Threadbare, a solo project for Ben Mackel, is dedicated to simple, bittersweet songs worn down to a thin comfort that are influenced by artists such as Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell, David Wilcox, and Gregory Alan Isakov. Ben Mackel grew up near Asheville, NC and is also a member of The Blue Eyed Bettys as well as an actor and composer for theatre.
Transcript of interview from One on One episode. Ben plays all over the country with his band The Blue-Eyed Bettys, but for his Threadbare project, he takes his music in a strikingly different direction. You could almost say the name is self-explanatory and not be too far off. It is tempting to do that but it's more complex than that. There is interplay between the words and the music like in all songs, but there is also a percussive tone to Ben's annunciation and his dynamics of his guitar.
"Catching" is about mornings. I recently discovered mornings. You know, originally I'm an actor and a touring musician so my lifestyle has always been late nights and I'm recently coming to love mornings. I'm dating this girl who's a teacher and she wakes up so early, and I've found that I love that and I love those times that we do get to sleep in together and enjoy a morning together. It's just a simple sweet song expressing how much I love it.
My favorite line out of this, it's not even a line but the phrase "feathering voice." I love that and it's the kind of thing where, I never heard that phrase before but instantly I know exactly what you're talking about.
Right. I don't even know that I've heard it either. It just kind of came out while I was writing. A feathering voice. I wanted to describe that early morning--what your voice does when you first wake up but it's still so sweet to hear first thing in the morning. Feathering voice, I love it.
And I like "waking up with good loving in my life." The feeling I get from that, and it might be wrong, but without you even saying it, it feels like it's for the first time or after a long time, maybe.
Right. Yeah. It's like a new thing. You know the feeling but you haven't been there in a long time. That's exactly it.
So "Lavender Hue" was about--again, I drive a lot and think about things. I drive early in the morning sometimes and I was driving on 240 in Asheville, right where--before you get to the bridge, headed south. And I saw that view of the mountains and it was so early in the morning where it got that perfect purply kind of lavender hue and I love it so much. That moment, you know, it passes within 15 minutes. There's a certain window where that color really pops out. And I wanted to write some sort of song about it. The lyrics in the song are so few, they're so sparse, which has been a frequent thing of mine, and there are two verses. The first one is how the town has changed. This is Asheville and it's growing faster than it knows how to do. And the people are different now. I grew up in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and came to Asheville often and the people were just all these granola hippies, loving people. And now, I don't want to get too political or anything but it just seems like a lot more money is driving the town, and a lot more visitors. Which, I love visitors coming and seeing it but they kind of overrun it at night, you know, and there's just partying and--anyway, I love that side of life and I'm not unhappy that it's happening to Asheville. But sometimes I just miss the old – so the first verse is about that and how you still get the sense of what Asheville was and is at heart in the morning when you see that purply haze. I wanted to write something about that. Then I used that as an analogy in the second verse of lost opportunity, the way things change, the way I change, imagining what could have been.
You talked about—what was the word—did you say "sparseness" of the lyrics?
I was thinking about the space between the lines which is really, just from a song writing perspective—like, a lot of times more classical composers talk about how a rest is a note as well as the notes are. And you should use the rest. And you kind of do that with your lyrics but you do that musically as well. Your songs will stop, almost stop, and then start again. But it's actually just a rest.
Yeah, just like in art, you know how important negative space is, visual art I mean. I think it's just as important in a song or in anything else in life artistically or just in regular day to day life. You need that space. You need a rest so you can enjoy anything else that comes in. And like I said earlier, I'm an actor by trade and that's what I'm really trained in. All this songwriting stuff is really just a hobby that I'm trying to pursue more and more. And in theater they teach you, especially musical theater which is what my forte is, that you don't speak unless you need to. And then you don't sing unless speaking doesn't cut it. And then you don't dance unless singing and speaking doesn't cut it. Stuff like that. So it heightens each thing. So I really like to pare down most of what I do. Unless it needs to be said, I'm not going to say it. That's why my lyrics are so sparse. I want to get my idea across in as little lyrically as it needs to be so those few lyrics do stand out. And I'm not a verbose kind of fellow. You can tell how many times I "um" and search for words in my regular speech. Words just don't speak to me the way music does. The way I listen to songs, I'll have to listen to some of my favorite songs 5 to 10 times before I hear the lyrics but I'll know what they're talking about. I'll get the feeling. Just a couple of lyrics here and there will seep into my head so I'll know exactly what they're trying to say. And that's kind of what I do with my songs, or with these Threadbare songs. That's why—the name of this project, Threadbare, it's that sense of worn comfort, barely holding on, just what you need to make it fabric. [LAUGHTER]
Yeah, I heard your music before I heard that name. But it really does fit. I hope I'm insightful enough that if I heard this guy Threadbare is playing, I wouldn't know exactly what kind of music it was, but I would have some idea. Unless it was ironic in a, you know, heavy death metal band. [LAUGHTER] But if it was sincere, I would be like, I kind of know that's going to be a stripped-down, only-what-you-need type of music.
