Wiltshire born Ben Cipolla spent his formative years frolicking in fields and busking on street corners to make his pocket money. Nowadays you're more likely to catch him on the BBC than you are busking but the field frolicking still remains. After visiting Naples for the first time last year, Cipolla connected with his Italian roots, propelling him to create his most personal work to date. It feels a bit like a coming of age story - think 'Call me by your name'... without the awkward peach scene. Both charming and introspective, F Word caught up with the singer before he shoots back to Italy to film his next music video...
Rachel Edwards: First of all, tell me about Enna!
Ben Cipolla: During my final days of university I had to hand in an album’s worth of material and this Sicilian project came about. Enna was a track that was written very last minute - when you hear the chorus it’s literally just one word on repeat because that was the sheer panic of being like ‘I need to hand this in!’ so I was just going round and round and I ended up with this riff.
R.E: Does the name Enna mean something?
B.C: It’s a place in Sicily! I’ve represented each province of Sicily throughout the album so there are nine tracks that represent each province and a bonus track for ten. So Enna is right in the centre and I’ve sort of pretended that it’s about this mysterious girl called Enna who lost her way in Sicily and is trying to find her way back home.
R.E: And you hear it building in the song! How would you say your Sicilian roots influence you when you’re making music?
B.C: That’s a really good question because I was born and raised in Wiltshire and I only went to Sicily three years ago so I guess my Sicilian roots have only awoken recently! Going over to see where my grandparents grew up, I was taken aback to see the conditions they lived in and to realise my own privilege. My grandad was one of nine and there was a ditch outside and no toilet inside. It was just incredible. That was a real centrepiece of the album. Just loads of songs about how lucky I am and where I come from…
R.E: How long were you there for?
B.C: I’ve been twice, I was there with my dad for a week and then my girlfriend for another week so I guess the first time we went out we sort of explored the West side of Sicily and then the East side. Before going to Sicily I had these songs on Sicily that didn’t really sound right because I wasn't really experiencing what it's like out there. But Enna was the only one that stuck from that first draft and the rest came flooding out when I went out there!
R.E: And both of your parents are musicians, so did you feel the pressure growing up to be a musician? Or was it very natural?
B.C: I really wanted to be a footballer to be honest! And then I think my gran was at a match and she was like ‘Ben you don’t put your foot into challenges’ and she sensed that I didn’t have that edge, that bite that you should have to be a footballer. So I actually moved schools and I began playing the guitar and busking…
Ben wears mohair jumper STYLIST'S OWN; belt & trousers VINTAGE
R.E: Busking is brave!
B.C: Yeah, my parents got me this Roland cube amp from Japan. It was really small and it cost around 100 quid and I’d sit on it by Polly Tea Rooms in Marlborough and just make my pounds! Back in the day people carried change and they’d chuck in a couple of quid and off they went.
R.E: (Laughs) That’s the best way because you develop a thick skin and you’re thrown in at the deep end!
B.C: Yeah it’s great - if it wasn’t for busking I wouldn’t have understood what it takes to keep going with something that you really enjoy. That’s what I love about it - you have no idea who’s going to pass by or come to watch you. And you either make someone’s day or you don’t! I’ve had so many times that security guards have approached me like ‘what are you doing? I don’t want you here’.
R.E: These things are character building. So what were your first influences music wise? The music that made you think ‘this is the sort of music I want to make’.
B.C: (Laughs) I listened to a lot of drum and bass!
R.E: Okay that’s the last thing I would have predicted!
B.C: My earliest memories are sitting in the back of the bus with my mate and because I have this amp, this amp does wonders. Not only did I busk but every Friday I’d get on the 2601 bus and we’d do these radio shows. We’d literally annoy everyone by playing ‘addicted to bass’!
R.E: Is addicted to bass the song that goes ‘totally addicted to bass… awoawoawa’
B.C: (Laughs) No it’s Ministry of Sound’s equivalent of ‘Now that’s what I call music’. Those were my earliest memories of thinking ‘wow music is great’. And then picking up the guitar I really got into Nick Drake who’s quite folk-y which is very different to drum and bass. I’m quite a percussive player so I guess that’s come though the folky element… So I’d say the bus journeys with drum and bass and listening to Nick Drake was my fusion of how I started really.
R.E: And your single ‘Beyond the Risk’ is a collaboration with your sister - is she a musician as well?
