20 Questions: Ben + Vesper

Acclaimed indie-folk duo Ben + Vesper have collaborated with Sufjan Stevens, apprenticed as a midwife, and are currently building "a robot that gives you quarters when you're sad" . . .

Ben + Vesper are unlike most married couples that you meet.

First off, this New Jersey duo are in their own two-piece band that is simply called, well, Ben + Vesper. Sure, they make music together -- and often sing in perfect harmony -- but few couples could have amassed as diverse a musical background as they have, as their indie-pop songs tend to shift between styles often on the drop of a dime, incorporating backwoods banjo-picking, oboe-fueled interludes, or full-on girl-group backing vocals all without breaking a sweat. These elements are never forced: they happen naturally, and although these deviations are often unexpected, they are surprising in the best way possible.

No wonder the band is signed to the eclectic folk label Sounds Familyre, worked with likes of Sufjan Stevens, and as of this past January, released its second full-length album, Honors. Taking a break from touring, the band sat down to answer PopMatters' famed 20 Questions, with Ben revealing that Xanadu made him cry, that Vesper was a midwife apprentice at one point, and how one of the members is currently working on "a robot that gives you quarters when you're sad" . . .


1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Vesper: Neither; it was a skit by this couple, Charlie and Ruth Rose in Greensboro, NC, about a developmentally disabled man talking to a woman dying of a brain tumor. But I do cry fairly easily.

Ben: Xanadu.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Vesper: Jane Eyre. The "awkward, self-protecting reserve" facet on the same gem as the "bold uprightness" and "drawing-love-out-of-a-monster" facets. Not that Ben is a monster. Ha. I just always love the underdog and the ability for even monsters to be redeemed. I'm a mediator by nature.

Ben: Ahab from Moby Dick--the white whale can stand for a lot of things, for me it's the next song that I'm about to write.

3. The greatest album, ever?

Vesper: Carole King's Tapestry. And of course, U2's Joshua Tree. Oh, and Led Zeppelin IV. Oh, and . . .

Ben: Barrett by Syd Barrett .

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Vesper: Trek. Next Generation ONLY.

Ben: Star Wars any day of the week. Star Wars eats Star Trek for breakfast.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Vesper: Children's books illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger, Hilary Knight, or Esben Hanefelt Kristensen of Denmark. And the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz.

Ben: Silence and three o'clock sun through the curtains.

6. You're proud of this accomplishment, but why?

Vesper: I'm proud of Honors because it was the result of a forthright, collaborative vision among dear, talented friends. And because we managed to finish it in a week. I'm most proud of the album art that Ben and I did together; I think it might be my favorite illustration we've done together.

Ben: I'm proud of our band--for performing so well under such time constraints. I'm proud it's recorded on 2". I'm proud to have recorded with Dan Smith, Brian McTear, and Amy Morrissey.

7. You want to be remembered for . . . ?

Vesper: I want to be remembered as someone who lived and worked with complete consistency and passion; that even if I'm not the best singer/musician/artist that ever lived, at least I was honest and forthright in the way I lived. I'd also like to be known (and I'm working on this) as someone who welcomed people into her world and gave them a boost to find the creativity and spark of life that's inherent in every human being.

Ben: I want to be remembered for being an artist with the smallest ego ever made. So small no one could find it to put it in my coffin, which will be a cardboard pizza box.

8. Of those who've come before, the most inspirational are?

Vesper: My grandfather, who never spoke an ill word of my desire to be an artist, but helped me explore every facet of how I could sustain it for a living. He was the most steadfast man I ever knew. Ben's like that, too--and he also constantly surprises and inspires me in his tenderness, his teachability, his humility, his unique vision.

Ben: Leonardo da Vinci--he did a lot of things really really well. Also, Emerson, who saw value in the things everyone else was leaving behind for progress.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Vesper: I don't envy others' work. I just want to be a part of making it. And I've had that privilege.

Ben: Koyaanisqatsi.

10. Your hidden talents . . . ?

Vesper: Assisting in childbirth. I was an apprentice midwife at one time, and I love to help women (and couples) realize their strength. There is nothing like seeing that in a woman's eyes.

Ben: Swallowing fire.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

Vesper: My friend, honorary sister and singing partner, Seton Beckwith, wisely told me to listen to my instinct. I find that even though that sometimes gets me into trouble with others, in the long term it hardly ever steers me wrong.

Ben: My seventh grade art teacher, who told me to stop sticking pencils in the ceiling and get serious about making art or else spend the rest of your life doing something worthless.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Vesper: My BFA in Illustration at Parsons (bought), and my pre-Japanese Lowden guitar (bought). The pack of Luden's cough drops I (stole) in third grade was not worth it.

Ben: The best thing I ever stole was some trail-mix from the Whole Foods bulk container. Chris Weisman made me do it.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . . ?

Vesper: Let's not discuss the shameful subject of me and pants. Anthropologie, Ruche, and ModCloth could rock my world. Cydwoq shoes and boots. And I know I would feel great in Katrin LeBlond of Montreal. If only any of them would sponsor me so I could actually do more than drool over them.

Ben: Pants suck. But Levis if you have lots of money. Armani made handbags I thought?

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Vesper: I think I'd want to interview a man or woman who had been forgotten in a nursing home, or found themselves homeless, or something like that, and let them tell (and record) their stories over many lunches. And I'd probably pair that person with my friend Gary Moorehead, who might be the smartest person we know that does not hold any degrees of higher education.

Ben: Since I am deathly afraid of making up conversation with people I don't know, I would choose someone who I know will talk about themselves nonstop so I can just eat my food. I'm guessing that would be someone like Alex Trebek?

15. Time travel: where, when, and why?

Vesper: Eleventh-century Scottish highlands, where my ancestry lies. That's where I feel like I belong. I'd be a mead-brewing, lute-strumming, manuscript-illuminating midwife, probably. I don't know or care whether or not those existed. I would have found a way.

Ben: On a lounge chair on the moon, the beginning of time, so I could watch the Earth being formed with a cold beer in my hand.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation, or Prozac?

Vesper: Internalize. I basically go into a state of suspended animation and breathe, eat, drink, and sleep at a minimal level. I'm not kidding, and I do not recommend it.

Ben: Spa vacation in Greenland.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . . ?

Vesper: Chocolate. A wise friend once said to me that if you're going to have something sweet, it's not worth wasting your time on anything else.

Ben: Coffee and tea. Without it you might as well do nothing with your life.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Vesper: The two extremes: New York City (my native land) or the wild windiness of Scotland/Scandinavia (somewhere in the North Sea region). But I hope to never again live in a suburb.

Ben: Colorado, the land of my birth. Beyond the front range.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Vesper: Please develop a consistent ethic of life.

Ben: Please don't kill me.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Vesper: About 12 children's books, in addition to my paying-the-bills illustration work, and I hope to record another solo album this year.

Ben: A new film about Justin Canha, a side project with Chris Weisman, and a robot that gives you quarters when you're sad.

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