Yeah, and that's why I wanted, I didn't want to just be Ben Mackel because there's so many different sides of me. When I think of Ben Mackel, I think of an actor. "I'm gonna go see Ben Mackel and he's gonna to do some show. He's gonna sing and dance" or whatever. But Threadbare, you know exactly what you're going into. Although it is funny you mention that heavy metal stuff. I looked up bands that are named Threadbare just to see –I was going to use it anyway just because it's what I need to be called, what these songs need to be called. But there is a heavy metal—I don't know if heavy metal is the right word--but there is a hard rock Threadbare band out there. [LAUGHTER] So I figured, I can still be Threadbare and people won't be confused.
"The Morning Light" I wrote with my band, or for my band, really, The Blue-Eyed Bettys. It was at a point where I was falling in love with this morning-ness instead of the late night that I'm used to. And I was getting out of a dark time, you know, this depression. A lot happened to me. And it's about, when people know that you're sad – two things generally seemed to happen for me. They either want to try to fix you, make you better, or they just want to put you in a hole and say, "That's all you are and all you're ever going to be. You're just going to be this sad mess and I don't really want that in my life." So it's hard to admit to people that the sadness is consuming you at that moment. And this is kind of like a song that tells people what they can do. The last verse, "I can stay inside my head for days. Instead of digging me out, just come on in and put the kettle on." Just come in here, sit with me for a bit, let me be sad. I'm going to get out of it eventually, but right now you just gotta like, hunker down with me. I saw this meme or some kind of comic strip I guess that was going around, and it described it perfectly. It was just like, there's this guy in a blanket and his friend was like, "What do you need? Do you want to come out?" He said no. "Do you want me to come in there? " And he said okay. And, I don't know, I wish I could show you the picture right now, but it described it perfectly and that's kind of what this song is.
"Bury My Memories" is a very intimate song about how to let go of something. I've got a lot in my past that I need to let go of but I don't want to. I want to keep those memories and keep them near and dear to me. But I know I have to get over a lot of this stuff. So the visual in my head when I was writing this was, there's two ways to describe it. "Bury my memories in a silver-plated chest." So that could mean a trunk, a chest of treasure or something. Or it could be armor, silver-plated over your heart, a chest of armor. A silver-plated chest. So it's either buried in the ground in this beautiful box or inside your chest and your heart, protected from anything else. And I love that imagery and how it can spur either image. And the end of the song, it's one of the threadbare songs, one of the most threadbare I've got. It's just two little verses and a lot of music in between. If I had a string quartet, pianos, everything behind me, I would just let it sing for three times the amount of what I played just now, just to let all the memories resurface and flow in anybody that's listening to the song. If they've felt like this at all, let it resurface and live in this beautiful music. And at the end have it go back, it's time to shove it down for a little bit and keep it safe and let me live without having to deal with that everyday. And the last words are, "not till I'm ready… " and I hope you can hear the ellipses.
That's the one we were talking about earlier. I feel like you can hear the ellipses. The last line trails off, and the written lyric has ellipses. You really do a good job of bringing that out.
That's exactly what I want. There's a line that could come right after that, that I almost hope people can hear. I love that some songs I hear, I hear in a melody that, like, this lyric would fit perfectly there. But it doesn't need to go because I hear it in that music. It's like the lyric is that melody. So I hope that comes out in people's heads. If it doesn't, it's totally fine, but it's there for me.
"Should the Morning Last Forever." That is a very new song. I like that one because not only are the lyrics pretty threadbare but the music is threadbare. It's two chords that I just do over and over again. And it's got this almost kind of Irish lilt about it. I didn't realize it until I showed my friend to see what he thinks of it. And he goes, "Yeah, you need some dry fiddle over that or something. Soft bagpipes in the background." Pan flute or something. Penny whistle, that'd be great. It's kind of a lesson in – I've been talking this whole time about my newfound love for mornings, and I've found myself just wishing the morning would stay forever. And just like in life, you need the sour so you can enjoy the sweet. If you just lived in bliss your whole life, you wouldn't know what bliss was. So that kind of explores what this song is. Again, a lesson in letting go, which I guess I'm in the process of doing, which is why all these songs are flowing out of me like this.
