The other Saturday night, I took myself out to Noch Besser Leben to watch Aliya Thon play. At that time, I did not know her well, and I did not know her music. In fact, she has not yet released music. She is a new artist, so I had very few preconceptions as to what sort of music she would be performing.
I enjoy walking in blind like this sometimes. I like to be surprised.
I took a seat by the bar. Aliya Thon was on stage and folded inside an oversized flannel shirt and baseball cap, her eyes skipping around the room as she shared nervous laughter with the friends who had come out to watch. A stunning girl with blonde hair and elfin features, only 20 years old. As she holds her acoustic guitar and waits for the cue to begin, the lights have not yet dimmed for her yet.
There is a curious weight of pure potential in situations like this. In the final moments before an unknown artist begins to perform, they really could be anyone or become anyone. Aliya Thon could be the hardest rocker or a classical composer or even a mime. Until that first line is sung, until that first chord is played, the tension that holds people inside the room – what keeps a stranger waiting for a kid to start playing – is the anticipation that something is about to change.
An artist that is presently undefined is about to reveal the nature and depth of her skill and talent, and when that change comes, there is a risk of not enjoying what might come out, or feeling indifferent. But what keeps people coming upstairs to small gigs like this is the possibility that they just might discover music that they adore.
Aliya Thon begins to play.
If I was to describe your songwriting style, I would call you a storyteller. Your songs are like stories from your own life.
How do you feel when you‚Äôre performing such personal material in public, or in front of your friends?
Aliya: I feel like there is a lot of tension in the room. Sometimes it can be hard for me to hold that tension because my music is usually very quiet. It feels like people are really focused on what I‚Äôm doing and reflecting on every little thing. They‚Äôre not just having a good time and dancing, so I try to think of something in my own life, and feel that emotion when I play, and give it to the people like that.
Do you feel this tension because you‚Äôre revealing a side of yourself to people that you would not normally share?
Aliya: When you decide to write songs, you decide to be honest and to share parts of your personal life. It makes you vulnerable, but I think people are respectful of it. I was influenced a lot by the music school I went to. It was strict and technical so I do judge myself a lot. I just want it to be perfect, although I really want to be relaxed on stage. I‚Äôm learning that people only enjoy it if you do, so I guess I need to think less and feel more.
Why did you choose to perform under the name Aliya Thon, and not under your real name?
Aliya: I think it‚Äôs about creating a person for the public that is you in some kind of way. However, I want to keep something for myself. I want to have my private life.
I am impressed by the maturity in Aliya‚Äôs music. For someone who has only been performing live for one year, she is an assured performer. She is confident and well-rehearsed, and that is despite these being quiet and intimate songs that demand silence and complete attention from the audience.
There is a risk in playing this kind of music that mistakes will hang in the air and be known, but for Aliya those mistakes rarely come. She is technically sound and has marvellous pitch.
Her guitar playing is notable. She‚Äôs a finger-picker and her chord progressions are more influenced by classical guitar playing; however, her songs are straight indie-folk. Later, she tells me that she grew up listening to Ben Howard – at her parents’ house in the forests of Thuringia – and Ben Howard is a much closer approximation of Aliya‚Äôs style than the whispers of by-gone times that I hear in her.
I hear the sassy vocal fray of Jane Birkin. I hear a raconteur like Joan Baez.
It‚Äôs her voice that makes Aliya Thon stand apart from the average singer-songwriter. She sounds like buttermilk, and it‚Äôs a pleasure to listen to. Her lyrics read like open wounds, but those words aired by this voice that is so beautifully feminine and strong, mean those weaknesses that she sings of take on a kind of armour, and the strength of capability:
Drop me in the ocean,
Let me fall,
Don‚Äôt drive us home again
Let me sink, and drive far
Let me sink, and drive far
Aliya: I wrote it in 2014. It‚Äôs one of my oldest songs, ‚ÄúDrop Me.” It‚Äôs only since I‚Äôve been playing live that I‚Äôve realised which songs are the most important to me. The five songs that will be on the EP. They stayed in my set the whole time.
If you had songs in 2014, then why did you wait until 2017 to start playing live?
Aliya: I always had the motivation to do something meaningful and have an impact on other people, but that motivation got stronger once I had the ability and the capacity. I come from a small town and it was last year that I moved to Weimar. There is lots of music stuff happening there. The hardest part is just starting. Booking the first gig was the hardest thing ever, but you have to be the first person to believe in yourself. Other people will only believe in you if you believe in yourself. I wouldn‚Äôt have thought that all this that I‚Äôve experienced over the last year was possible – but once I started, it was just so easy.
I was surprised when Aliya recognised me. I think I sold her a pizza one time. She slapped away my handshake and gave me a hug – and introduced me to her friend Ben who, in that moment, was playfully peeling the baseball cap from Aliya‚Äôs head. He was wearing a very big smile. I realise now that I‚Äôve never seen this man not smiling.
I introduced myself to Ben – I‚Äôm a music journalist – and Ben introduced himself to me in humble terms, and just told me he comes from Birmingham. Ten minutes later, Ben from Birmingham had taken to the stage and was playing some of the most incredible one-man R&B acoustic jams that I‚Äôve had the pleasure of witnessing live.
His name is Benjamin Yellowitz.
