Finding Release

With technology increasingly affordable and talent omnipresent, Harvard students have been taking the plunge into the recording industry. These are three of their stories.

Al Bennett

To talk to Al Bennett '00, half of the band North House, you'd never suppose him to be the talented, impulsively bluesy singer/guitarist he is. Soft-spoken and polite, looking like an ad for Structure's fall line, he sits calmly at his first interview since the release of North House's debut album, Two Stories, which he co-produced with Becky Warren (Wellesley '00), the other half of North House.

Bennett's refined, somewhat subdued manner belies his powerful singing on the album, but that's only one of the surprising things about him. "My background musically?" he repeats, and laughs, "I played the French horn in high school for six years." Beyond this musical experience, and a few years in show choir, Bennett has had no other formal musical training; he taught himself how to play the guitar six years ago.

Clearly, then, Two Stories owes much of its musical success to Bennett's complete dedication to music. "That album was all eight classes for Al last year," says Bennett's roommate, Mike Abramson '00. "It took up so much of his time."

Bennett agrees that he and Warren were utterly consumed by their project. "Every spare minute, if not in the studio, was [spent] thinking about it. I'd be listening to a lecture, and in my mind I'd be, 'Okay, now what's the trumpet going to do?' The week prior [to getting the album finalized] we probably spent 50 or 60 hours in the studio."

North House was born when Bennett began working in the Quad Sound Studios, in the basement of Pforzheimer House (the former North House), a year and a half ago. "[Becky Warren] was a guitar player and songwriter, and she'd come down to the studio; I was just starting to work there. Basically, I just needed someone to play while I practiced recording. And so she did that, and we decided that our music was close enough together that we were committed enough to working on them, fusing them."

One of the hardest things about producing the album themselves, according to Bennett, was that they had "no experience with this at all. The hardest part was starting out with nothing. I mean, we had two guitars, and our two voices, and a studio." But North House did it all from beginning to end, writing by themselves the music and lyrics for every single one of the eleven tracks on Two Stories. "We had to conceive of what each of the arrangements was going to sound like," says Bennett. "[Like with one song,] Becky sat down and said, 'I hear strings,' so I had to sit down and arrange a string part, with a percussion and the violins, the cello, the bass. The biggest challenge was trying to hear all those different parts."

The maturity and complexity of the music itself, with instruments ranging from Bennett's roommate Rex Graff's '00 harmonica to Warren's fellow a cappella singers in The Wellesley Blue Notes, are echoed in the lyrics, whether they be written by Bennett or Warren. "Becky moves me lyrically in a way that very few musicians do," says Bennett; "even her words on the page are poetry to me. She's brilliant."

Bennett often finds himself writing about very personal experiences, as in one of his favorite songs, "Chinese Cabdriver." It concerns Bennett's frustrations with his "place, musically, in the world," but it also has a story attached to it.

"I went to China for a summer after freshman year, and this cabdriver was taking me--I was drunk, just got back from a disco--and the cabdriver took me around the city about four or five times, and I started to recognize things." Bennett grins and goes on, "He thought I was much more drunk than I was! And so I started trying to yell at him, but I couldn't for the life of me remember anything in Chinese to yell at him! So to get back at him when I got home I wrote a song about it."

Not everything, however, was as enjoyable as songwriting: Bennett acknowledges how taxing the project was. "Because it was just the two of us, it was sometimes hard to keep motivated. Especially in music, no one is providing you with any kind of 'We like your music' thing at any of the early stages. You just have to believe in it so much," he says firmly. "There were times when we took fairly long breaks from it. We just felt like it was just crap, you know. And that's where we helped each other a lot. When I got down she would say, 'Okay, let's get back in there,' and if she got down... it helped having the two of us to do it."

Even when the album was completely recorded, their work far from over. Besides making the album cover and booklet from scratch, Bennett and Warren had to deal with "getting all of [the music] mastered, dealing with the duplication company, coming up with the money, developing the website [www.northhouse.com]. It's very complicated," as Bennett said.

But Bennett and Warren were ultimately rewarded for their troubles. "One of the best parts of this whole thing [is] having something in your hand that can represent a time in your life," says Bennett of the album. "And that's a rare thing to have, a physical thing that captures my junior year. That CD, that's it." He pauses for a moment and gets quiet, contemplating it. "Pretty special thing, and I'll always have it." Then he laughs. "I'll always have several hundred in my closet, I'm sure!"

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