Inside the Songs: Ben Fisher’s Long, Dark Winter
Seattle songwriter and busker Ben Fisher has the same kind of starry-eyed enthusiasm a young Dylan must have had around his heroes like Woody Guthrie. I’ve seen him at shows in Seattle, his focus 100% on the stage where one of his music friends or companions is laying it down. He attends shows almost as much as he plays them, and though he’s one of the most recognized characters in our Seattle roots music scene, he’s remarkably ego-free when it comes to music. As a songwriter, his songs channel the bleak winters of the Pacific Northwest, and his new EP, Roanoke, is no exception. Whereas his previous album had an infectious youthful innocence that won over all the snarky cynics in Seattle, his new EP is hinting at something deeper and darker. It’s a promising artistic progression, so I really wanted to know more about his process in creating the music for the EP. Hearth Music hit him up for the background stories behind our three favorite songs off Roanoke. He had some fascinating answers:
Ben Fisher: Dublin Blues Pt. 2
“I was at a friend’s house for dinner during the snow storm we had in January. After we ate, as is customary when I’m at his place, we broke out his laptop and started playing James McMurtry. We’re both big fans of McMurtry’s songs, and as time goes on, and the beer bottles stack up, we usually start to branch off into other Austin songwriters. Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, etc. He played me the Guy Clark song ‘Dublin Blues’, which I’d never heard before and I was immediately struck by it. The fact that it totally bowled me over even through shitty laptop speakers is a testament to how good of a song it is. The line “I have been to Fort Worth/and I have been to Spain/and I have been too proud to come in out of the rain” is songwriting at its finest.
I played the song obsessively for the next few days. Then I borrowed a Justin Townes Earle picking pattern and went to work writing about what I’d been up to since a then-recent breakup. I knew that the the first line that hit me, “I’m making a list of things I would tell you if you hadn’t let me go” was too long to be a song title, so I made it the refrain. You can look at someone leaving you in many different ways, but at its most basic, a breakup is when the person who you used to talk to the most, you no longer talk to. So (as mentally unhealthy as it sounds) I found myself filling that gap by thinking about things I would talk about if she were still around.
I’ve noticed a tradition in Americana music where someone will write a great song, and then years later, someone will write a new that’s either stylistically or thematically similar and title it after the original. For instance, Bob Dylan’s Workingman’s Blue #2 after Merle Haggard’s Workingman’s Blues. I figured Dublin Blues Pt. 2 bears some stylistic similarities to Guy’s song, so I titled it after his.”
Ben Fisher: Hibernation
I also wrote this one in January. It was 2 AM, the night before I had a big test, and I had been studying on and off, but mostly off. As I’ve become more interested and invested in my musical career, I’ve become a little bit disillusioned with my studies. I thought to myself, “Where am I going with this?” and had a line for the first verse.
I made some tea and toast, and pulled a chair into my pantry (my preferred writing location, as strange as that may be), using a shelf as a desk and finished the song in about 10 minutes. The melody and guitar part changed a little bit, but I don’t think I changed a single word. I’m pretty bad at editing my lyrics.
Sometimes you have to drop everything, make some tea and toast, and write a song.
Ben Fisher: Roanoke
I’ve always been fascinated by history’s unsolved mysteries. The story of the lost colony of Roanoke is no exception, and goes like this: in the late 16th century, a group of British colonists sailed to the New World and established a fort on Roanoke Island, in present day Virginia. They quickly ran out of supplies, so a group stayed, and a group sailed back to England. Because of a skirmish that Great Britain found itself involved in with the Spanish Armada, they were unable to return for 3 years. When they did, they found absolutely nothing. The fort was gone, and there was no sign of anyone ever being there. The only thing left was the word “Croatan” carved into a tree. As years passed, there were rumors of blue-eyed Indians being spotted in Virginia, so nowadays, most historians believe that the colonists were either absorbed or attacked by the Croatan tribe.
The first two verses of the song are written from the point of view of a Croatan Indian. I had that first line “I know your mother tongue/And I’ll sing along with my broken lungs” in my head for a long time – well before I had the idea to write a song about Roanoke. When I decided to write a song about the lost colony, I realized that those lines fit well with some of the things that happened once explorers started coming to the new world. The “mother tongue” line speaks to the tradition of Native American translators who helped bridge early language and culture gaps with the colonists (although I’m not entirely sure there were translators that early on in America’s history – so I hope there aren’t any fact checkers out there). The “broken lungs” line ties into the horrific introductions of diseases (smallpox, etc.) passed to the natives, whose immune systems were completely ill-prepared to fight them. I really liked the idea of a old, wise, Native American giving advice to a young and fresh European man before the cultural clashes of the coming centuries.
It took me a while to draw a similarity between that historical event and a personal experience. The parallel that I ended up drawing between the historical and personal aspects of the song was the idea of leaving somewhere, and then coming back to find that things weren’t exactly the same as how you’d left them, which is a pretty universally understood notion – and using the example of the lost colony hyperbolizes that idea.