B.C: So my sister is a great singer but she’s a dentist! She’s great with the teeth. It’s funny because I’ve always tried to encourage her to sing.
R.E: She could sing to people while they’re getting their teeth checked! That would be unusual… and… nice?
B.C: (Laughs) Yeah she’s great! She’s finding the time to get back into singing now that she’s finishing her degree but it’s all been a family affair really. I’ve been very lucky to have a musical family but they’re not forcing me to do it. I just enjoy my side of music and they enjoy theirs. We get on and sing carols on Christmas Day… It’s fun, it’s really fun!
R.E: Do you sing in the shower?
R.E: Never? If you were going to sing a song in the shower what would it be? The crazy frog?
B.C: (Laughs) Yeah… Maybe 1973 James Blunt.
R.E: Oh my god I secretly love that song! I think your music has an ‘old soul’ feel to it! I was expecting an old soul before I met you… Would you say that you are an old soul?
B.C: I guess yeah. I’m always trying to pick my brains as to what my parents listened to. They didn’t listen to that much. This is the thing with musicians - it’s actually rare for me to sit down and listen to music because 90% of the time I’m either learning it for a gig or I need a break from it. I did delve into Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve always dabbled and taken artists with a pinch of salt. I’ve spent a bit of time with them then moved on to something else… It’s like I’ve been dating them except I haven’t.
R.E: (Laughs) Yeah, you take being a music player to a whole different level.
B.C: My ears don’t settle down.
Ben wears shoes STYLIST'S OWN; blouse & trousers VINTAGE
R.E: Do you have TikTok?
B.C: Yeah I accidentally found myself on it! I realised that if I try and really search for something, if I really want something to happen it’s not going to happen. Obviously I’d really love for things to happen internally when it comes to my music but if I really try to get signed or I try too hard with anything I lose the enjoyment of it. So TikTok has been a funny one because I stumbled across it and a couple of my videos went viral. That was weird… just seeing loads of followers increase and loads of numbers. It’s like a drug or a casino… you go in and you get addicted. You just have to make sure that you don’t get too obsessed with that side of things and you really enjoy just making music. You can do so many things that can distract you from doing what you really love. I’m never going to have the perfect balance of it but I try!
R.E: I think being aware of it is already ten steps ahead of a lot of people because I think a lot of people are confused or oblivious!
B.C: It’s the luck of the draw with getting noticed on it but as long as you’re having fun and you know that other people are having fun then that’s the simple analogy of it really.
R.E: I think if you see it as a fun casino that you can’t go bankrupt in!
B.C: (Laughs) Yeah that’s right. I’ve managed to find some amazing talent on it and I got some amazing work just from doing five second videos. You have to be present online. I enjoy that and I accept that. I’ve always been present on the street busking and that’s completely changed now because people don’t have cash in hand so now people are busking with cameras in their face on TikTok at the same time. You’ve got to always adapt constantly. No one knows what’s going to happen next in the music industry, you’ve always got to be ready to change. Ride that wave and don’t get disheartened if something that you really love changes slightly. It might come back around in ten years time!
R.E: Exactly, you just have to be open to it. You’re going to Sicily to make your music videos… Do you have a lot of creative control when it comes to making these?
B.C: I do, I have control of who I’d like to be involved with but then I give them the control. I like to give people their moment in being who they want to be and I’m just providing the music, they provide the visuals. I understand some artists really want to take control and I’ve been like that! When I have done that it hasn’t been as fun for me because I’ve been more stressed and the other person hasn’t said what they really wanted to say. I love collaborating with people who really express how they want it to happen and I trust them with all my heart. Whatever comes out was meant to be in that moment. But this has taken years, it’s not an easy thing to have in your head. It takes a lot of trust to get that relationship, and luckily my guitarist is now becoming a filmmaker which is a match made in heaven really. I’ve known him for so long and we’re going to Sicily together so I’ll let him do his thing with his film camera.
R.E: That’s going to be so nice. You can always tell when something is personal and raw rather than super polished. So today is national cheddar day. Tomorrow is Valentine's day. What’s the cheesiest thing you’ve ever done for love?
B.C: (Laughs) Oh god. When I was 12 or 13 I was the cheesiest boy ever. One of my first ever singles I wrote about the girl who I fancied at school called Polly Howard. I thought it was quite cool but it was actually quite cheesy. I did the artwork and I sold it in the playground for a quid. And then I put her initials secretly on the artwork so it said PH on it.
