Saturday, August 18, 2007

Ben's Brother: He named his band after his older sibling

Sitting at a corner table of a London restaurant and looking less like the beta male he professes to be and rather its alpha counterpart – he is broad-shouldered and rugged, his studied dress sense part bohemian, part high fashion – Jamie Hartman frowns silently over his sausage and mash, deep in thought.

"A lot of my songs are about stoicism in the face of insecurity," he decides with an air of solemnity. "I spent much of my twenties living the songs that now make up my first album. It was an eventful and," he considers, "difficult time. Why? Oh, all sorts of reasons. Music was my way of dealing with it all. Am I well adjusted today? Let's just say I'm as well adjusted as any singer-songwriter can ever hope to be..."

Hartman is a 33-year-old who is Ben's Brother, his band-name a wry, deferential nod to the fact that he spent so much of his life living in the shadow of Ben, his older sibling. During their teenage years, Ben was first the shining student, then the prodigious sportsman who might just go on to become a professional cricketer. Ultimately, he turned to advertising, where he now earns a healthy crust as a copywriter in one of London's bigger advertising firms.

"I suppose I did live in his shadow, yes," Hartman says now, "but I never hated him, which was fortunate because I could have ended up very bitter indeed. Our family has always been really close and also big on gallows humour, which means I've been able to laugh most things off."

That said, he still had a barrel-load of insecurity to deal with, which he would ultimately pour not just into his music but also into a manuscript of 300 angst-filled pages.

"Basically, it was a form of self-therapy," he says. "It was never meant to become a book or anything, just an opportunity for me to vent. I showed a few people what I'd written and, yes, Benny was one of them. He had several questions afterwards, that's for sure. But it was good for me to clear the air. I had to do it."

Beta Male Fairytales, his debut album, has allowed him more opportunity for venting, but mercifully this doesn't render the record a miserable 40 minutes of crotchety complaint. Rather, it's an uncommonly lovely thing of ballads full of ache, dashed hopes and cautious optimism, all delivered with the serrated rasp of a young Rod Stewart.

And although he may occasionally seem beaten and dejected (the track "I Am Who I Am" sounds like it was delivered on his knees), Hartman in the flesh doesn't give off the whiff of someone perennially woeful. Instead, he has an aura of quiet confidence about him, as if he has finally found peace: with himself, his brother, and the world at large. "Well, mostly I have," he says, grinning self-mockingly. "But let's not get too carried away. You never know, I could relapse."

Born into a good, middle-class family (his father was a successful lawyer), Hartman first started writing songs on the piano as a teenager. At 18, he went to Leeds University to study English and philosophy – or, as he puts it today, "the art of eloquent bullshit" – then returned to London and spent much of the next decade in and around Portobello Road, where he dated older women – "who smoked and taught me things" – played acoustic guitar in local bars and busked on Saturday afternoons for the tourists.

"I did get a few day jobs along the way," he says. "I worked in a bank for three months but ended up very nearly drinking myself to death, so I got out quick and learned instead to get by on whatever I could."

In his early twenties, he decamped to New York where he spent months living on people's floors and securing free studio-time in exchange for helping to write advertising jingles.

"That can actually be a pretty lucrative career, but I decided I didn't want to make $200,000 a year writing about Dr Pepper," he says. "I just wanted to be a singer. Trouble was, I was never quite good enough, at least not then. When I came back to the UK and heard [Radiohead's] The Bends, I realised that I wouldn't be good enough for several years to come."

Nevertheless, he continued to hone, and develop, his craft, and after much effort began to trade as a songwriter-for-hire. He has now written songs for, among others, Natalie Imbruglia and Lemar, while his austere ballad "All Time Love" for Will Young reached No3 in the charts in 2005.

"Was it satisfying?" he ponders now. "Ultimately, no, I suppose it wasn't, if only because I desperately wanted to be singing the songs myself. But it was a great feeling to have tracks riding high in the charts. And, of course, it gave me a certain position of power where, finally, I could perhaps start making a name for myself."

Last year, he signed a deal with KT Tunstall's label Relentless, assembled a band around him so that he wouldn't feel too alone, and began to create Beta Male Fairytales. The album's most poignant moment comes in "Bad Dream", a beautifully claustrophobic song in which he sings, "I'm having a breakdown... tell me that you'll never leave me." Another relationship gone bad, presumably?

"Actually, no," he corrects. "It's about my mother. A week after I landed my deal, I was in Paris celebrating with friends when I got a call from my brother. The first thing he said to me was, 'Are you sitting down? I've got some bad news.'"

Their mother, he explains haltingly, had been involved in a car accident when two illegal immigrants ploughed a stolen car into hers at 80mph. The steering column pierced her leg, and it took ambulancemen an hour to cut her out of the wreckage. "It brought me back down to earth like you wouldn't believe," he says. "I can't believe she survived it, but she did. She was lucky."

Things since then, however, have started going right for Hartman, at last. He is, he says, happier than he has been for a long time, and though he pines to be in a relationship again if only so he can "remember what being in love feels like", much of his headspace these days is taken up with the spectre of public acceptance, of which he feels a growing concern. But then the man has spent the better part of three decades worrying about something or other. He isn't about to stop now.

"I check my rating on iTunes almost every day," he says, blushing. "Currently, the album is rated four and a half out of five, and I'm happy with that. If it drops below four, I'll be devastated, and it'll make approaching the second album hell." He brightens momentarily. "That said, I've already got the title for it. I'm going to call it The Difficult Second Album because, believe me, it will be."

'Beta Male Fairytales' is out now on Relentless; the single 'Let Me Out' is out on 13 August



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