I honestly don't even want to write too long of an intro because I want you to get right into this excellent conversation, but dig if you will, the picture: Ben Sooy plays in Denver rock band A Place For Owls, and Arthur Alligood plays music as phoneswithchords in Tennessee. Together, they have made an incredibly special collaborative album called phoneswithBen which is out today. It's a beautiful and emotional and meditative piano-and-guitar-and-random-textures-of-life album, whose songs dip into pools of melancholy but never wallow in despair. I've been writing about how this season makes me more reflective and phoneswithBen fits right into that zone. It passes the "can I play this as I look out a car/bus/train window with scenery flying by and think about my life up til this point?" test with flying colors for sure.
It's hard to describe, even as someone who is supposed to be sussing out words about music, but there's an essence of something literally magical on the album. Like an audible click, where the collaboration feels seamless and enchanted. I am always fascinated by how people who have never been in the same room can write and record music that sounds like they've been hanging out forever, so I hopped on a Zoom with Ben and Arthur to talk about their songwriting process. Cold-Zooming people for interviews is often fraught, and it can be difficult to catch a vibe from video chatting alone, but the musical chemistry between Ben and Arthur spilled over into the conversation, and we went deep on things like...grief, mortality, friendship, creativity?? It was an awesome chat and I'm glad to share it with you on I Enjoy Music!
Well, thank you both for joining me on this. I wanted to talk about this album and how it got made, because I'm always impressed by any music made beyond people being in the same room together and, like, jamming. How did this idea get started?
Ben: Arthur and I have been fans of each other for the last almost year or so. I heard about phoneswithchords originally through Small Albums, which was an early adopter of A Place For Owls as well. So Arthur was just a songwriter that I respected. We started interacting on Twitter, and then we exchanged phone numbers. We did a phone call, which was very cute. Just putting a voice and a face and a sort of personality to — when phoneswithchords came out, it was kind of mysterious. There was no picture of Arthur on anything, it was this music that sort of showed up from the ether. And I think we had a similar perspective on certain aesthetic tastes, and some values about what the point of music is supposed to be for.
Arthur: Yeah, Ben reached out and said, "Hey, would you ever want to collaborate?" Being from outside of Nashville, "co-write" is usually the word that's thrown out a lot. He used "collaborate." I'm totally into collaboration, but all the times that I've tried to do a traditional co-write have not been very fruitful. I had just put out this record, my second album, and I thought it would be good just to see what happens with this, because I don't really have any plans for where I want to go with a third album.
This is the beautiful thing with Ben. Ben's very prolific, and he literally dumped, like, 30 voice memos on me. It was amazing. It was all these instrumental piano ideas. I was already hearing so much — sparks were flying just from these voice memos. I started pulling them into Logic and working on 'em as is. I didn't write him back and go, "Hey, can you re-record the piano? We were just like, let's just use it as is. I think someone's using the microwave in the background, but I kind of like it. Let's just keep going! We kept going back and forth and it got bigger and bigger.
Ben: It was, for me, the wildest songwriting process. I would do this instrumental guitar and piano, just little snippets, no lyrics, no melody. I'm not playing to a click. It's improvisational from front to back. A lot of them were, like, eight minutes long. And then Arthur would hear a little moment that felt worthwhile, and he would essentially program a whole beat or song or progression around it. So Arthur built the structure of the song, and then I or Arthur would write a vocal melody to it. Sometimes I added another instrumental. Arthur's adding a bunch of crazy layers of bleeps and bloops and synthy stuff and programmed stuff. But because it started with these noisy voice memos where you can hear my wife and our nephews and birds and rain outside — all my vocals on the album are from my iPhone. It made sense to keep that aesthetic going, so it has that lived-in feel, where it feels like this is a real person making real music in a real moment in time.
That's extremely cool. From the minute I pressed play on it, it has this amazing combination of sounding both very polished and very organic and raw.
Arthur: Yeah, I was big on that. I'm kind of a connoisseur of little moments, and Ben sent me this treasure trove of moments. You know? If you really listen, it's almost a day in a house: there's kids there, I hear breakfast being made — and I was hell-bent on not changing that. My rule was, if I added an element, it couldn't take away from what was already there. It had to either elevate it or at least be at the same level of the beauty that was there. Like Ben was saying, I've never done this, where that is our source material, our foundation, and we're building everything around it. I've typically done: let's do guitars, today we're doing bass, that traditional recording mindset. And this was just so refreshing.
Ben: The songwriting process was a part of the recording process . Normally the way that I would write is, I would labor over a song until all the words are there in the right place, the structure is there, I would have a vision for how it's going to be arranged. The production and recording of [phoneswithBen] was so baked in to the writing of the lyrics. The first song on the album, "Why Can't I Slow Down?", I am recording it and improvising the lyrics at the same time.
