In 2010, Ben O’Neill (aka ‘Ben Bananas’), a guitarist/singer/songwriter from Philadelphia, received a Grammy nomination for his work on Eric Roberson‘s soulful hit ‘A Tale of Two.’ A multi-talented artist whose personal resume reflects the versatility of Philadelphia’s unique music scene, O’Neill has worked with Kanye West, Common, Christina Aguilera, Musiq Soulchild, Erykah Badu, in addition to fronting his own indie rock band, The MLMs. Ahead of the 2011 Grammy Awards show, we asked Ben to reflect on his experience.
How did the collaboration with Eric Roberson come about? How long have you been working with him, was it only for that recording, or have you worked on other projects together? (ps- It’s an awesome song)
I’m glad you like the song! I’ve known Eric Roberson since about ’01. At that time I was playing with Tye Tribbett and GA, a very special gospel group, and Tye’s band, “Soundcheck”, also doubled as Eric’s Band. I stayed in touch with him over the years in part because he was always quick to share knowledge and encouragement. Eric’s Music Fan First and The MLMs Corduroy Pants EP we made in the same studio in the same summer, ’09. I cut a lot of the guitar for Eric’s record with producer/engineer Brett Baker. The nominated vocal track was cut on a whim in Eric’s studio. I was there to cut guitar and after that was done he said “Try singing this…” We were in the studio with a few other close friends, sharing music, listening, philosophizing until 4am. It was a very special night.
What was your reaction when you found out you were nominated? Did you have any prior inclination that you would be?
I was picking up Thai take out when Eric called me with the good news. He had me on conference call with Michelle Thompson (Singer, also on the song) and Brett Baker (producer). I didn’t even know it had been submitted much less nominated. That an independent artist, who has been creating uncompromising music and building real connections with fans for years, was nominated for a Grammy, (and is nominated again this year!!!) was truly an encouraging moment. That I was nominated as a singer, as opposed to a guitarist or writer, is truly humbling. We were nominated among Bilal and Tonex, unquestionably two of the finest singers of our time and Muhsinah, a truly dynamic artist and a good friend. Why was I on that list?
What was your best moment at the Grammys? Did you meet any other artists/celebrities you were excited about? Was anyone exceptionally nice/rude/funny etc?
I saw a lot of people I know at the Grammys. We saw a number of celebrities of course but I was too busy wearing dark sunglasses to ask Elvis Costello for a photo.
One of the most memorable moments was at a party for “Soul nominees.” Bilal got on stage with QuestLove, James Poyser, Derek Hodge and Rob Glasper (believe me, musicians reading this are freaking out right now) and proceeded to blow the walls off the club. It was unbelievable. They should have just said “Thank you and Goodnight” but it was Eric Roberson’s turn to perform. I’m telling you, Ron Burgundy would have been nervous trying to follow that act. The mic was still smoking. Eric took the stage like nothing had happened and in thirty seconds had the whole crowd in the palm of his hand. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve been performing for a number of years and have never seen someone capture a crowd that quickly or that completely. That act alone was more impressive and lasting for me than the music that had preceded him.
How did you feel about your chances of winning?
We knew that we had a great song and were up against some great material. As a song writer myself, I have to say Eric’s storytelling ability and his vocal flow are virtuosic. To be honest, getting there at all was shocking.
Another Philly artist, Bilal, was also nominated as part of a group in your category – do you know him, or did you meet him? Did you discuss the honor before heading to the awards?
I’m happy to call Bilal a friend. I’ve played a number of shows with him and cut guitar on many of his songs, some of which can be heard on his latest album Airtight’s Revenge. Being nominated in the same category as him still strikes me as a bit silly (have you heard him sing?!?); it was truly humbling. In a strange twist of fate, I was at Steve McKie’s studio rehearsing for one of Bilal’s shows when he first brought “It’s All Matter”, his nominated song, to our attention. He had just written it in the past few days and we, Steve, Tone Whitfield, Bilal and I, sat down and charted out the form. We debuted it at The Blue Note the next night.
How has playing locally and living here in Philadelphia impacted your music? What do you love about the city’s music scene? What do you wish you could change about it?
Living in Philadelphia has been crucial to my musical development and career. The homegrown musicians in this region are among the finest in the country and I’m grateful to be a part of the community. I’ve learned from immensely talented people who, ten years ago, welcomed me with open arms. One thing I would like to see in Philadelphia is a few more good venues for independent music from all genres, especially jazz and R&B.
Where are your favorite spots to play locally? What venues would you really like to play in (nationally or internationally)?
I’ve enjoyed the shows I’ve played at The Electric Factory and The TLA. It always feels special walking out onto a “hometown” stage. There was a time when playing those rooms seemed unattainable. I’m grateful I’ve been able to play in many nice rooms in many different places. I’ve played the Filmore West which was special because of the massive amount of history in that place. I was also very humbled to play the Whisky A Go Go in LA because, although it’s just a good old rock room, one of my favorite albums is Otis Redding In Person at the Whisky A Go Go.
What have you been working on since 2009’s nomination? Have your aspirations risen? Any new projects?
Since the awards in January 2010, I’ve played a great deal with my rock band The MLMs, played guitar for a number of live gospel recordings, toured with Kanye West, played Letterman and Conan with Kid Cudi and received an endorsement from Paul Reed Smith Guitars (beautiful instruments). I’m working on a solo project and producing a project for Vness, a Brooklyn based renaissance woman. I have to say, I am very grateful for all the experiences I’ve had. It seems each year brings an unexpected challenge and reward.
Keep up with Ben and TheMLMs!
Reported By Ben Bowens; Chelsea Karnash, CBSPhilly.com