Ben Barnes has built an outstanding career as an actor—he’s starred in popular films such as The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Stardust, and Dorian Gray. He successfully transitioned into the world of television as well, portraying characters in shows like The Punisher and Westworld, and he recently captivated audiences with his performance in the hit Netflix show Shadow and Bone. As Ben tells me during our conversation, he loves being an actor and is thankful for the fact that he gets to do what he loves for a living.
But acting isn’t the only thing that Ben loves doing. He is equally passionate about music and had been shelving his desire to become a musician for nearly 20 years while dedicating his time to his acting career instead. During the pandemic, however, Ben realized that he wanted to use the precious minutes of his life to finally pursue his dream of becoming a musician, if only for his own personal gratification. Though he would have been satisfied with the mere act of completing his first EP, Songs For You, Ben has had the delightful privilege of being supported by a legion of fans who have excitedly consumed his recently released singles 11:11 and Rise Up.
His dedicated fan base is composed of supportive individuals who Ben speaks of fondly. He understands how important each fan is, and he’s grateful for their overwhelmingly positive response to his music. Though he’s unsure of what lies on the horizon in terms of his musical journey, Ben is taking this time to celebrate a deeply personal achievement with those who mean the most to him.
Everyone involved in this new era has a history with Ben—from the actresses who appear in his music videos to the directors who helped bring his visuals to life, to his brother helping him with merchandise—Ben is keeping this project close to his heart in every possible way.
It was a privilege to speak with him one-on-one about something that means so much to him, as it’s clear from the way he lights up when talking about his music that this experience has reinvigorated him in a significant way.
House of Solo Magazine’s Sam Cohen spoke with Ben Barnes about the process of creating his EP Songs For You, the incredible inspiration behind Pirate Song, what he hopes to accomplish in the future, and much more.
How was Toronto?
Toronto was wonderful actually, thank you for asking. I swore I would never do a horror film because they terrify me. But when Guillermo del Toro asks you to go and do anything, you just say yes, don’t you? So, I put myself through it and I was creeped out for six weeks. And here I am on the other side of it safe and sound, so it’s all right.
And you got to work with Crispin Glover! George McFly himself.
George McFly himself. I know, I know, it was definitely a little bit of a ‘pinch me’ moment because, as is quite well documented, it’s certainly one of my favorite films, certainly one of the greatest films ever made. So, yeah, he’s amazing in it, so it was a real treat. It was definitely a real treat for me to do scenes opposite him.
That’s very exciting. I’m jealous, I love Crispin Glover.
He does an extraordinary, idiosyncratic, wonderful performance in this, so you’ve got some juicy Crispin to look forward to.
[Laughs]. What a time to be alive. I also don’t really like horror though, so I’m going to have to be watching between my fingers.
You will have to be a brave girl. [Laughs].
[Laughs]. I’ll just have to be frightened the entire time?
You’ll have to Woman Up! And do it. [Both laugh].
I’ll have to dig deep for that!
To be honest, I will let you in on a secret. I had to muster so much courage to even film some of it, but I wanted to trick myself, so the director had these, like, wooden clappers that he would smack together during takes and he would play creepy noises from films that he knew I was afraid of, and sometimes I would even rehearse with my eyes closed if I was supposed to be frightened by something so that when that thing would be unveiled to me, you would get a genuine reaction, for the first time seeing certain grim things, so. So yeah, I just wanted to be tricked, really.
I give you credit—I probably would have cried my way through it. And I feel like you have so many exciting things going on right now! I just saw your new music video for Rise Up that premiered right before we started chatting, and it’s incredible. It’s really, really emotional.
What’s it like for you when you’re performing in these music videos? Do you prepare differently than you would when you’re acting for film or television?
I think, well, the video for 11:11 was entirely conceived in my head. So that was a real thrill for me to see those shots coming together that I just explained from my head and my heart. And then for the Rise Up video, my friend Georgia King, who directed it for me, actually pitched me the idea of building the sun TV wall, which I loved. And then we sort of crafted it and, and sort of molded it together so that it would feel really honest. It was the first sort of truly intimate, personal, kind of authentic to me, creative thing that I’ve ever done. So, I wanted every step along the way to feel that way, and to feel honest to experiences that I’ve had. And even if they were years ago, you know, I just wanted everything…obviously, you want the chords to sound like they reflect the feeling that you had when you wrote the lyrics, which you want to reflect the feeling itself, but then I wanted the video to feel honest to those moments because I think that’s the way that then people can ascribe them to moments in their own life. And people can, you know, emotively react…When I watch a film or listen to music, I’m not reacting to the person who wrote it, I’m reacting to it because it means something to me and my life and my loved ones and my dreams and hopes and fears and heartaches and all of that so. So I want them to feel kind of…just pure.