R.E: No that’s good! I remember back when I used MSN I fancied a guy called Liam and I realised that backwards his name was ‘mail’ so I put a little envelope in my MSN name…
B.C: (Laughs) That’s more cryptic than cheesy!
R.E: Would you say you’re a romantic person? Do you have plans with your girlfriend for Valentine's day?
B.C: No well she’s decided that tomorrow she’s taking me somewhere because I’m going to the airport in the evening so it’s going to be horrible being in Gatwick on my own so she’s taking the reins in the daytime tomorrow. Which I’m sure will be amazing because she’s amazing.
R.E: That’s sweet! And if you had to come up with a national day what would it be for?
B.C: National beanbagging day!
R.E: Oh my god I saw this wearable bean bag… so it’s attached to your back like a dinosaur and you can sit down wherever you are…
B.C: Well I love beanbags. I got one for Christmas, I think they’re great. You can do so much with beanbags, you can have a little race on them.
R.E: A race on them! I’ve never done this. This should be the next Olympic sport.
B.C: I was also a bean-bagger so I used to bag coffee beans. There’s a whole other side to bean bagging.
R.E: (Laughs) What song are you most excited to release?
B.C: Every song! There’s a song called Golden Hour which is coming out in March that’s about when I got a flight from Manchester to Catania. I got there and had one of the worst nights of sleep because I woke up at 6 in the morning to these Sicilian builders doing their thing. One guy was whistling and I recorded his whistle because it was actually really good. And I put it in this song. People call it the whistle song but it’s essentially about the moment in the day when it’s just bliss after being in such a horrendous morning of so much noise. I always feel so great when performing it because everyone who’s involved in the album is on it. Whether it be string quartet or just the whole band. I want it to get people in the mood for summer!
R.E: What’s your favourite season?
B.C: I don’t know, I think maybe Autumn actually. It’s that September heat you know?
R.E: I know it feels like it’s stolen time because it feels like you appreciate the sun so much more because you’re losing it… You wouldn’t agree with Green Day’s Wake Me Up When September ends?
B.C: (Laughs) No!
R.E: What would you say your best and worst trait is?
B.C: You’d have to ask my girlfriend really. My best trait is really making someone feel special on their birthday! Whether it be someone you haven’t seen in ages or someone you’re really close to. My bad trait is I find it hard to communicate properly when I’m speaking. I sort of crumble when I speak to my girlfriend or my parents… I don’t translate properly when I speak. But when I’m singing I’m alright.
R.E: Do you feel like singing is a space where you can truly express the things you can’t say?
B.C: Yeah I think I think too much when I speak but I don’t think too much when I sing. It’s a bit like a rapper, I've seen some documentaries from people from the Bronx and they find it difficult to have a conversation but when they’re rapping you can’t stop them - they know exactly what they want to say. There’s different layers of conversation! It's easier to talk about music than your traits.
R.E: I get that! So we did the shoot in the countryside today - does the countryside or the city inspire you more?
B.C: I’m equally as inspired by both. I always try to find a pocket of the day to make sure that I’m inspired by something. It doesn’t need to be to write or do anything musical. It can be looking at a tree or out of the window and just reminding myself that life is great!
R.E: Such a nice answer! What are you most excited about this year?
B.C: Releasing music again- it’s been four years! It’s going to feel amazing to put another album out! It’s taken a long time and I’ve loved every second. Doing it by yourself, friends and family have just been so supportive and I’m so glad I did it then because I just feel like everyone is just excited this year. I feel that this one is going to be a good one.
R.E: I think everyone feels that this year!
B.C: I have been patiently waiting, I could have done it in lockdown but I wasn’t feeling good. There’s always a cycle in whatever you do. You’re ripening or you’re harvesting and that’s a very different state of being. But what you’ve got to remember is that if you’re at this harvesting or ripening stage you make sure you don’t rot on the vine because it might be too late. Make sure you’re changing as well.
R.E: I want to end on this note! But lastly… what’s your favourite F Word?
R.E: Do you like it?
B.C: I don’t think I’ve ever had one… I’ve never really tried marzipan!
RIGHT Ben wears trousers MADM; shoes CONVERSE; knitwear STYLIST'S OWN