The Chicago-born, NYC-based soul man on his Ohio connection and the need to find love in a complicated world
On Ben Pirani's 2018 album, How Do I Talk to My Brother? (Colemine Records), the soul man surveys a world he views growing darker, filling his songs with references to entrenched racism, unjust wars and political malfeasance. Indeed, even a handful of the album's love songs play less as lighthearted romps than buttresses against encroaching evil, offering respite amid waves of torment, pain and upheaval.
“Peace of mind is so hard to find in a complicated world,” Pirani sings on the swinging “That's What You Mean to Me.”
“I do think love songs can be a kind of sanctuary,” said the Chicago-born, New York-based Pirani, who will headline an in-store at Used Kids Records on Saturday, March 23. “The bottom line is, today, I'm mad, man. I love to sing love songs, and I think those innocent love songs are important. … But right now I don't think there's anybody who can't take a side. This is not the time to sit back and worry about making a bad career move or something. I feel like it's a responsibility.”
It's also in keeping with a soul tradition to which Pirani said he owes a great debt, especially being a white artist recording in what is a historically black art form, where pioneering artists routinely confronted political and social ills in song.
“I'm a white guy. The music doesn't belong to me,” said Pirani, who got deeper into the genre while crate-digging at under-the-radar Chicago record shops in the years he worked as a bike messenger, a habit he picked up partially to fuel a DJ night he helped found, Windy City Soul Club. “If I'm going to make this music, I need to approach it with respect. … If you're not paying homage to those roots, then what's the point?”
These roots occasionally surface in unexpected ways. At first blush, “Try Love,” which opens How Do I Talk to My Brother? and returns in an album-ending reprise, plays like yet another arrow in Cupid's quiver, but the song was actually inspired by a speech given by Fred Hampton, a political activist and Illinois Black Panther leader who was shot and killed by authorities in 1969. In the speech, Hampton framed struggle as essential to victory, saying, “If you dare not struggle, then damn it, you don't deserve to win!”
“I was listening to the speech and sort of taking notes on it, and what he said near the end was that his motivation was love for the people,” Pirani said. “If we try love, we can get somewhere.”
While Pirani said he has long struggled financially, he stretched himself even further after relocating to New York seven years ago, selling off much of his prized record collection over time in order to make ends meet — including a pressing of a record on which his late father, a jazz musician and sometimes session player, appeared. “That was… shit. That sucked. That fucking sucked,” Pirani said in a tone that suggested he was still reckoning with the decision. “It was the last thing I had of value. I was letting everything go in tiers. Luckily I know all kinds of people who were into the same kinds of records, so I was able to send them to good homes.”
Gradually, things turned around for the musician, who celebrates his perseverance and good fortune on album tracks like “Not One More Tear,” a driving, horn-stoked tune where sunshine finally breaks up the long-cloudy horizon. “I knew I'd make it,” Pirani sings with an urgency inherited from the psych and noise bands he cut his teeth with in Chicago, including Civilized Age and My Lai, in which he played drums.
Pirani attributes this brighter perspective to increased financial stability — the singer was able to quit his job at a record shop to pursue music full-time in May 2018 — as well as to his marriage, which he said has opened his heart in unexpected ways.
“I led a precarious life, and it was hard, but now I have some security and it's really freed me up,” Pirani said. “You want something to inspire you, and because I feel love from my wife, I feel more love for my friends and I feel more love for people, because my capacity for love has expanded. And I want to share that now, too.”
And sometimes he's fortunate to share it with musical idols like pioneering Columbus soul man Norman Whiteside of Wee, whom Pirani met and collaborated with via the Chicago label Numero Group in January 2018, though nothing has come of the sessions as of yet. (In the days after the meetup, Whiteside wrote on Facebook, “Just finished up a dynamic visit to Chicago with Rob Sevier, Ben Pirani, Johnathan Kirby and others. I cannot recall the last time I felt so much liberation and inner joy.”)
“That Wee LP (You Can Fly on My Aeroplane) was just like a rainbow explosion,” said Pirani, whose Ohio ties also extend to his current label, Colemine, which is based in Loveland just outside Cincinnati. “Rob [Sevier] at Numero set it up. He put Norm and me in a room with a Wurlitzer and a Moog synthesizer. If you look on my Instagram you can still find a little video of us doing ‘You Can Fly on My Aeroplane,' and I'm so blissed out, bro. It was like playing with fucking Paul McCartney.”