I think that absolutely comes across, and it’s so beautiful to see. I was able to listen to the EP, and it’s incredible. I love it. I have to say, they’re all really amazing songs, but I love Pirate Song the most.
Oh, thank you! Good! A friend of mine, Hunter Elizabeth, who is an amazing singer, helped put some of this stuff together and sings backing vocals, and she would call me frustratingly from having just got out of the shower being like, Why am I in the shower going, Blow me down. Why am I doing this? Why is this in my head? And even some of the other musicians, you know, would kind of send me little videos of them singing Rise up, rise up. Oh, for God’s sake, get out of my head! So, I love that I managed to somehow craft songs that get stuck in people’s heads! Because there’s nowhere I’d rather be, than a melody that I came up with, being stuck in someone’s head. But I think it’s the same thing when I’m singing them, as to what you asked about the acting in the videos, I didn’t really want there to be acting, so it is different. I will prepare for a TV or film performance, whereas for these I just wanted to be. Yeah, just wanting to kind of be and let whatever emotion happened when you’re singing it or not singing it just happen. And it was sort of the same when you’re recording vocals. When you’re singing a song, you can rehearse it. But, actually, the take that you use on the record is going to be the one that just feels right.
I think those are the best moments in music. I like songs that aren’t necessarily perfect. I like when you can hear the emotion, or there’s a crack in someone’s voice, or the inflection of their voice really tells you how the person was feeling.
Totally. I love when you can hear the fingers on the guitar. I don’t want to hear the guitar, I want to hear the fingers, you know?
That’s how I always described it to the musicians. At the end of Pirate Song, there’s this like [imitates sound]. The drummer put on this little, like, noise with a drumstick on the rim of a snare drum, and I loved it so much I was like, We have to leave that in!
It’s such a cool detail! I think it’s those little things that make it unique. I mean, obviously the lyrics and everything else, but I think to stand apart, you need those little creative moments of authenticity.
It made it sound like a pirate ship to me. I love that.
How did you write Pirate Song by the way? I’m very interested in the story behind that.
Pirate Song was actually one of the songs that I was like…I want to write another song. And I started writing a song, and then I was bored by it, because it was a sort of another song about trying to chase that person who is just sort of uncatchable, you know? We all have those people sort of flipped into our lives and you’re curious about them, but you can’t quite pin them down. And whether that’s colleagues from years ago that you were wanting to keep in touch with but they just seem completely effervescent, you know, they just kind of bubble away, or whether it’s a romantic thing or a family member or whatever it might be, but we all have those people that you can’t quite pin down. But it was kind of a slow song, and it wasn’t quite working, and then I was just sort of flicking through stuff and I ended up…I’m just a curious fish, often, and I just sort of went down a rabbit hole and started reading.
I was reading some short stories, and then something struck me in a story about pirates and sort of leaving women behind…of having a woman in every port kind of deal. And I started thinking, like, What if it’s the other way around? So I started looking up female pirates, like historically, and I found this pirate with red hair who was called Back From The Dead Red, and she would fake her own deaths to, like, get out of, you know, get out of trouble for various pirate heists, I assume. And then my imagination just started running wild that she must have had men in every port that were just sort of like, not able to quite know if they were one of many, or if it was just them, or if she was thinking about them too. And suddenly it became this more interesting metaphor fabric for telling this story, and then I was listening to St. Paul and the Broken Bones and some other bands like that that have got a bit more punch to them. And I was like, This could be like that. And then, eventually, like I said, we added the drums and the drum sticks. And then at the very end, we added some strings to it because I thought it sounded like ropes, kind of, and I wanted my gang of soul pirates to be singing on the Heave ho! I wanted this little gang of soulful pirate men who were all left behind by Back From The Dead Red, and I always have a lot of fun singing that, Back From The Dead Red.
