A conversation with Ben Leopard, also known as “Startle the Heavens”.
I was first introduced to Ben through his contribution to the film “Around Here”, to which he is supplying music. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Ben about music, life, and what drives passion and creativity.
Artist: Ben Leopard
Group: Startle the Heavens
Genre: Ambient, Instrumental
- So Ben, tell me what it is like being a musician. How does it define you?
Honestly, it is a very small part of my life. I feel like at one point in my life it was a much bigger deal. I guess that was back when school was the only other thing to worry about. Now, I have to work a “real” job and try to fit the music in between that and everything else.
- Any other careers that interested you? What was Ben doing before music?
I’ve always wanted to make music. Whether that means being in band that’s on a label and touring the country, or doing what I do now. My family has always been supportive of my music. They were fine with me taking some time away from college to try and tour with my old band. As far as other careers go, I’ve almost in so many different directions; it’s kind of funny. From homebuilder to police officer, which was just a path to becoming a park ranger, to what I’m doing now; driving an 18 wheeler for Fed Ex.
- Your latest release “Lost in the Chambers of the Sea” soars with depth and emotion while floating deep within the sea. Was there any specific motivation or inspiration?
There is definitely a story behind the album. Not to dive too deep into my personal life, but my fiancé and I split up a few months after the release of the album. The whole concept of the album, including the song titles, was built off the idea that we were both lost, and stuck in this rut that we didn’t know how to get out of. It was almost like predicting what was to come, but instead of being obvious about it, I turned it into a story of being lost in the ocean and finding a way home. Since you now know this, you can go back and look at the song titles and it will probably make sense; “Lost”, “Alone”, “Overcome by Darkness”, “New Life”, “We’re Going to Be Okay”, and “A Quiet Exit”.
- With that back-story, I’m curious about the song “We Are Going to Be Okay“. You mentioned that it felt like the album was predicting what happened, but there must have been some hope, or something in the distance that kept you going, or provided some solace.
There was definitely a hope that “We’re Going to Be Okay” and everything would work out in the end. We had been through so much together and worked through so many things but in the end I realized I couldn’t make her happy anymore. So at that point, you just have to let go.
- Would you consider “Lost in the Chambers of the Sea” to be your most raw and emotional release?
Yeah it probably is because of that reason. The song “Overcome by Darkness” was originally titled “Feel My Love” and was written during one of those days when she felt so unhappy and there was nothing I could do to make her know how much I loved her. So I went to the basement and that song is what came out.
- Speaking of the song titles, they are very descriptive and feel like a summary or overview of the song. Do you usually have the framework or core of a song and then choose a title, or does the title guide the direction of the song?
My song titles definitely come way after the songs are finished. When I start a song I sit there for ten minutes trying to think of something cool to name a song and then I just say screw it and name it something stupid like, “Beer Me”. I eventually come up with a concept for the album and change the names of the songs. “Always Transcending” was based off of my love for water and how it’s always changing things (lakes, rivers, oceans, even bath water), and how relaxing it can be. “Lull” was an album that I wrote for people to sleep to. “All That is Wild & Alive” was an idea about a trip in search of solitude; which I just took last month and made it a reality! “Glowing in the Living Light” was all based off the writings of John Muir. I was reading all of his books at the time and would write down words or phrases I really liked.
- You recently spent time in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in northern Minnesota. Did you have specific creative or musical goals?
There weren’t really any musical goals behind this trip. It was more about me just wanting to get away and clear my head, and do and see things most people would be afraid to try.
- Do you write lyrics for any of your songs?
Lyrics are something I’ve never considered myself good at. I will write some every now and then, and occasionally even sing and put them in the song. I did this more on “Lost in the Chambers of the Sea” than ever before. I felt like they needed to be in there to tell the story.
- Is that your voice on the track “Within Arms Reach”?
Yeah that is my voice. The words on all of my songs that I sing in are very simple and to the point. That song says “Now I’ve Lost Hope”. The song “The Awakening Land” says, “I can’t find her, I can’t save her”. That definitely allows you to see what’s going on with the whole situation and album.
- Have you ever sung on other band’s albums?