Ben: And that's the take that made it.
Arthur: I didn't even know that.
Ben: Yeah dude!
Arthur: I did not know this.
Bern: Arthur started out with that really moody piano thing. And then I sent back a bunch of guitar parts and then Arthur layered them. Arthur basically had the structure of the song. I listened to it and had a sense of melody that I'd been humming to myself while listening. And then I literally discovered what I wanted to say about the song as I was recording it. That's the take that's on the record, which is a wild, wild thing to me.
Arthur: I am so glad that we're doing this because I had no clue. I was kind of going with the "first idea best idea" kind of approach. So I didn't question your lyrics or even think anything about it...that blows me away.
That is extremely cool. So that kind of vocal improvisation is new to you?
Ben: Yeah. It was such a wild experience to literally have the first thing out of my imagination be the thing that made its way onto a record that I think sounds great, and I'm really proud of, and doesn't feel slapdash or unfinished.
That's also one of the lyrics I really latched on to because that's a thought I often have. I'm like, why can't I slow down? Chill out!!
Ben: Not only were the sounds that made their way onto the record very domestic and homey — my lyrics and I think a lot of our lyrics are about being in a committed relationship and having some hopes and disappointments about life. I grew up in a culture where I was taught that once you get married, then you'll finally be happy and find your purpose in life. It was presented as the thing that's going to fix all the shit that's broken internally, right? Surprise, that's not what happened. I still carry depression, and I still am angry and disappointed. I've got a beautiful marriage — we celebrated 12 years just last week. But it was a lot of working through not just "Why can't I slow down to listen to myself?", but when I'm in this relationship and I'm cruising by this other person that deserves more of my attention and more of my kindness and more of real actual listening.
Most of the songs on the record, at least for me, were about: what does it actually mean to not only be alive, but be in love, and inhabit a space with somebody else where you're not just being a selfish dick all the time? What does it mean to pay attention to somebody that you are meant to behold and love?
Arthur, do you feel aligned with that, in terms of where the lyrics were coming from?
Arthur: Yeah, the lyrics I contributed have been sitting on my phone for several years, possibly pre-pandemic. I listen to music to write lyrics, so I'll listen to something that produces an emotion in me, and then I'll sit down and write free-form lyrics, and then I'll go away. I'll forget about them to have that space, so those words are not being connected to any kind of melody. Then I'll stumble back on them and I'll go, Oh, I like this, and tweak it or whatever. It's a longer process where it's almost like farming, where you're planning a seed, and some of those things produce fruit and some of them don't.
There's a song Ben sings on that I wrote the lyrics to called "If Time." He killed it. It's a song about this person getting older, and life is kind of passing by. I feel like the passage of time was a big theme in this album. And obviously that's connected to relationships, because you see time go by quickly — for me, when I look at my kids and I'm like, Oh my gosh, they're about to be fifteen, things like that. We get older, people around us get older, and we see that.
Ben: And there's a lot of, not only time, but death [laughing].
Arthur: Oh yes. Lots of death.
Ben: My favorite line that Arthur wrote is "All my friends are dying and our dreams are next to burn." That's obviously a very sad thought, but there's also something unexplainable in there that feels transcendently beautiful. That death and love are always wrapped up in each other, and in the deepest griefs that we go through, not only thinking about our own death and passing, but those of everybody around us that we just love, whether it's a parent, grandparent, partner, friend, whatever — the reason death sucks is because we LOVE! There's so much thinking about your own death and the annihilation of everything else around you. But it's not a hopeless, sad sort of a feeling, at least what I get from it. On the last track, there's a lyric: "Is there love on the other side of death?" And it's posed as a question, but what I come away is like, Yeah, I hope so.
I'm in my thirties now and I feel like you hit a point where you're like: I have all of these relationships, and we're all going to move forward together, but at some point we're going to start losing more than we gained. And I feel like this album captures that bittersweetness of being like, It's good to find people to love, and god, it sucks to to stay with them long enough that you inevitably experience the loss. I've been thinking about that a lot lately.
Ben: And the alternative is to bail on people, so that you don't get hurt by the loss, right? Which is its own kind of death, that to me, is not even an option at this point. Why would I choose to run away from closeness with somebody else?
Arthur: Experiencing grief, that's one kind of sorrow. But then never putting yourself out there to have those deep friendships — loneliness is its own death, too, you know? You can't avoid death on either side. I'm in my forties, I turned 45 in May. Man, my relationships with my family, my relationships with my friends and my community — that's it. I spent a lot of time looking for other things. If I can get this, then that will be the thing that sustains me. And it's not. It's just the people around you, the love that you have within your own community. I'm big on, like: man, if you've got two or three good friends, damn, you're fucking rich.
Arthur: I mean, seriously! I have friends, who truly are my brothers. Like, if one of them die, it would be like losing a parent. It's just been a bond. I'm all about that stuff. I could go on and on about it.