That has to be the coolest nickname ever.
It is. So, I scrapped the original song and started again with that bit. But sort of kept what the song was about.
I love that story. I’m going to have to dive into this now. I’m like you, I’m very curious about everything and I read constantly, so I’d love to find out more about this.
You can Google it! She was obviously an interesting character. Because it was so long ago, it’s not documented particularly well, so you’re allowed to make it up yourself, I think.
You can take creative liberties. I think you did her justice.
She has a cool theme song that gets stuck in your head!
I would be proud of that theme song!
Watch there will be, like, some cool HBO series called Back From The Dead Red.
You’re gonna inspire all these spin-offs! I would be interested in seeing your creative vision for a music video for that.
That would be so cool. I did have an idea for a music video for that! Do you want to hear what it was? I’m obviously not going to make any more videos for this [Songs For You].
My idea for it was that it would be like a children’s party, but the people who were working there were all dressed up as different things. One was maybe like a sad clown or, like, I don’t know, a magician or something. And then there would be sort of a superhero, and this and that and the other, and then there would be this female pirate, but I was the only one who could see her there. And she would keep escaping around different parts of the party and stuff. I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought it through, but I was wondering whether to do Pirate Song or Rise Up as the second sort of singletrack. In the end, we did Rise Up.
I think that was such a great idea! I love that.
If somebody would make that video for me, I would be very grateful.
That would be incredible. You have such a passionate fan base and they’re so creative, they always think of such amazing things. It’s been wonderful to see people respond to the music, and they’re doing all these beautiful fan videos and performances, it’s amazing.
The pole dancing, ice skating, and even just dancing in the kitchen with a smile on their faces just makes me so happy. But yeah, a Pirate Song music video would be…that would get a special prize, for sure.
We’ll put it out into the universe!
If anybody wants to submit a fan video, I would post it and I’ll send them a CD or a vinyl.
I think that would be really cool! I know we touched on your music video for 11:11 briefly, which Evan Rachel Wood starred in, and I think she’s extraordinary—her strength and bravery are incredible. But she’s also very musical, so did you touch base with her when you were creating your music?
Not really, but there are people sort of in the family that we’re all connected to, we all know, people that she knows that worked on the record with me. But I was just sort of trying to cast this person who could, you know, this character…because I think when you’re in the thick of, you know, having romantic feelings with someone, they sort of become everything to you, and you see them everywhere. And I’ve watched Evan do such extraordinary things on Westworld, extraordinary things where she would run giggling and excited down a corridor and then she would turn a corner and be weeping and inconsolable. In the same take. I mean, I would just watch her do these things and I was like, She can be anything at any moment. I needed someone who would be game and onboard to shoot in one day and be all these different things. And she’s just got the energy and the passion and the, sort of, life, to be that. And then I imagined…you know, the video started with the idea of me performing the song somewhere old school, like a big old theater, for one person looking proud. And when she shot that I was just like, This is exactly what I wanted.
She is just so ridiculously talented. I’m also really interested in learning more about the technicality of how you created your songs. I know you mentioned in previous interviews that you had written the words over the course of several years, but how did you find the melodies for the things you had written on the page?
Rather painstakingly because I’m not a very good musician. So I sit at that piano there, and I don’t even really know very much about chord structures, let alone key signatures, so I’m a bit lost when I speak to actual musicians. And with my producers I would be like, So, it’s like a D chord but my thumb is down more? And I was just driving them absolutely nuts. And they were like, Well why is your thumb on there? And I was like, Because it’s scrunchier sounding, you know, it sounds more like the feeling. So I would basically just sit there, and it takes such a long time, but I would sit there until the sounds matched the feelings.
As someone who doesn’t understand music, that makes sense to me.
And they were kind of like, This is good. Because it becomes not formulaic, it becomes not like anything else, because I’m just doing hours of Dun dun, dun dun, oh, that sounds good! You know? So, then I’ll just keep moving through it, but yeah. The idea of writing more seems very daunting at this point, but we’ll see.
I was going to ask you because obviously, the EP is already being so well-received if you were interested in doing a full-length album?
So, I have lots of lyrics, but I think the move would be to get some help with the music part of it next time. In terms of writing the music part. Just because, otherwise it’ll be five years. [Both laugh]. But I would also love to do some cover albums.
