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Ben Wilkins: Piano Pop, Beautifully Arranged

A musician from Montreal, Ben Wilkins plays piano-powered alternative pop that recalls Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright. It's a different sound for a city that has more recently embraced dramatic indie rock like that of Arcade Fire and Patrick Watson.

"I guess I don't really fit into that world," Wilkins tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "It's always quite challenging, when we're doing a show, to find someone to play with. I didn't really mean to completely stand out or be an oddity. I was just writing songs that were true to what I wanted to do and the music I like to listen to."

Wilkins says he listens to Burt Bacharach, Brian Wilson and Milton Nascimento, among others.

"I continue to go back to recordings made in the late 1960s and '70s for the warmth," Wilkins says. "There's a romance in that music that doesn't seem to die."

Unlike many singer-songwriters, Wilkins studied jazz and classical music at McGill College.

"Going to music school is a difficult thing," he says. "I remember people warning me about it before I got there. 'You love music, you love playing music. Are you sure you want to go to music school?' ... But I was able to use the degree and the experience there to learn a lot more about harmony and arranging."

It's Wilkins' knack for arrangements that stands out on his debut EP, Back of My Head, which features string quartets alongside piano, bass and drums. He recorded it at the studio of Sarah McLachlan producer Pierre Marchand, with the help of 24 other musicians.

"I wrote all the arrangements myself," Wilkins says. "As I got more comfortable incorporating orchestral instruments into my live show and recordings, the arranging started to become part of the songwriting. Sometimes, when I'm writing a song, I can already hear what the strings or brass is going to do."

One song that's getting attention is the EP's title track. The video, which you can watch here, features Wilkins playing the piano in a cafe, surrounded by people moving around in fast forward.

"The concept was from [directors] Xuan Pham and Adrien Le Grand," Wilkins says. "The way we actually did it was very difficult, and required a lot of practice. I was actually playing the song and singing along three times slower, and the whole video was sped up afterward."

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