On the 2,668 mile Pacific Crest Trail, they called him shredder. The name came from local musician Ben Phan‘s ability to masterfully pluck the strings of the guitarlele he had on his back throughout the trek. Phan made the five-month trek, from the Mexican border into Canada, in 2014. A transformation took place, songs were born out of the arduous journey and now Phan and his band, the Soul Symphony, are preparing for a release party for their first original album, Dreams in Modern Folk.
“There’s a lot of bullshit in the music industry when it comes to wanting popularity versus being authentic, which I struggled with,” he says. “The hike really helped me get clear about why I wanted to play music and the role it has in my life.”
On the trail, he was alone with a lot of time to think, to examine his life, to connect with nature. The words and music flowed. “The challenge, and having to face a lot of my stuff, and really being alone out there, made it clear the direction I wanted to take musically,” he says.
Originally from the Washington, D.C. area Phan is a mostly self-taught musician. He spent a year at Virginia Commonwealth University studying jazz and classical guitar. He’s also studied and played jazz and folk, was in a successful Afrobeat band and has been described as “Django Reinhardt meets Ray Lamontagne.” In the local music scene, he says it’s his tight instrumentals that set him apart.
“There are some, not a lot, of singer-songwriters who can play guitar like I can,” says Phan. “I’m really combining a lot of instrumental stuff with … good songwriting.”
On Dreams in Modern Folk, Phan sings and plays guitar with local musicians Lyndsay Pruett (violin), Franklin Keel (cello), Ryan Kijanka (upright bass) and Ryan Sargent (drums). He describes the album as having a Gypsy-jazz influence with bluegrass mixed in.
“I’ve written intimate tunes that are accessible, which people can connect with, but there’s also this improvisation that happens kind of like a jazz band with a lot of free flowing stuff,” Phan says. To add to the natural feel of the music, the album — tracked at Studio 432 in West Asheville — was recorded in 432 hertz, a lower frequency that some people say resonates better with the Earth.
“It gives it a different sound that I really like,” Phan says. “I’m really excited to grow as an artist, focusing on original music, and to be playing with a lot of great musicians. Being a musician, there’s a lot of different avenues I could go. I could have more gigs playing in other people’s bands, or playing more jazz.”
But, he says, “I’m pretty clear that my focus is on my original songwriting and performance, which takes a long time to build.”