In conversation, as in his music, Ben Witham chooses his words carefully.
“The digitisation and globalisation of music – recording, distribution, and access – and the exponential growth of channels such as YouTube and Spotify - has meant that marketing goals such as getting radio play are no longer critical to audience access.
“And that’s great for people like me who are outside the typical pop music airplay demographic,” he says.
The themes Witham explores lyrically are also outside the usual teen dreams or millennial relationship angst.
Citing songwriter luminaries such as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Paul Simon, Lucinda Williams and Tom Waits, and lesser knowns such as Sandy Denny, Laura Nyro and Ferron as significant amongst his ongoing influences and inspirations, Witham’s songs are a collection of songs loosely categorised as ‘soulful folk-rock’. All played under the banner of Ben Witham and The Betty Band.
In ‘The Waters of Venice’, Witham writes of his son’s mother on a European journey, a dearly love co-parent who tragically died in 2009
You were there, generous, with a warm touch
We took the ferries around, and to St Marks square
The glass blowers and church tower, I climbed with our boy
As we made our way, on the canals of our Venice,
I saw the movie, Casanova, it had magic
Balloon ride over the canals, and I like a child
I said you must see it, I don’t know if you ever did
As I grieve my way, on the canals of our Venice
I’m of the grand, baby boomer generation,” says Witham, “so of course I am reflecting on love and loss, and life in general. And my fury at the injustices of the world burns ever brighter: the assaults on democracies; the post-truthism, racism, attacks on diversity, the wealth disparities, cyber assaults, and the climate crisis – hmmm, don’t get me started. Am I expecting what I do to appeal to younger age groups? With many themes absolutely, yes, and musically, for sure. I have great hopes for our progressive young. And good music has no age group.”
In an overtly political vein he writes in ironic tone in ‘Dear General’
Dear General, I can hear the family’s cries
But I fear a narrowing of your eyes
Is it too much to ask this one time?
Even one finger raised, against this crime
Each side of your prison walls
Spreads the bloody grime
Dear General, you must forgive my tongue
Your fine sensibilities, I hope I have not stung
It’s just that I’m a little concerned
About these people terrorised and burned
While your chose ones think that all they’ve got is earned
Lest one thinks that Witham’s songs are all on the ‘dark side’ he has a fondness for themes dressed in the quirky such as in ‘Walking Jesus’s Dog’
She’ll nuzzle the good folks and show some delight
She’s trained hard to be her own guiding light
She can run the distance, rest deep when she needs
She knows a well-placed word, doesn’t need a lead
Or celebrating tenderness in ‘Midnight Road’
Had a vision of you living way till you’re old
And I wished so much for you
And shelter from the cold
And passion, in ‘Abandon’
I love your flashing white smile
Your cry of freedom
You’re telling me silly things
Being warm and foolish
Ben Witham grew up in Warrnambool in the western region of the state of Victoria, Australia, in a household that was filled with music – both recorded and performed. His mother, Betty (of the eponymous Betty Band) was a leading light and central musical force in the local Warrnambool Theatre Group, providing the piano accompaniments for both rehearsals and final performances of the full-scale musicals that were an annual highlight for the community. She was also the organist at Christ Church Warrnambool for 34 years, plus musical accompanist to singers competing at local eisteddfods.
“Although my music genre is totally different, I had an abiding admiration for my mother Betty’s tenacity in mastering complex piano and organ music. She was no ‘near enough will be good enough’ musician,” says Witham. “Spending time singing songs with her piano accompaniment and lying on the music room couch listening to requests for classical tunes is one of my most treasured memories. What a privilege. Someone once wrote that the price you pay for having loved someone dearly is the deep pain you feel when they die.”
Witham writes of his mother in ‘Under This Sky’
Under this sky, under this earth
We lay your body down
Across these hearts through these tears
We placed you in the ground
The loving body I’ve known the longest
Will be touched no more
The world you were died with you
Just echoes on the shore
I grew up in a time when music was a dominant cultural force – well ahead of television or film or literature. “Ours was a generation that was defined by its music like none before it,” says Witham. “Music both drove and reflected a period of massive upheaval and social change. It relied on skilled instrumentalists rather than tech-savvy producers. And albums almost always came with the song lyrics – not to ‘sing along’ but to ‘get the message’. Songwriters such as Cohen, Mitchell and Dylan et al were poets as well as musical artists.”
Witham’s lyrics and songs are the classic labour of love, and he currently works with a group of talented and generous Warrnambool musicians. “Being buried in my home studio has been a hard sweat at times, but also a satisfying deep dive into joyous lyrical and musical spaces,’ says Witham.
With album sales generally in decline, Witham knows that finding a significant audience for albums can be tough going, Like many artists, for Witham, live performance is an important part of his craft – for promotion and that ‘loop’ of connection to band members and audience. As an independent artist, there is a considerable personal investment in bringing his music to fruition. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way – it’s central to my being in life,” he says.
“That generation that I am part of, a lot of us never lost our love of music; never stopped going to gigs and festivals and listening to radio – even if we can’t name the top three songs on the current charts.
“Those are the key people I am talking to now through my music,” said Witham. “We’re at the same reflective stage in life. Most of us have lost one or both parents, we’ve had to say goodbye to life-long friends. It’s sobering.
“But hey, we’re still out there, we’re still breathing, and we’re still moving to some sweet grooves, catchy riffs, moody mysteries and killer lyrics.”