On July 16, Asheville musician Ben Phan will play a benefit concert for the Advocacy Center at the Unitarian Church in Ithaca. Phan plays original folk music; his guitar playing is a cross between Tony Rice and Django Reinhardt, combining bluegrass flatpicking with gypsy jazz guitar. His singing and songwriting have been compared to popular names in the scene including Ray LaMontagne, the Head and the Heart, and Passenger, in the new folk vein. At the benefit Phan will play songs from his new album, “Fear Is the Teacher,” recorded in the studio of two-time Grammy Award winner Matt Williams.
The Ithaca Times spoke to Phan to find out who he is and why he’s coming to Ithaca.
Ithaca Times: Why Ithaca?
Ben Phan: I’ve always felt that Ithaca is a unique, supportive place with a really great progressive culture. I’ve had ties to Ithaca for a long time, through family who lived at Ecovillage. When I tour I want to play in the places that I want to be and Ithaca’s one of those places I want to be.
IT: Why the Advocacy Center?
BP: I identify as a survivor; so for me, the Advocacy Center is a really important cause. It’s important to create safe spaces for victims who can then become survivors and help other people.
Compared to other social justice issues, there’s a lot of room in terms of culture awareness that we have to go in this area. I think advocacy groups and organizations that create safe spaces for people to tell their stories are very important because they help us overcome the shame and the stigma of going through some of those things. They also create a community of support, which I think is really necessary for building resilience. I feel strongly that it’s important for people to speak up — especially as a man because we don’t often think of men as being survivors.
IT: What’s the road you’ve traveled to get to this new album?
BP: There’s a lot of not-so-pretty and not-so-happy parts to my life story, and the message that I carry now is basically one of resilience. I’ve been through hardships, abuse, addiction, depression, mental illness and I wouldn’t say I’ve completely overcome all those things, but I’ve learned how to live with who I am. The message that I carry in my experience in songwriting is it’s possible to live a really happy and fulfilling life no matter what you’ve been through.
IT: What inspired your new album, “Fear Is the Teacher”?
BP: Every song on the album is connected to a fear of mine in some way. For example, there’s a love song, which I connect to the fear of not being able to love and let somebody love me. Not every song is dark, though; there’s a variety of tunes. But in some way they’re all connected to how I’ve grown as a person and as a musician this year by leaning into my fears.
Even though the album is about my personal experiences, it’s very relatable. For example, there’s a tune called “Worse Than This,” with the chorus, “We’ve been through worse than this.” It’s a song about resilience that came out of my personal struggle, but it can definitely be applied to other things, whether cultural or political. People have told me widely varying things that this song meant to them, and that’s my intent. A song can have multiple meanings.
IT: You hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail in 2014. What impact did the time on the trail have on you?
BP: What’s interesting about spending months at a time in the woods is that you stop seeing nature as something separate. For example, when you go on a day-hike to an Ithaca gorge, you look out and say, “Oh, this is so beautiful!” and then you go home. But living out there for months, I got the sense of something so much greater than me. Being a part of that, and being able to exist within it and experience all of its ups and downs, is where I found my voice as a songwriter.
IT: What’s different about your solo shows?
BP: The thing I love most about performing is connecting with the audience. I give a different take on the songs from the album, and I use a loop pedal which lets me loop different chords over to create a full sound, totally live. There’s a lot of intricate guitar playing and looping. It’s not just another guy and a guitar, singing: it’s dynamic and upbeat and we all have a lot of fun. •