The only other album I did any singing on was for my old band in college, but that was just a small part. I really do wish I were more confident in my voice and my lyrics. I would have a whole different project for that if I thought I could make it work.
- In some songs I am reminded of Isis and Pelican: music driven by the sound and the soundscape that is created: vast, spanning distance and time. If you had to label or fit your music into a category, what would that be?
That’s a tough question! I just feel like my music is very emotional and those emotions differ based on who the listener is and what they are going through. The same song might make one person happy and at peace, but make the other person sad and depressed. I just try to put all the emotion I can into my music because without lyrics to guide a person in a direction, the music has to do the job.
- You just finished a long day in the studio, or canoeing down a river – what is your beer of choice, and what music do you listen to?
Now we’re talking! Beer! Shiner has always been my go to beer. They should actually probably sponsor my friends and me because we have definitely given them a lot of our money. I usually go with whatever their seasonal is at the time, but I can drink whatever. I enjoy supporting the local breweries that have popped up here in Birmingham over the last few years. Trim Tab’s milk stout is one of the best beers I’ve ever had, and Avondale has several beers I enjoy. I usually stay away from the IPAs though. As far as what music I listen to: Fleet Foxes, The Tallest Man on Earth, Trampled by Turtles, Broken Social Scene, and Arcade Fire are some of my favorites that sing. Harold Budd, Eluvium, and Slow Dancing Society are a few of my favorite instrumental artists.
- How do you imagine people listen to your music?
My first thought would be hiking down a trail with beautiful scenery around them, or sitting around a campfire by a river. I’ve had people tell me they enjoy studying or reading to my music, but I would totally lose focus if I tried that. I also think my music would be pretty good at setting the mood in the bedroom. That’s what I love about instrumental music. You are in charge of where your head goes. If you want to close your eyes and drift away to some mountain scene, you can do it. If you want think about an old love you can do it.
- What is your earliest memory of music?
I always remember riding in the car with my parents and listening to oldies. I still love oldies because of that, and wish I could have created music during that time period. Back before every chord change had already been written, and every sound had been made. That must have been an exciting time for a musician.
- What is the origination of the name “Startle the Heavens”. Startle is a strong word that invokes someone sleeping or slowly going through life, and something startles him or her. And Heaven, regardless of religious leanings or none at all, invokes peace, light, and another way to live.
The name actually came from a Hammock song off one of their earlier albums. To me it doesn’t have any religious meaning or anything like that. I look at it as just creating something so beautiful and emotional that everyone should feel something when listening to it. Honestly, I wish I could change that name and just go with Ben Leopard. When I went with Startle the Heavens nobody knew who Hammock was and I sure as hell didn’t think anybody would ever know who I was. So now there is always this connection to Hammock (not that that is a bad thing), but I want to be taken seriously as my own project.
- You mentioned John Muir as an inspiration for your album “Glowing in the Living Light”. What other writers and authors do you read?
I really don’t have authors that I follow. I just love a good adventure book. I like stories where I can imagine myself being in the same situation: “Into the Wild”, “River of Doubt”, “The Dangerous River”, “A Walk in the Woods”, and so on.
- Since you mentioned “Into the Wild”, I’m curious your thoughts or feelings about Christopher McCandless. On a personal level, his story still haunts and inspires me, and was the driving force behind my first trip to Alaska.
I don’t think he was being selfish at all. Should he have been more prepared? Absolutely…but that guy lived a life that we should all hope to live in those short two years. He did and saw things that most of us are afraid to try. Even though I’ve been on some great trips and seen some amazing places, I still wish I had the guts it takes to just leave it all behind and go LIVE. It is so easy to just think of a million excuses to talk yourself out of something though.
- Any last thoughts on music and nature, which has a large influence on your music?
To me, nature is what brings more beauty and peace than anything else. I think that if more people could get out and experience some of the things I’ve been fortunate enough to experience, they would see and feel how great the world can be.
- Lost in the Chambers of the Sea – 2014
- Glowing in the Living Light – 2012
- All that is Wild & Alive – 2010
- Lull – 2010
- Always Transcending – 2009
- Find Yourself Here – 2008