Old Sea Brigade

by Corey O'Flanagan

An in-depth discussion on songwriting with Ben Cramer (Old Sea Brigade), who like his musical champion, Tom Waits, has learned to write poetic story songs about the human condition.

Some of the best songwriters have very imperfect voices - Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen come to mind. We found another: Ben Cramer, who goes by the name Old Sea Brigade. Here's a lyric from his song "How It Works," which he performs on this episode:

Now I can look at the scars
And not think of the knife


Spotify listeners know Ben from his 2015 song "Love Brought Weight," which made a bunch of their playlists, including "The Most Beautiful Songs In The World" and "Lush & Atmospheric." On May 14, 2021, he'll release his second album, Motivational Speaking, which includes "How It Works." We spoke with him about his musical journey, his songwriting philosophy, and what wows him about Tom Waits.


Why Old Sea Brigade?

A couple of friends of mine and I came up with the band name back when we were in high school because we thought it sounded cool. We never ended up doing the band, however, so years after when I was deciding my artist name, I called them up and asked if they minded if I used it.

My earlier music was more within the soundscape of singer-songwriter with ethereal textures, which lended a hand to the name. My actual name is Ben Cramer but there are a million Ben Cramers, so I was like, dammit, I can't use my real name. I always thought that if I had used my middle name George, that George Cramer would have made a good country name, but in the end I went with the Old Sea Brigade.

I grew up in Atlanta, then moved to Miami to go to college [University of Miami] when I was 18. After a year there I moved to Athens, Georgia, and then went on to New York, back to Atlanta, then ultimately to Nashville.

I love Atlanta as a city. It's just a cool city that has so much culture and is so diverse. It seems to be growing so much. It really has some great venues for live music. In high school I played in a bunch of punk and emo bands. We weren't cool enough to book in Atlanta, but we would play outside of the city. This was back in the Myspace days and we would book and play in these old warehouses and 300 or so people would show up. I don't know if that is still a thing, but it was a great experience.


Paying Dues and Playing Green Day

I always played in bands. In fourth grade my friends and I started our first band. We wanted to play Green Day and our one song was "When I Come Around." We would practice all year to play that song at our annual school talent show.

Later on, it got a bit more serious and we began playing and booking our own shows at these little venues. We were good at promoting ourselves, so our whole class would come and watch. These venues were used to booking these tiny bands with 10 people showing up, but because we would have around 100 people coming to watch, they always asked us back. We were so bad, but of course the more you play the better you get.

I was always the guitarist or bassist and hated being the center of attention. In 2015 I was playing in a band in Nashville that didn't work out, so I moved back to Atlanta and recorded the first Old Sea Brigade EP.

That was when I was going out in Eddie's Attic and Red Light Cafe to get used to singing in front of people because that was such a foreign thing to me. I was used to being on stage and booking shows, but I was terrified of singing and talking to a crowd. Because of that fear, I went to these open mic nights to try and get more comfortable.

It terrified me to do this and it still does at times. I know that if I'm going to be able to get these songs out in the world, I have to be able to sing and play them for people. I have a way that I can connect with people through my voice, but it's not a technically great voice. I was never naturally a singer but always tried to write the best songs I could and tried to connect with people that way.

I always knew that because I was so scared of performing, it had to be good for me. I felt very accomplished just going out to play for two or three people on a Tuesday night in February. Even if there was no one there, I was proud that I went out to play by myself, and as time went on, it just got easier and easier. The only way to get better is to go out and do it.


"Sleep In The Park"

That was a song I wrote back in 2010 when I was in New York City. I came up with that chord progression, which is very simple. My process of writing is just mumbling weird sounds and gibberish and I will build a song around that.

The chorus came from trying to draw a comparison of being in Central Park, surrounded by all of these wealthy apartments, and then looking around and seeing a lot of homeless people and such diversity within the park itself. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, but I used to go to Central Park to hang out or go for runs, and it just seemed like this captivating place.

A lot of the time, I don't know the true meaning of my songs. I usually like to leave that open to interpretation. "Sleep In The Park" is about the narrative of it being such a melting pot of everyone in Central Park, and the fact that although everyone is in here, not everyone has a warm place to go when they leave the park. It's about those black-and-white alternate lives you see all around New York City, and this idea definitely inspired this song.

A lot of my songs are centered around heartbreak and falling in and out of love. The different phases of going through a relationship are all prevalent in a lot of my music, and that is such a big inspiration to creating art and healing while going through different phases of life. There's definitely an aspect to that in "Sleep In The Park."


Writing Style

Sometimes when the first line is really good, I struggle with the chorus. If it's a catchy verse, how am I going to make the chorus even catchier? When I write songs, it does vary whether I come up with the chorus or the verse first.