How long did it take to put this album together?
Ben: So quick! [Arthur laughing] Especially compared to how A Place For Owls runs. A Place For Owls has finished writing and recording an entire album that will not be out until midway through next year. We thought no one was going to pay attention to us on our first record, and now it seems like at least a group of people are paying attention to us. And so there was all this pressure. We've got to get it right. It's going to be a beautiful thing when it comes out. This project with Arthur had none of those stakes for me, which was such a freeing feeling.
Arthur: I'm a teacher, so I was already out of school. It was in early June when you sent me a message and then we hit the ground running. I think I said, "Hey, I would like to have all this wrapped up before I start back to work." There might been loose ends where I had to do a vocal or we had to do some part or whatever. But I think it was pretty much between the span of like mid-June to early August. I look back on that and think, if at any point Ben or or myself had overthought it, it would have been like the four year project that never happened. Right?
Arthur: Through that whole process, there was this unspoken thing where I felt like Ben got me, I got him. There was a mutual trust. He didn't have to explain anything. I didn't have to explain anything. There was this shorthand that we had developed.
Ben: I don't remember saying no to you at any point in the process. And I don't remember you saying no to me.
Ben: The only time we disagreed is when I wanted you to go to a more poppy chord progression on "Shoulder." But you were right! [laughing] I was like, Arthur, here's how it's going to go, this is the chord progression for the chorus. And Arthur just didn't listen to me and did what he wanted. The song is better for it. That was the only time we didn't 100% see eye to eye.
Arthur: I think I remember this. I'm really bad about this. My wife can attest: we'll have a conversation and I will understand in the conversation and completely know what's going on, and then I'll get in my zone and completely forget about it. So it wasn't like I was going against you, I just honestly didn't remember. My process is so instinct, and so by ear...I definitely remember listening to your notes, but I probably just got in the middle of it and forgot what you said.
Ben: You said "instinct." And that to me was the whole process — I was not using my conscious self, almost. It was all first instinctual thoughts.
Arthur: I do want to say, on Ben's songwriting — the ideas that he would send were formed enough that you knew what they were, and they were so inviting, but he left so much space, where I was like, Oh, I could do this and that. And I think that's what really energized me. And I don't think you're consciously trying to do that, Ben, I think it's just your way of songwriting that invites people in. Ben doesn't know, but there are some really souped-up versions of these songs that I will never send him because I added all this shit and it was like, This is overkill.
You gotta do the phoneswithBen Turbo Deluxe Edition.
Arthur: Yeah, there are way too many string parts on some of that stuff.
When you said that you were interested in collaborating and not co-writing, it sounds like having that "space" furnished something much different than two people coming in with completed ideas, who might not be able to find the right way to flow together.
Arthur: Yeah. And Ben did have two songs that I said, "I'm not touching these. I just want to build around them." "To Be Found" and "Love On The Other Side," they were just, like, done. "Love On The Other Side" is piano and vocals, all in one take....I think all one track. I don't think they're separated. And I'm like, I'm not touching this. I'm not moving anything. Let's see if I can figure out something to accompany what he's doing here.
Ben: So I was teaching myself piano. Piano is not my main instrument. I've played guitar since since I was fifteen. We have an upright piano in the house that our friends just gave us. I'm just messing around on it every day, and these recordings are just me learning what the piano is even supposed to do. "Love On The Other Side" was one of the first songs that I was playing piano chords on. It's in F-sharp, which means that you're mostly playing the black keys. And I played it slow because I wasn't good. And then it just made the song, you know?
Arthur: I'm so glad you weren't good on that song.
Ben: [laughing] Actually, after I wrote it, I went and re-recorded it on guitar and it was a little bit slicker. I usually will send music to my buddy Nick Webber, who's in A Place For Owls with me. And so I sent him both versions and he was like, "I don't know man, do the piano one." And I was like, "But there's audible pauses where I can't figure out what my fingers are supposed to do to play the next..." He was just like, "No, it works. Just do it."
This has been great to get the behind the scenes view of the album. Any last words, or just general feelings about putting actually putting this out there?
Arthur: I didn't think I'd be a part of another album in 2023 and it just feels really good. I'm going to get this on the record: Ben, we're doing this again. This will not be the last one.
Ben: I think it was just really, really good for me to figure out a newer and refreshing way to write music. And it's been super encouraging to feel like, not only is there somebody across the country whose music you like — which happens a lot, you find bands and maybe interact with them online or go to their shows — but this was one of the first experiences of understanding this person just through lyrics and music. It was wild. And so I would love to see if that could happen again.
Arthur: It definitely opened me back up to collaboration. This has showed me that that can be really, really beautiful.
Also shout out Ben for being willing to participate in my Pinegrove shuffle post back in the day!