BEN ZAIDI
ACRE OF SALT.

If singer/songwriter and Harvard-educated poet Ben Zaidi wanted to get anything from writing his debut album, Acre Of Salt., it’s a little clarity — around racial identity, quarter-life changes, death, and the loss of innocence that inevitably comes with a rapidly decaying planet. Produced by Tony Berg (Phoebe Bridgers, Peter Gabriel, Beck), Acre Of Salt. attempts to make sense of all of these themes, led by Zaidi’s mellow, classic folk melodies and iambic verses.

Born and raised in Seattle to a mixed-heritage family (his father is Jewish and his mother’s family is from Pakistan), Zaidi crafted his stage name to honor his unique background: “Arabic and Hebrew, there's a lot of commonalities,” he says. “Ben, meaning ‘son.’ And ‘Zaidi’ was my Pakistani grandfather’s name. I learned that it also meant ‘grandfather’ in Hebrew, and I thought that was a nice way to combine the two.”

Eventually, Zaidi landed at Harvard (“I instantly had a very strong negative reaction to it,” he admits), where he studied poetry and English while also recording demos in his dorm rooms. Writing later took him to NYU, where he began pursuing a Master’s in creative writing. Around this time, one of his best friends was diagnosed with Stage IV non-hodgkin’s lymphoma. Driving down I-95, from Brooklyn to Florida, to visit his friend while he underwent chemo was a major turning point for Zaidi, who channeled the troubling experience of confronting his friend’s mortality into Acre Of Salt.

Taking influence from lyrical greats (Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, especially), and imbuing folk compositions with hip-hop and electronic elements, Zaidi recorded Acre Of Salt. at Los Angeles’ famous Sound City studios, where he also worked with backing band members Ethan Gruska, Sebastian Steinberg (Fiona Apple), saxophonist Sam Gendel and Kane Ritchotte (Portugal. The Man). “So much of this album is a study of the quarter-life crisis,” he says. “The mid-20s shift from, ‘Oh it's not my responsibility to worry about more things than just, I don't know, who I've got a crush on, or what I want to do.’ It's the awareness of both the problems and the world around you, and the frailty of things.”

Your stage name, Ben Zaidi, is a union of two family names, and ultimately, two cultures. What would you like listeners to take away from the unionization of “Ben” and “Zaidi”?

I think my identity is first and foremost just a mixed person. I think that actually I have more in common with my girlfriend, who's half Chinese, half European white American, than I do with someone who's fully Pakistani. I think I have the identity of what me and my girlfriend call “Generation Beige,” the massive wave of people who are increasingly, increasingly more just weird mixtures of things, and grew up in America or some other Western country where you don't really get raised that attached to your ethnicity, but instead just taught that you're an individual and everything that comes with that.

So it's basically my effort to figure out how to construct an identity from the weird little pieces that I was given, and the weird identity wash of American individualist culture. Maybe what it suggests is, it's possible to create something that feels meaningful out of what may be the very dimly smoldering embers of actual cultural tradition.

How did you arrive at the album's title, Acre Of Salt.?

I think a lot of it is tied to the idea of the conquering army salting the Earth. I think this is told in the Bible, or other sacred ancient texts, but armies would, after marching through and destroying, conquering a city, would salt the Earth so that nothing could grow. An acre of salt is this idea of this plot or space where something is supposed to be growing, but nothing can grow. And I think that is related to being left without many traditions and cultures to grasp from in a fractured, individualistic world. But also definitely related to climate change, and a lot of the songs on the album are obviously very aware of impending climate apocalypse, sea rising and stuff, which would also mean sea salt water covering everything.

People in my generation feel like we've been left with an acre of salt, or without a lot of room to work with by other generations who have ruined the farm. This is not fertile ground anymore. You don't see a lot of hope and possibility for a bountiful harvest in the future of this land we have.

I was in a pretty hopeless — politically and otherwise — place when I was writing most of the album last fall, and I think one of the most hopeless moments is on “Ben Zaidi's Blues.” when I say the words “acre of salt,” where I say, "I want to throw my body into the river, I want to build my house on an acre of salt, and hear no news, talk only religion and forget that I'm human whenever I want." It's this idea that I don't want anything to do with this world. This idea of choosing this place where there is no life almost feels desirable when the other option is holding onto hope in a place where that's dishonest.

You obviously grew up with a lot of Northwest musical influences, like grunge and hip-hop. What influences, if any, made their way onto Acre Of Salt.?

