Editors' pick

Benjy Ferree


Editorial Review

Ask Benjy Ferree a question and you'll get an answer. Not necessarily the answer to your question, but it's this prolixity, this involuted whorl of thought that backs up on itself and vrooms sideways and repeatedly refines itself that demonstrates why the thinky Silver Spring-born singer-songwriter is such a refreshing anomaly.

Drawing on the church music of his youth and a weird, dark version of Americana all his own, Ferree creates loose-limbed hoedowns, baroque rock 'n' roll and freaky folk that sound like strange old backwoods ballads and murder songs that always existed but you've never happened to hear before.

Ferree's latest album comes out in January, and he's taken his time with it it will be more than two years since the release of his debut, "Leaving the Nest," a typically unclassifiable and consistently winning recording. For now, he's doing a few dates with his band bassist J.R. Takagi, Amy Domingues (of Garland of Hours and a million other bands) on cello and guitar, Drew Mills on guitar and Laura Harris (Ferree's fiancee and half of the Dischord duo Aquarium) on drums and will appear at Iota on Sunday with Le Loup.

For all of his current band's connections to D.C.'s most storied label, Ferree acknowledges how fractured the local scene has become. The "scene," such as it is, is a mere fetish object.

"The scene that I'm in is the band that I'm in" he says. "D.C. is very cliquey; I mind my own business. I don't expect anyone else to do what I do."

Not many could that would require growing up with gospel and punk near the warehouse where Chuck Brown made his early recordings, and becoming as obsessed with cinema, live and animated, as with music. "I'm not only influenced by film. I'm heavily influenced by film as a way of life. I find [movies] to be a dream that a bunch of people got together and made possible. It's like the biggest collaborative art form. It's amazing to see this actual dimension that people can pay 10 dollars and see. It's the only other dimension we have access to.

"When I was kid, I refused to believe that cartoons didn't exist. I thought you could be a cartoon. And when you look at films, you can see a human cartoon; it's fantastic."

Befitting his fable-like air, Ferree lit out to make his fortune not in music but in film. He went west to become an actor, but instead languished for a time looking after the children of industry players. "I went after film and found music," is how he put it. His focus was found by a return to the D.C. area and his familial and musical roots.

"I was born into music, just being raised in the church. ... I don't know any artist who went to church where it wasn't their foundation experience, because that music is old, those words are old, that melody is old. Those are old American songs. Music is a very spiritual thing for a lot of people, and it is for me."

Being neither hardcore raging nor retro dance party in a city in which the audiences at live shows can be like "mobsters waiting for their payment you know: 'I've paid my 10 dollars; entertain me'" brings a mixed bag to Ferree's shows. But his is a big tent. In the end, it's the crowd and its pleasure that matters.

"I think the interpretation of other people's music in D.C. is limited it's based on the interpretation of the audience.

"I don't want to generalize, and I believe in people. We have an election coming around the corner, and I can't help but believe that there's a large group of people who will make the right choice. I can't stand when a band condescends to their audience but it takes their money. So I'm happy to see someone in khakis at my show.

"I think it's our time. If we're all here, let's just do something. Make some music, do whatever you gotta do cry, laugh, dance. So, yeah, there you go."

The show is even parent-friendly. Well, friendly enough to his parents. Having learned firsthand of the healing powers of music by listening to his mother sing at funerals, Benjy's music is now making Mr. and Mrs. Ferree proud.

"They like it parents aren't supposed to. But I've rebelled long enough."

--Arion Berger, Express (Sept. 2008)