Nightwatch

Benjy Ferree and the Domino Effect

Washington-based singer-songwriter Benjy Ferree is a new addition to Domino Records' lineup.
Washington-based singer-songwriter Benjy Ferree is a new addition to Domino Records' lineup. (By Bryan Whitson)

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By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 7, 2006

Franz Ferdinand, electronic duo Psapp and the unstoppable hype surrounding the Arctic Monkeys have made Britain's Domino Records one of the world's hottest and most influential independent record labels. Last month, Domino announced two additions to its star-studded roster: Southern California indie rocker Cass McCombs and Washington-based singer-songwriter Benjy Ferree, whose 2005 debut was more in the acoustic Americana vein of Devendra Banhart or Bright Eyes than the flavors of the month featured on the cover of the NME.

Though he plays at the Black Cat or the Warehouse Next Door, news of Ferree's contract took him and the local music scene by surprise. At the moment, he's more recognizable as the mild-mannered, bushy-bearded bartender at Cafe Saint-Ex than as the newest labelmate of Sons and Daughters or Quasi.

"I never expected to get signed," Ferree says modestly. "I only wanted to play music."

When Domino representatives called Ferree one morning to tell him that they loved his album, "Leaving the Nest," and were interested in offering him a deal, he hung up on them, thinking it was friends playing a joke. Thankfully, Domino called back.

"Leaving the Nest," which was released jointly by Washington's Planaria Recordings and Philadelphia's Box Theory Records in October, is a tight, hook-filled collection with six songs in less than a half-hour. Based around ringing acoustic guitar chords and Ferree's weathered, blues-soaked vocals, the CD contains a blend of singalongs that fall between the Beatles and Kinks and the spare harmonies of Iron & Wine, with plenty of folksy touches: A lyrical fiddle melody provides the basis of album-opener "The Desert," while Ferree provides Dylanesque harmonica and even two whistling solos. (You can listen to a streaming version of the record on http://www.boxtheoryrecords.com .) Ferree grew up in Prince George's County, took acting classes at Prince George's Community College and the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory before heading to Hollywood to try to make it in the movies. He found more work as an au pair than in front of the cameras, though, and eventually moved back to Washington, where he began playing at local clubs on his own and with a band.

Last year, Ferree began work on "Leaving the Nest" with Dennis Kane, formerly of local band Caligari, before handing the results to Fugazi's Brendan Canty for final mixing. Ferree says that Laris Kreslins, owner of Box Theory Records and publisher of the esoteric Arthur magazine, then passed "Leaving the Nest" to some acquaintances at Domino. They liked what they heard and asked Ferree to record four more songs, which will be added to the half-dozen on "Leaving the Nest" and released in October, almost a year after the EP first saw the light of day.

In the meantime, Ferree is playing more than ever, performing at the Black Cat with Garland of Hours on Monday and at the Warehouse Next Door on July 16 before heading to New York to take part in the South Street Seaport concert series. And despite his big news, he's still trying to maintain a low profile and let his music do the talking.

"I just don't want to give interviews or anything," he says. "That's not me."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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