I think that would be incredible.
I’d love to do a Standards album or a Christmas album, but it would be fun. I love other songs so much as well.
You have a great voice for a Christmas album or a Standards album.
I don’t want it to be just classical Standards. I would feel a bit more, like…I would say with films and TV shows that I’m working on, you have to know why you’re making it now, right? Even if it’s a period piece, you have to know what it means now, and I think it’s the same with music. You could do Standards but then, you know, Sinatra and Bublé and Nat King Cole and all these people have already done that, so why are you? Why now? And once you have that answer, it becomes a bit easier.
It kind of clicks in a little bit more. I know touring is very, very much not on the radar right now. But when you said that, it reminded me of when I saw Hugh Jackman in concert.
He did a really interesting mix of songs because he’s been in so many musicals, but you could do a tour like that where you do some original stuff and some covers.
I would love that! That’s probably what it would end up being. It would be a mix of things, but that would be so much fun.
Just selling out stadiums. I think people would be so excited to see that.
[Both laugh]. I don’t know about stadiums! Maybe bars.
That would be cool though for you to start off like everyone does at the smoky bars and go from there. On a personal note, I wanted to say that it’s incredible to see you pursuing this dream of yours that you’ve had forever. I think that’s so inspirational because it shows people that it doesn’t matter how much you’ve achieved or how happy you are with your career, if you care about something you should do it no matter what.
Thank you. I thought you were going to say it doesn’t matter how old you are! [Both laugh]. I appreciate you going the way that you did.
40 is not old!
That’s really nice of you to say. I was very happy with my career, and I am, and I love doing what I love. But I’ve also always loved music and this was actually less about…This is not about anything professional or a career for me, this is actually something quite personal for me, and it’s left me feeling more me than I did before I did it. So, that’s got to be a good thing.
I think that’s absolutely a good thing. I know you had mentioned that you don’t want to be 80-years-old and regret not doing it, and I think that’s so important because people don’t always think of that.
I think a lot of people, during the pandemic, kind of got a little bit lost with their identity and priorities, you know? I don’t really know anyone who didn’t suffer with that a bit and it was no different for me. This was a way of reclaiming that focus and power over my own life, the way I’m navigating the world…how to use the precious moments of your life going forward.
That’s a good perspective to take away from something so difficult. It kind of makes you realize your own mortality, and so even if professionally nothing came of it, at least personally you get the gratification.
It freed me up to do it in a much more personal, intimate kind of way. It doesn’t matter what the reaction is.
That’s huge when you can feel like that. I always say, What other people think of me is none of my business, and I think once you have that freedom to just be, you can create whatever you want.
But we do live in a world which will fight against you, that will fight you on that pretty hard.
There is an E.E. Cummings quote, you know, that beautiful Cummings quote about how the hardest thing you’ll ever do is be yourself, basically, and to keep up, and never, never stopped fighting. I butchered that [laughs].
[Laughs]. No, not at all! I know exactly the quote you’re talking about. I think it’s important to be authentic, but it’s hard getting there, especially with social media which impairs that a little bit because you’re constantly being perceived in certain ways. But, that’s just my tangent.
[Laughs]. It was ours. It was our tangent.
[Laughs]. I wanted to ask you one more quick question—what was your earliest musical memory?
My dad playing the Rolling Stones, and The Beatles, and The Eagles, and the Who and, you know, the Doobie Brothers around the house. Yeah. Dancing around the living room with my dad to Mr Blue Sky.
A great song! I’m sure your parents are so proud of you for taking this step with your music after all this time.
They are, they really are. [Laughs].
I saw your brother is helping you with merchandise, too!
Yeah! I wanted to use people that I’ve worked with before and love, and the same with the videos.
It’s been amazing so far, and I can’t wait to see what’s next. Congratulations on everything! It was such a pleasure. I’ll need to buy a t-shirt or something!
[Grabs Rise Up merchandise hat] It’s Rise Up day! It’s Rise Up day.
Look at you! I love it. And we’ll get you the Pirate Song video, somehow, some way.
I think we will! I love it. Thank you so much, it’s been lovely.
‘Songs For You’ is now available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, YouTube, and Amazon Music.
Photos Credits: Jay Gilbert and Jonny Marlow