Everybody knows that one over-achiever who has done more by the time they’re 20 than most people manage to squeeze into a lifetime. Well, Ben Hawken is one of those over-achievers; a 19-year-old philosophy student and a bit of a BNOC, with an affinity for music production and a song on Spotify that has been streamed 500,000 times. His artist name is Albion, and the song is called ‘Hypnosis’ – but that’s far from his only artistic output. He wanted to go into music straight from school but, since his parents told him he had to get a degree first, he has completely immersed himself in the university’s music scene. So, where did it all begin and where is it all going? The Saint caught up with the guy behind Albion, to find out more about the guy making waves in St Andrews music.
Before talking about the music, there’s a stand-out question to be answered; a cliché in music interviews with artists who perform under stage names, but one which tends to say a lot about the artist. I asked Ben why he chose the name ‘Albion’, and the answer wasn’t what you might expect. “I watched a documentary about why Amazon was called Amazon, and the CEO said it was because it starts with an A so it always came up at the beginning of search results. So I picked the first word that started with an A that I could think of, which was a word for old Britain in a book I was reading: Albion.” It seems like he isn’t just messing around with the idea of music: Ben has thought this entire thing through, in order to maximise his chances of success.
Having said that, from what I’ve heard, his music doesn’t take much external manipulation to get listened to: it sells itself. While Ben himself doesn’t rate ‘Hypnosis’ as one of his best tracks, I added it to all the appropriate playlists when I first listened. The sound is understated, totally chilled out and perfect for summer. When I asked him whether he expected the response the song received, and continues to receive, he replied “Not at all.” He then went on to explain the song’s journey from a Soundcloud upload with ten listens, to a halfway-to-a-million hit. “I didn’t think it was particularly good but I still sent it to lots of promotion channels and to my surprise, my favourite channel had uploaded it and it had 14,000 plays. About two weeks later, the channel emailed asking if I wanted to sign the song to their indie label. I said yes, and the rest was history.”
But the success of ‘Hypnosis’ only speaks for a fraction of Ben’s talent. As well as a music producer, he’s a prominent DJ, performing for a variety of events as well as being in charge of music for GinSoc. I asked him about the feeling of DJing at events, to which he replied, “One of my favourite feelings in the world is playing a song that the crowd didn’t know they wanted, but as soon as they hear the first few words they go crazy. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does it feels like you’ve won the lottery.” He spoke about being influenced by Alt-J, Flume, M83 and KAYTRANADA, but shamelessly admitted that, when things are going badly during a set, he will drop Macklemore’s ‘Can’t Hold Us’ and the moment will be saved.
Despite his success, Ben still admits to suffering from massive pre-gig anxiety. I don’t often talk to people about the scary side of being a musician, but I can vouch that it’s often pretty terrifying – especially in such a small university town, where it’s practically impossible to expect a crowd without a few familiar faces. For DJs, the pressure is even greater, because not only are you expected to do a good job but your set list is the make-or-break of a great night. On performance anxiety, Ben says, “I am so petrified that I am going to mess up or people just won’t like the music I play. I spend hours ensuring that my set is perfect for the event and I still feel sick until I start playing.” When we think about the most vulnerable performers, we tend to think of one-person musicians with an acoustic guitar and a voice, but DJs have to count on an audience with a mile-long spectrum of music tastes, all expecting different things from the set list, and all demanding a party.
But despite this vulnerability and the difficulty of DJing, Ben seems to be doing pretty well. He performs at a variety of different events, and can adapt to whatever the audience, or the organiser, is looking for. As mentioned, he is in charge of music for GinSoc, the latest society to dominate the St Andrews social calendar. Just last week, they put on their Prohibition Dinner, a 1920s-themed night which obviously needed a very specific soundtrack. Ben designed and mixed an entire playlist of electro-swing/jazz music for the authentic Gatsby experience. He seems to have made a huge impact since arriving in September, especially in a town not short of talented student DJs. “There is always a ball or BPM event that I’m playing at. That’s the brilliant thing about St Andrews for DJs in particular: because the club scene is non-existent, the town relies on student DJs.” But this tiny town still has its flaws; as Ben says, there is very little electronic music compared to other student cities like Bristol or Manchester. “My goal for my time at St Andrews is to establish a proper dance music night which spans genres. I just want to see some bass face in town!”
Such a prolific musician must surely have some inspiration – so I asked Ben about where his sound originated. “I literally listen to everything under the sun: from dubstep to pop to country to orchestral to metal to electronica. I love music that pushes boundaries and makes you feel as if the artist has actively tried to make a different, unique sound. If I had to name people, Alt-J, Flume, Clint Mansell, M83, Frank Ocean, KAYTRANADA and Bon Iver – but I honestly spend most of my day listening to music so there are countless others.” This makes sense when you hear most of his music – but when he sent me the link to his Soundcloud, Ben seemed pretty surprised that the first song I complimented was his ‘Untitled Piano’, a piano piece with a very classical vibe. Classical piano isn’t exactly the first track you expect to find on the Soundcloud page of a DJ and music producer, but Ben told me that he spends a lot of his time listening to this kind of sound: “The melodies are so unique and interesting… there’s only so much four-chord pop music I can handle!”
Although, as mentioned, Ben wanted to go straight into music after college, he is making the most of St Andrews in terms of music production, and intends to collaborate with as many students musicians as possible before he graduates and Albion takes over the music world. “I don’t even necessarily want to be putting my own name on the song, I would love to produce songs for artists around town according to their vision and just help people get some professional-sounding music out there. I am a huge music lover and collaboration is my favourite part of music and the creation process.” It’s pretty evident, then, that it isn’t just about the success for Ben: he is in this for the music, and he’s poster-boy proof that you achieve more success in something when you’re passionate about it.
So, word of his musical reputation has spread quickly through these three streets. But while it may be easy to forget, life goes on outside the Bubble, and on a much bigger scale. And judging by the popularity of his Spotify artist page, it seems that Albion can adjust to this scale, too. With an average of 9,000 monthly listeners and over half a million streams, he is well on the way to a successful career. We already know that Ben wanted to go straight into music instead of completing a degree first, but now that he’s had a taste of being an in-demand DJ, what does the future look like for Albion? Well, since he’s here, he is taking every opportunity to work with the talented people of St Andrews, and while he’s booking gigs here, there and everywhere as a DJ, it sounds as though Ben has his sights set on music production; from what I gathered, that’s where his heart seems to lie. “While I’m still consistently surprised at how well my little song on Spotify has done, unfortunately it doesn’t really do my aims as a musician justice. It wasn’t a particularly stimulating song to produce, and I have a lot of music that I am significantly more proud of. I want to start writing tracks I am proud of, which have a unique sound, rather unlike ‘Hypnosis’.”
The music world is littered with people who pretend to be ‘in it for the music’, then three years later they’re performing at the huge, impersonal venues they once vowed never to book (*ahem*, The 1975, *ahem*). But, after talking to Ben Hawken, I can say with decent confidence that he appears to be one of the diamonds in the rough, who really does love the experience of being a music maker, no matter where it takes him and what he gets from it. He’s happy to produce other musicians’ work without receiving any of the credit, he is critical of the song which made him successful because it isn’t the standard he wants his creative output to be hitting, and he seems genuinely humbled by his success as a DJ in St Andrews so far. He’s a musical force to be reckoned with, and I think his reputation in St Andrews will be a precursor to his reputation in the big wide world of music, a few years down the line. To the music lovers of St Andrews and beyond: keep an eye on Albion!