Atlanta’s Ben Deignan, just barely into his 20s, has already spent a number of years refining his acoustic funk songwriting and smooth stage performance. He started playing music seven years ago, and it’s since been his main obsession. “It’s like when you’re a teenager and you get interested in something and get really into it for a week,” he says of how he first felt when he dove into songwriting. “Well, for me it was music, and I guess it’s just kept going since then. I started when I was 15 years old, and the interest just hasn’t faded since then.”
Originally from Griffin, Deignan moved to Atlanta in high school. Though his family has since moved to Macon—Deignan spent a little time there after high school—he says he’s eager to remain Atlanta-based. “I love Atlanta, and I love being here. There’s a place for us here, and it’s growing, but in the past couple of months we’ve received a lot of good feedback,” he says. “People are coming out more, I feel comfortable here, it’s a big city but I’m not overwhelmed and it’s got that Southern feel which is so necessary.”
Deignan treads the same musical paths as other acts eager to bring an acoustic, family-friendly shine to soulful funk. Maroon 5 and John Mayer set the stage for any number of artists to write songs naughty enough to get college girls in a flirty mood but unthreatening enough to make moms feel college-age again too, and balancing that tricky line is a specialty of Deignan, with songs like “Sexy Black Dress” and “Touch” favorites among his audiences. And if his music is a little derivative of past artists, well, Deignan’s OK with that.
“Honestly I just realized at an early age that my heroes were musicians, artists and singers, and that was before I was making music,” he says. “It’s one of those things that’s as simple as seeing something and wanting to do that, or be that. The aura of Stevie [Wonder] or Marvin [Gaye] is something that’s heroic to me, and was something I wanted to emulate as I grew older. It just seems like the right thing to do, and it’s a cliché to say it’s the thing I was meant to do, but it’s one of those feeling things. I’m happiest when I’m onstage.”
Looking for a Home
With a new album wrapped—recorded, mixed and mastered, but as of yet untitled—Deignan and his industry allies still need to decide what to do in terms of releasing the disc. Currently sending it to different major and independent labels to plumb the depths of industry interest, Deignan says the main thing he hopes to gain out of partnering with a label is promotional power.
“I guess basically we need distribution, but obviously we need someone putting money behind the promotion of the record,” he says. “That’s the thing, getting the right promotion and being put in the right situations to push the project forward. It’s important for me that the project is put in the right hands, touring etc., all the wonderful things that go into getting people to hear what you’ve made… Festivals are a great way to gain exposure for an artist at our level. Or getting put on the right tour, opening up for an artist who matches up well with the music. And I’m also aware that I don’t necessarily need a label to make that happen, but that’s what’s most important to me right now.”
Deignan says he’s happy with the way the 12-song album turned out. “It’s a good my-foot-in-the-door kind of record,” he says. “I don’t feel like it’ll be the landmark record of my career—and I hope to God and cross my fingers that I’ll have a long career! But at the same time I’m continuing to write and evolve and define myself as an artist.”
He first found attention when an A&R rep spotted Deignan performing at a Buckhead bar for his dad’s company party, and that encounter set the tone for Deignan’s well-connected career so far. “There’s two different routes, the industry route and the push-it-on-your-own route, and so far we’ve done the industry thing,” says Deignan, who at the age of 16 hooked up with vocal producer Jan Smith—an Atlanta pro who’s worked with Usher, Edwin McCain and Collective Soul, among others—and found a receptive audience at numerous industry functions and showcases like the Atlantis Music Conference.
Constant gigging is the goal as the record’s shopped, and Deignan has assembled a consistent backing band to help him deliver his soulful performance. Guitarist Josh Graff, bassist Chris Price and newly added drummer Lance Tilton have experience in regional rock and cover bands.
Deignan and his band have been wooing crowds in greater Atlanta and around the Southeast, and rather than struggling to make a name for himself at crowded downtown venues and traditional in-town rock clubs, Deignan has instead chosen a more under-the-radar route. Over the past several months, he’s played at restaurants in college towns and bars in the ’burbs.
While that approach has kept Deignan out of the spotlight in terms of the more indie-focused music media, it means he’s been able to take his music to crowds not frequently served by live music and more receptive to his radio-ready smooth rock. They seem less interested in the hot new edgy act. Deignan says his crowds are looking for a good time, and he’s eager to help them find it. Plans look to stay the same over the coming months, according to Deignan, unless that goal of a major-label deal comes through or he gets added to a national tour of a like-minded act.
“We set it up as a summer tour and we’ve gone to these cities,” he says, and adds that the current tour features songs from the unreleased album as well as newer tunes, “but we’ve continued to try to book throughout the fall just ’cause it’s going so well, and we don’t have an idea of it really stopping. It’s the situation of getting a deal and getting a great deal, but if that doesn’t happen we need to know that we can do this on our own and hoof it as long as people will book us and people will show up to hear us. That way if nothing ever comes through, we’ll be able to do it on our own.”