I'm starting to now have a default of "this is what I would do for a chorus," but I'm trying to evolve and come up with different ideas to come up with a chorus that will surprise. Sometimes it doesn't even need a chorus, maybe just a nice tag at the end of the verse.

Tom Waits is one of my favorite songwriters and so many times he has these really beautiful one-line tags at the end of a verse and they just really hit you.


"Wash Me Away"

After every EP I started going out and playing more and more shows and that impacted me a lot as a performer. I experimented a lot during those live shows. I would tour as a duo with my buddy Ben. We would experiment with interesting live sounds trying to see how much sound we could come up with as two people.

With that, we would start jamming on these ideas that I would have from little guitar riffs, and "Wash Me Away" came from that. Things went from me playing by myself to a band practice vibe, then going out and playing for people to test out how they reacted to those sounds.

That whole time I was working with my friend Jeremy Griffith, who is a producer. I have to give him a ton of credit because he really helped me dial in on a sound that sounded like me. I worked with him on the first, second and third EP and then the album. He's been a big part of helping me refine and shape my sound over the years.


Waits, Dylan, Harris

With the way that I have been writing recently, even with my new record that's about to come out, I've been really inspired by Jackson Browne and that kind of carefree, Californian relaxed vibe of music. I don't feel personally that I would be able to capture what he does, but he is definitely a huge inspiration for me.

Bruce Springsteen's entire catalog has also been a huge influence to me. I grew up listening to him with my dad.

When I was 16 a friend of mine showed me Mule Variations by Tom Waits, so that was a massive record for me. That record altered my world a bit because I was hearing these sounds that were so bizarre. Going from one song that is pure chaos to a song like "Hold On" is amazing. Those songs just hit you where it counts and it's just the most beautiful songwriting.

After that, I dove into his catalog of earlier stuff and saw how his voice and sound changed over the years. He was never afraid of being himself and putting out the music he felt like making. I also like how he is a bit mysterious and how he takes on a character. It's hard to read him and I like that. He's an incredible artist and performer.

Time Out Of Mind by Dylan was another massive record for me, and also Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris. The songs on those records just blew me away.

Around 16, 17 I discovered Townes Van Zandt and Blaze Foley. I was not into country music at all, but this type of country music, where they were just so focused on the song, really got me into it. I gravitated towards these heartbreaking, real-life sorrow blues songs from the comfort of my parents' house.

I had no real life experiences, but I was so drawn to what was destroying these people for them to pour their hearts and souls into it. As a kid, you think you get it, but looking back I had no idea what they were talking about. I just love the honesty and sometimes brutality of the lyrics.


A Song You Wish You had Written?

"The Heart Of Saturday Night" by Tom Waits. I'm always drawn to songs that are able to capture nostalgia in such an interesting way. I listen to Tom Waits and I feel like what I imagine it is to grow up in New Jersey and to be going into the city for a first date when it's raining. That song hits me like that, even though I have no idea what that is like.

"Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen is another song where I wonder how he actually wrote it. Every line is so poetic and never repeats itself. I interpret that song as a story with relatable characters and he is able to tell this story in a 4-to-5-minute song. It's incredible.


"How It Works"

This is a new song that recently came out, it's the first single on my new record. I wrote it only about a year ago with my buddy Henry Brill. He's one of my best friends and we collaborate a lot.

I had received an email from someone within the industry basically telling me how something works. I thought huh, ok... and we wrote this song mocking that person's email. It's funny because now that we have written the song, I just hear that phrase all the time.

Sometimes when we are stuck on a song, Henry is the type of person who you have to give him two minutes to pace around the room and his eyes light up and he gets it.


Nashville

Living here has forced me to analyze the fundamentals of what I'm trying to say in a song. I'm a firm believer that there isn't a right or wrong way to write a song. I came from writing music by myself, but now if I write Old Sea Brigade stuff, I write stuff with close friends, and it feels more natural.

I do a bunch of co-writing now for other artists and it's interesting because while I do like to dip my feet in the co-writing world, I like to back off and allow myself to take the time to process and discover what it is I'm trying to say in a song.

Naturally, I write a song really slowly if I write alone. I'll come up with an idea and then put it away for a few weeks because I don't like it. Then I'll have it as a voice memo and be driving and give it another listen. Usually when you're co-writing you only have two-to-three hours to write a song and you're almost forced to finish it because it's so hard to get back together again. I can be a big procrastinator, so having a deadline is probably helpful to me.


Motivational Speaking

When we went into lockdown I basically said, "Well, now I have time to go back through and rework it all." I'm sure that's very frustrating for others. I don't recommend doing this, but we had the time on our hands. We knew we had something cool and we liked the songs and productions we had, but then we wanted to mess it up and make it a bit weirder and see what we come up with.

April 7, 2021

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Ben's website is oldseabrigade.com. You might also like our Doe Paoro episode and our Rufus Wainwright interview.

Photos: Laura E. Partain

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