I heard you play this live and you told a really great story during the intro about a couple of ducks. [LAUGHTER] It wasn't just a couple of ducks, it was more interesting than that.
Yeah, it's a true story. It's great. You know, I was an actor forever at the Barter Theater, for 8 years up there. We lived in this actor housing. I don't want to tell the story too much, but these ducks, it's a beautiful story about how they mate for life, these mallards, and just a heartbreaking tale of one of them having to let go. And it fit perfectly into that song. I did that to try to broaden my horizons– expand. I want to be able to tell stories and underscore myself. I love that. One of my favorite song writers, a person I looked up to my entire life, is David Wilcox. He's in Asheville. I've never met him which is crazy to think about. Maybe I will some day. But he has raised me almost in his songwriting. If I told him – one of my friends opened for him in Salisbury, North Carolina, and I told him to tell him, "I have a friend that thinks that if he is any semblance of a good person, it's because of your songwriting." I think that's the biggest compliment I could ever give him. I hope he really took it to heart.
Was he able to tell him?
He did tell him and he said, "Wow, that's a wonderful thing." That's all he could say, and I hope to tell him in person one day. I bet I pass him on the street once in awhile and just never see him. [LAUGHTER] But yeah, anyway, he does this wonderful storytelling in his live shows. I almost listen to his live albums more than his studio albums because I just love hearing the stories so much, and I want to be able to do that too, weave stories and song and have morals come out and lessons and feelings just all--BOOM, you know. I'm raised as an actor and telling stories has always been a big part of my life and doing it through music is really the goal now.
That comes out. If I didn't know, I wouldn't think, "This guy's acting." But you have a very good presentation when you play live engaging with the audience but it seems sincere. So you fake that very well is what I'm saying. [LAUGHTER]
Yeah, well good. If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made. [LAUGHTER]
No, I can tell by the way you're talking about it that you're using your acting background to sincerely bring out the things you want to.
Sure, yeah. That's what I love about the music. I can't hide behind a character. This is me. And it's frightening. Every time I go up on stage I have the lines I'm going to say memorized. I don't have to come up with it and I'm a different person almost always. So I can hide behind that. Whatever I'm feeling in life, I can hide behind that when I'm up on stage as another person. But now, telling a story and doing music, it's so intimate, so much me that I'm putting out there in front of people. And it's terrifying going to these open mics and really trying to conquer that bravery. It's very important for me to try to do that.
"Rain" is one of the first songs I ever wrote. I wrote in in college which was probably about 12 years ago. I'm ashamed to say it's about doing something that's just bad, being tempted. At the time I was with someone and the distance was incredibly hard, and I can remember vividly the time I thought of the song. I was in the theater program. I was walking out of the theater and it was this gray day and it felt like there was no color anywhere. And I was contemplating whether to go see this other girl in her dorm. She invited me over. And all those feelings that are mixed--how do you combat those feelings? Or do you just go with it and relinquish whatever feeling is making you do that? So, it's about that. "Solitary people." It was over a break, I think. I feel like everywhere I looked it was just single people walking around by themselves in this gray, and I feel like they were all thinking the same things as me. "We're just separated from everybody and man, we need love too. What are we going to do?" That's what that's about.
I read these lyrics before I heard the song. And this is a situation where the song really adds a dimension of understanding. When I read the lyrics "All I see are solitary ones," I was like, what's he talking about? Then when I heard it I was like, oh, he's talking about solitary people obviously. So that was good. Or I'm stupid. [LAUGHTER]
Yeah, it's amazing – no, I love that, that's my favorite thing about music is how it informs any idea that could be misconstrued if you didn't have it there. Otherwise I'd just write poetry.
"Johnny" is a song I wrote for and with my band, The Blue-Eyed Bettys. Again it's getting out of this funk I was in, this sadness. I was so sad for so long and I finally found this thing that really helped me. It sounds so silly to just say it out loud but I love it so much I wrote a song about it. It's about the herb St John's Wort. It's about a flower and it really helped me get through, like, control this ugly darkness inside me. And I just loved it. I looked it up. I looked at all the history about it and how people have been using this for a long, long time. They'd put it in tea. They'd wear it. We take it in pill form. It helped me so much I thought it deserved a song and that's exactly what it is. I kind of wanted to keep it a secret. Let people guess, "What do you think it's about?" But that's what I love about songs. It can mean different things to anybody. If it means something completely different to you, please don't let what I just said inform you otherwise. Let it be what it is for you.
We'll put a disclaimer. Only listen to this if you've already formed your opinion.
Look for Threadbare on Instagram and Facebook. Ben is going to be going into the studio this year hopefully, recording an EP as Threadbare so keep an eye out for that. We'll let you know here when that happens.