Somewhere between Mexico and Canada, during five months of hiking and ruminating along the Pacific Crest Trail, Asheville-based artist Ben Phan completed the transition from casual guitarist to full-time musician — at least mentally.
“After I got off the trail, I started practicing three to five hours a day, doing a couple hours of trying to book gigs and [sending] email after email,” he says. Phan also began writing original songs and eventually formed a band, the Soul Symphony, which includes noted local instrumentalists Molly Barret (fiddle), Mattick Frick (drums), Ryan Kijanka (upright bass) and Franklin Keel (cello).
While the full group only comes together for key performances, their debut, Dreams in Modern Folk, has provided a basis for Phan to perform solo in and beyond Asheville. Fans can preview the Soul Symphony’s forthcoming album with Phan, titled Fear Is the Teacher, when the band plays it in its entirety at The Grey Eagle on Sunday, Dec. 11.
“A lot of the songs are actually pretty upbeat,” Phan says, citing a bluegrass-influenced tune called “Fiddler.” He wrote the song about a trail mate who spoke frequently and eagerly of learning to play the fiddle. “I think — I hope, anyway — that it has a universal spin on it, where the idea is that we can be happy and follow our dreams,” he says.
Still, Phan’s proclivity for bare-all lyrics promises long, inward glances, too. “The Only One,” a single that’s already out, for instance, addresses a recent romantic relationship that ended. And the album’s opener, “Beast of Desire,” deals with Phan’s continuing efforts, after curbing addiction in 2012, to restore healthy forms and levels of pleasure in his life. The prevailing theme, he explains, is that each song stems from an experience he fully gave himself to — in some cases, despite fear, doubt and depression, as the album title implies.
It’s a lesson Phan continues to live as he prepares to crowdfund, record and release his second full-length work.
“In the beginning, I felt like I didn’t have anything to lose,” he says, calling the early days an “experimental adventure.” But with regional success, “I kind of feel this pressure that I need to keep going and please people and take the next steps — and what if things go wrong? … It’s just a constant cycle, I think, of being human and having self-doubt and continuing.”
Part of Phan’s apprehension stems from administering his first Kickstarter campaign, which will go live on Dec. 11, concurrent with his Grey Eagle show. “It’s really testing the fan base,” he says, “and it’s a lot of money I’m asking for.”
Should his supporters come through with the $11,440, however, Phan and his bandmates will record with producer Matt Williams at Williams’ Weaverville-based studio The Eagle Room. The goal is to preserve the Soul Symphony’s chemistry by recording the whole band live before adding solos, harmonies and other edits. A guest trumpeter and others will contribute, and Phan plans to be involved in mixing and editing alongside Williams.
The idea behind the full-band show (plus guest vocalists Tierney Cody, Millie Palmer and Danielle Dror) on the crowdfunding launch date, is that “I want to start with a bang and give people a chance to hear what the album is,” Phan says. “My goal is if you come to that show, you’ll hear the tunes, hopefully like them, and be like ‘Yeah, I want to hear that on a record.’ And then those people will tell other people, and it can grow from there.”
Financial contributors have several interactive perks to consider. For instance, supporters can get a private video link, either to Phan singing a chosen cover song or answering three personal questions posed by the donor. Backstage passes and solo house concerts are up for grabs, as well as a video “thank you” in any accent or impersonation.
“I didn’t want to just be like, ‘OK, here’s a sticker and a T-shirt,’” he says. “I wanted people to connect.”
At the suggestion of a friend, Phan has also invited backers to submit individual words, which he’ll cobble into a lyrical mosaic. Whether the resulting song ends up on the album or not will depend on how forgiving fans are with their selections, since there’s no limit on syllables.
“It may be a bonus track or a hidden track,” he says. “We’re going to have to see about that.”
WHO: Ben Phan and the Soul Symphony with Hannah Kaminer
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Sunday, Dec. 11, 7 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show