension and just ready to spill out into the world.  But really personal material can just as easily become indulgent and prescriptive …maybe even boring.  I think what’s more crucial is that the songs bridge the divide between between specific and universal, between fact and fiction, and find something truer than a single person’s experience.

I think if I’m honest,  I’m just a smidge less eager to play out songs that have strong auto-biographical images in them – which is not to say I won’t, but I’m a little more careful about whether it’s really the right song for that moment.

And I love that, no matter what it the driving curiosity is in a song, it can always put it into the form of something that feels intimate – like a personal relationship or personal struggle.  I wrote “Wreck Me” after playing at DG’s for the first time and feeling like I wanted to bridge that divide and connect with the audience better. But that impulse gets channeled into a coy and somewhat swaggering love song.

It’s interesting that you bring up your occasional hesitancy with autobiographical writing. Songwriters who write from their experiences, especially ones who are a little on the “emo” side of things are often described as “honest” or “authentic” but it’s been my experience as a listener that fictional songs are often far more TRUE in the way that they feel to me than songs that are based on personal experience. What is cathartic to the songwriter to write is sometimes hard for the listener to connect with. I have never written a song from my own perspective so I don’t know quite how it would feel to perform that way. But what’s your take on that? Where do you fall in the spectrum of songwriters who incorporate their own perspective vs those that create narratives?

I feel like most things I write are fundamentally speculative.  I don’t spend a lot of time breaking it down in that way, but maybe I’m more of a Stephen King where I’m willing to write speculative fiction about people who just happen to be very similar to me!

But I think audacity is a separate quality from craft.  Saying something brave and shocking is different that saying something brave and shocking and saying it well.  And you need a little of both, for sure. I have a friend who is fond of saying “I can forgive anything but being boring”.

It’s an interesting point though, because I feel like songwriting is such a primitive urge.  The first songs we write might lack the shine and polish of craft, but they make up for it by being so guileless and surprising.  It’s one of the reasons that I love going to open mics and seeing people perform their own original work.  No matter how rough it might be, it’s a chance for me to remember and admire that simple urge to make something and the ability to break rules just because you didn’t know they existed.

You do a great job with facilitating and prompting at open mics. What’s your approach? How do you encourage folks, some of them newcomers, to stretch and grow through that forum?

I don’t really have a deliberate approach. But I will sat that I really like hearing people play their own stuff.  And I’m also still actively using the open mic to generate and try out new material, so I think there’s a natural camaraderie that happens because, you know, I’m up there just like everyone else, trying out completely untested stuff that may or may not work.  Open Mics are sort of by their nature sort of transitory – a gateway into a scene – but I think they can also be a place for experienced poets and songwriters to come get inspired by each other.

Nate Logsdon is a writer, editor, and indexer from Ames. He was a founding editor of the Ames Progressive and contributing editor at the Iowa Informer.