Kate Romano talks to Ben See & Dominic Stichbury about songwriting and the power of large group singing
'It all started because we had a little gap to fill’ admits Ben See, one half of singing duo Ben & Dom. ‘We were programming a choral concert for Daylight Music at Union Chapel in June 2019 and we suddenly realised that we needed another piece’. The two of them sang The Ways by Peter Broderick and David Allred, an unaccompanied song about kindness, friendship and unity with an underlying message about using voices for change. ‘In that moment, something just clicked’ said Dominic Stichbury. ‘It was to do with what it felt like to sing with another male voice and the sort of music we might perform…and that particular song about friendship set the tone for what we might do next.’
‘Ben & Dom’ is two men harmonising together, beautifully. There’s something reminiscent of the slick, yearning folk rock of Simon & Garfunkel, but Ben and Dom sing unaccompanied. ‘We want to see how far we can take the idea of two a cappella male voices’ said Dom. ‘Lockdown was useful; it gave us time to rehearse and start writing. Now I think about it, we did a lot very quickly…’ . Their debut album - His Head Lies Heavy - was released in March 2023, a collection of 11 songs about friendship, lineage and nature which grew from their close bond and shared love of harmony.
Ben describes their process of creating as being very much in line with the traditions of folk music. ‘We always start with our voices. We want to remember the music, so we keep it oral. It's delicate and intimate… all the things that are important about the performance can’t be written down. It's about what is happening in the room and what is working at the time’.
‘There isn’t really any repertoire for two male voices’ says Dom, ‘so we create our own. It's a mixture of things we have written and little gems that we have found and adapted’. He explains what he calls their ‘nerdy process’: ‘We do a lot of tinkering… the big question is how to make two voices sound rich, not empty. You’ve only ever got one interval of two notes to play with. We have good instincts and our level of discernment has certainly upped… we focus on the vocal quality of the two-note intervals as we move from lyric to lyric and by being so restrictive, we’ve been able to create a signature sound. On our recordings, we do experiment a bit with loops and more complex layering, but in live performance we like to maintain the simplicity of what we do.’
Ben and Dom have classically trained backgrounds in music and independent careers as choir leaders, performers, teachers, composers and curators. They met through their work with community choirs and both are passionate advocates for the infectious power of the human voice. The 20 strong male voice Chaps Choir features on a few tracks of Ben & Dom’s debut album. ‘A common heart beats through the years’ they sing, in a new setting of a 19th century ballad called ‘If Men Would Love Each Other’. It evokes the roots of male voice singing which lie in the 18th and 19th century religious and industrial revolution. Mining, chapel-going, poverty, patriotism and discipline all played a part in embedding male voice choirs into communities, where shoulder-to-shoulder teamwork translated into side-by-side emotional release in song. ‘The context and the style is important… we sing in a very gentle way, in a way that male singers are not usually represented today’, says Dom. ‘If we can be male vocal role models for a different type of singing, that's a good thing’.