I grew up listening to a lot of singer/songwriters. My dad was always listening to Bob Dylan and great lyricists like Elvis Costello and David Byrne. My mom listened to a lot of Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne. And then growing up in the 2000s, I was on a heavy diet of both angsty emo alt-rock stuff. Growing up in Seattle, I listened to a lot of Good Charlotte, the Goo Goo Dolls, Soundgarden, Nirvana. Chris Cornell was my favorite songwriter and singer ever growing up. And I listened to a lot of Audioslave, and then also Rage Against the Machine, Eminem, Kanye, stuff like that.

When I was in high school, people like Bon Iver and James Blake gave me a picture of "Oh, it's possible to synthesize these things, to have weird electronic and hip-hop influences, but also singer/songwriter, more folk traditional elements as well." But really, with this album, I was going back to the classic, the most lyric-heavy and real urgent songwriting that I could find. The Times They Are A-Changin’ was a big album in rotation while I was writing it, as well as The Freewheelin Bob Dylan, and then a lot of Blue by Joni Mitchell.

I felt an urge to go to a timeless place. And think about challenging myself to write the kind of lyrics that only I can write, and be honest but also push it to as artful a place as possible.

Much of this album delves into your experience driving from Brooklyn to Florida to see your friend, who was sick with cancer and going through chemo. Why did that story feel so important to highlight on Acre Of Salt., particularly on the song “Orlando. (Wind Take Me Away)”?

A big part of the story of this album is one of my best friends from Harvard getting cancer when he was 25, and me driving down to Florida to be with him while he was doing chemo. And that obviously was the first smack in the face of, "Oh, we're not invincible anymore." It's not like, "Oh our whole life is ahead of us stretching out in front of us," but instead there is a certain frailty that this is all precariously balanced on. And I think the album's grappling with that. Like with the climate apocalypse, trying to find the way out of that.

What do you think a producer like Tony Berg brought to Acre Of Salt.?

His big challenge to me was to "try writing songs that are a little less beautiful." He was like, "These are beautiful songs, and I think that's your problem.” Contrast was a big thing. I wrote a song in the days after that and sent it to him and he was like, "ø..." It’s the first song on the album, “Going On Gone.” He was like, "This is amazing. This is the best thing you've ever made. You just started your album." Then I wrote a bunch more.

He's in LA, and I was in Brooklyn writing and sending stuff to him. He was giving me things to listen to and music to immerse myself with. And then eventually in February he was like, "Okay, I think you're ready to get in the studio." And he co-owns Sound City, which is one of the most storied recording studios in America. So we did our whole album there, and that was a surreal experience. And finished it in late spring, and it's now done, and we're beginning to plan rolling it out. It's definitely far and away the most I've ever put into something I've made.

Yeah, what was the experience of working in a studio space like Sound City like for you, this being your first LP?

Well, I think it's a combination of the space and the people. Tony uses a really old-school process. When I make music with people who are also in their 20s, or younger, it's like, "I'll open up my laptop and I've got a beat or something and we'll write to it." But for Tony, someone comes in with a song, and then the producer fleshes out the instrumentation to make that song as big and as powerful as possible, bringing in the best musicians who are around. Not only the best musicians, but the right musicians for the song. That's the process that Tony uses. He’ll bring in the most amazing musicians.

Sebastian Steinberg played bass on the album, he plays bass with Fiona Apple and Iron & Wine, and he's just an incredible musician. He can do everything, he can shred electric bass, but he also bows the bass. At one point, he picked up a cello in the studio and started playing the cello, which is not an instrument that he has been trained to play. He played cello on “Scripture In The Sand.,” and it's the most beautiful, weird-sounding cello.

I think a big part of the ethos of Sound City throughout time is that process of people who have worked as hard as they can to be good at what they do, whether it's the songwriter or the guitar player. But taking that laptop mindset and what that allows, which is a certain intimacy and vulnerability that you can access when you can do it all by yourself in your bedroom, that's a totally distinct emotional register.

I think there also is something to having the audacity to be like, “Kurt Cobain sat on his couch and recorded one of my favorite songs of all time, ‘Something in the Way,’ in the room I was recording in. That gives you a certain feeling of, "Okay, I both need to elevate to a place where I can compare myself to these people, but also I'm here. I made it. I'm in this room for a reason.”

Are there moments of hope on Acre Of Salt.? If so, where does that come in?

I think that the best answer is, “Younger With Time.” That's why it's almost the ending of the album. It's not as simple as an answer, or a solution, but one of the few real moments of hope on the album. Through togetherness, or love or connection, you can achieve a certain amount of joy again. And it's not that it's limited to being a result of ignorance or youth or whatever. It's a real thing that can be found in the world no matter where or how old you are. And not only that, but it is the point. That is the point.

For more information, please contact Samantha Tillman, Kate Rakvic or Carla Sacks at Sacks & Co., 212.741.1000.

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