Peninsula singer-songwriter-pianist Ben Dunnill admits that, as an admirer of pop and glam-rock superstar David Bowie, he was late to the party.
But his latter-day adulation of the influential performer, who passed in 2016, provides the inspiration for his latest self-produced single release.
Song For Bowie is due to drop on most streaming platforms (including Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube) on Saturday, Jan. 8 – which would have been Bowie’s 75th birthday.
A subtle meditation on Bowie’s presence and enduring influence in the world of music, it features significant contributions from guitarist Ayla Tesler-Mabe (of Vancouver band Ludic), co-producer Nathan Tapsas (who also played guitar parts), drummer Paul Fader and saxophonist Dave Say – and even Bowie himself (via some sampled interview sound bites).
Full of subtle musical allusions to the glam-rock era of the 1970s and ’80s – and some of the genre-crossing, jazzy harmonic underpinning that Bowie incorporated into his work – Song For Bowie is also a reflection of the maturing assurance of Dunnill as an evocative and creative lyricist and composer and a compelling vocal performer.
In it he makes just enough of a nod to Bowie’s singular vocal patterns without descending into impressionism or parody, and while still asserting his own identity as a performer.
Still it was difficult not to fall into a Bowie-like delivery, he said.
“It was hard to sing the song any other way,’ he acknowledged. “When I first performed it, I admit I did really go over the top.”
But Dunnill – who is gearing up for an increased profile in 2022 with an ambitious program in which he plans to produce and release a new song every six weeks – said he decided to tone that down so that his tribute did not become a one-off anomaly.
“I wanted there to be some cohesion between all the songs,” said Dunnill, well known in White Rock from his residency (COVID permitting) as pianist/vocalist at the Bin 101 wine bar.
The pathway of ideas that led him to Song For Bowie developed slowly, but organically, Dunnill noted.
“I knew of Bowie before he passed, but I didn’t realize the magnitude of his work,” he said. “But when Rolling Stone came out with a magazine tribute, I found it very interesting and started digging deeper into his catalogue.
“When I started listening to songs like Life On Mars I started to realize that Bowie could encompass everything from French cabaret-style chansons to rock and roll,” he said. “It blew my mind – I fell in love with Bowie’s artistry.”
The form of his tribute was suggested by one of Bowie’s own compositions from the album Hunky Dory (1971).
“I heard his Song For Bob Dylan – and also his Andy Warhol – and thought it would be cool if I could write a song for Bowie the same way. I started writing about his life and how I thought he might have been as a child.”
Dunnill’s lyrics refers to a “lone child (who) plays with UFOs…like an eagle near a group of crows.”
And using Bowie’s speaking voice – a late addition in the mix – was inspired by a spoken-word clip from Charlie Chaplin used in Paolo Nutini’s Iron Sky, Dunnill said.
But there’s nothing like a deadline to help focus a project, Dunnill said – and it was his realization, in September, that he had barely three months until Bowie’s birthday, that motivated him to take Song For Bowie from concept to finished product.
Fortunately, he was able to enlist the aid of some great session players – including Tesler-Mabe (“in addition to being one of Vancouver’s top up-and-coming musicians, she has a vast knowledge of ’70s music and the ‘glam’ era”) and noted Vancouver jazz saxophonist Say who provides a brief, but telling, outro to the piece.
And Dunnill himself – with his roots in jazz and musical theatre (he was a one-time participant in Surrey Youth Theatre Company productions) – said he finds resonance in Bowie’s work that is likely to continue to influence his own composition and performance.
The ongoing pandemic has derailed many musical plans, Dunnill admits, even though he has managed to perform a few shows under prevailing restrictions, and also done some piano teaching.
But he said he is glad it has forced him to concentrate more on recording – and refining his musical identity in the process.
“This (coming) year is when I plan to focus on really putting myself out there,” he said.
To pre-save Dunnill’s Song For Bowie on Spotify, visit https://show.co/j3YNn3e