Ben Zaidi: Poet-Songmaker, Harvard Alum, TDS Ghost
On April 20th, 2018, we spoke with singer/songwriter Ben Zaidi, who graduated from Harvard in 2014. During his four years here, he studied English and Music, and he was also a DJ for The Darker Side at WHRB. He describes himself as “a poet songmaker producing music out of bedrooms in Seattle and Brooklyn.” We enjoyed asking him about his songwriting process, how he found his passion for music, and his time at Harvard. Read on for a preview or listen above to the entire interview!
Allison: Where do you find inspirations for your songs? Do you find any topics, people, or places you find yourself returning to?
Ben: …One subject that I’ve been consistently interested in, and focused on, is the idea of loss. I’ve written a lot about loss in very different contexts. I think that music for me is a way of maybe making loss feel not so permanent or not so devastating, because something else can come out of it. Something beautiful, or something meaningful, can come out of it, via music. Maybe it’s just my coping mechanism, but it ends up being the subject of songs in many different ways.
Listen below to “Irene,” a song Ben wrote about gun violence:
Allison: How did you find your passion in music? Did you always aspire to be a musician growing up?
Ben: By chance, this teacher of mine in high school gave me Garage Band and showed me how to use it on the computer. That opened up the possibilities of music-making to me in a way that I had never thought about before. It’s the only context that I experienced music inward, like, music being made. It seemed like a very social art. I think for me, I was, and still am in many ways, a shy kid, and didn’t want to be in front of people…the fact that you could make it on the computer all by yourself and build these soundscapes or entire songs all on your own without having to show anyone or having anyone else even aware that it was happening, that showed me that I could do it, because I didn’t need to be afraid of other people finding out – it was like it had to be a secret. And that’s in many ways still the way I work. I find I can achieve the most vulnerable or honest performances and writings when I’m totally by myself. That’s just a product of technology changing, that it’s allowed for that, and probably there’s more music now that is by introverted, shy, people because we have the power to do that, and probably there’s music that talks about different things than before.
Allison: How do you think studying English at Harvard has helped you as a musician, if at all?
Ben: I think lyrics are very important for songwriting to me, and the songs that I’m drawn most to are songs I connected with the words of. I think that studying English just gave me a greater sensibility for how to understand and formulate pieces of text, basically. And ways of really deep-reading texts – drawing out different elements, like different correspondences and different kinds of motifs, that are in a book or a poem…And it might not even be necessarily something that the author intended, but the fact that you can draw out those meanings is what makes the art valuable. And that was a huge lesson for me overall that shifted my entire perspective on the craft. Going into it, I thought I had to know exactly what I’m making and why, and not necessarily what the moral is, but what the intention or what the message is, and I have to bring that out in the best possible form. But instead, I learned from the English department, no, it’s not about that. It’s bigger than you, it’s bigger than what you think is in it, because there’s always going to be things people can draw out that you didn’t necessarily intend. That was what almost all my English classes were. Analyzing these works by authors who probably didn’t mean, like, the red house is a symbol for the heart or something, but because you could pay attention and talk about what that might mean, it didn’t really matter if they intended it or not. That allowed me to exert less control over my art, and let the art be bigger than me in a way I think was a really important growing moment for me as an artist.
Allison Pao is a producer for WHRB Classical. You can listen to her feature, The Language of Music, on Fridays, 6-7pm.