There is so much soul in the way that Ben performs. It‚Äôs a different kind of soul to that of Aliya Thon. When Aliya plays, she goes inside herself and the audience follow her in and down. When Benjamin Yellowitz plays, that remarkable smile of his comes out and takes over the energy in the room. The boy performs.
He takes up all of the allotted physical space. He has the command of someone who has played on a thousand stages, and the technical mastery of his instrument to bring every possible percussive and melodic sound out of that beat-up acoustic guitar – and he looks like he has so much fun doing it. Like an uncaged desire set upon a live audience, Ben dances and laughs in an arena where many choke and die from nerves.
Benjamin: I don’t consider myself a guitarist. I don‚Äôt consider myself a drummer, or a singer. I‚Äôm just a musician.
Sure, but you must understand that when a man with an acoustic guitar gets on stage, there are certain preconceptions for what will happen next. Do you enjoy having that element of surprise?
Benjamin: Well, the song I always sing first, “Begin to Grieve,” it starts off in a really cliche way for that exact reason, just falsetto like ooo-oo-ooo-ooo-oooh. That‚Äôs just so typically acoustic, and gentle, and English, but then it kicks in.
Is the way that you play a reaction to the “acoustic songwriter” stereotypes?
Benjamin: I definitely wanted to move away from that. I originally performed under my actual name, Ben Williams, and that‚Äôs when I changed to Benjamin Yellowitz. I just thought: let‚Äôs stop doing the singer-songwriter thing. I do really love listening to solo acts, but R&B and groove and soul are my main influences, and because these are the things I‚Äôm most interested in, I wanted to try to incorporate them into a singer-songwriter project.
Benjamin: It‚Äôs actually my grandfather‚Äôs last name. His family came over from Poland.
Ben is 26 years old, and pop-star handsome with his brown hair in an undercut. He makes music that I‚Äôd describe as R&B stripped to the bones. Groove is central to his songwriting, and Ben‚Äôs competency in acoustic guitar percussion is key to that.
It‚Äôs an unorthodox skill.
He tells me that he developed this way of playing so that he could closer imitate the electronic artists he obsessed over in his late-teens, like James Blake. Indeed, at Noch Besser Leben he did cover Blake‚Äôs “The Wilhelm Scream.” However, in Ben‚Äôs own compositions, I hear this percussive style applied more to rhythms that closer ape Ne-Yo‚Äôs ‚ÄúSexy Love” and Keyshia Cole‚Äôs ‚ÄúLast Night.”
Though Ben‚Äôs love for mid-‚Äė00s ‚ÄúPure R&B” compilations is undeniable, there does remain an honest Englishness that permeates through in the lyric writing, and dilutes the American influences that are in Ben‚Äôs singing – R. Kelly’s¬† beating sexuality, Lauryn Hill’s ear for big melody – just enough to feel really fresh. From “Erase You:”
Fellow friends, where have you gone?
I‚Äôve spent too much time in love
That I‚Äôve forgotten how to breathe
Without a pair of hands for ribs
As I explore this brand new world
I like muscles and pretty birds
We fight upon my brand new sheets
I make love through gritted teeth
When I go digging to find those indie songs that he left behind as Ben Williams, I find that what has really developed over the years is Yellowitz‚Äôs appreciation for dynamics and sonic space, and the confidence that he now has to not just fill that space habitually, to let the guitar drop out and to let silence come and bring a different colour of drama. The contrast between his recent cover of Cindy Lauper‚Äôs “Girls just Wanna Have Fun” and teenage Ben‚Äôs original, ‚ÄúShelter,” being the clearest example of where he‚Äôs come from and where he‚Äôs going.
I don‚Äôt know if you noticed, but there was one girl who danced through the entire set.
Benjamin: Yeah! Yeah yeah yeah! She really gave me so much energy.
I asked her afterwards to describe your performance in one word. She said your music was ‚Äúinspirational.‚ÄĚ
Benjamin: That‚Äôs amazing!
How does that feel for you in the moment, to see people like that so affected by the music that you‚Äôre making?
Benjamin: This is one thing I find playing in Germany, that people are very respectful of live music but they also give the energy back. I‚Äôm never scared of playing a German gig.
Aliya: She also plays music, but right now just for herself. She told me that watching the gig last night made her want to now start playing gigs.
Benjamin: That‚Äôs so cool.
I invite Aliya and Ben for a short interview the next day. They‚Äôre close friends with each other and have crossed paths several times since meeting last year in Weimar, at one of Aliya‚Äôs first ever gigs. Now they have this short tour through Saxony together.
The distance between journalist and muse becomes watered down as the interview bleeds on, and unchecked, into the mid-afternoon. I talk about the novel that I‚Äôve been working on, and the series of hard falls that brought me to Leipzig. Ben tells me that, after a hard fall of his own a few months ago, he also considered moving to Leipzig – it‚Äôs affordable, and it‚Äôs hard to get by in London as a musician.
The most surprising revelation, however, is that Aliya is a Lindenau neighbour of mine, and lives with a mutual friend, my tandem partner, no less – a girl who very occasionally appears in my life and promises to make my German better but, like a true meme, we never ever get around to that.
When a carshare arrives to take my new friends south, there is space in the back seat and Ben invites me to join them. I think twice because I have laundry in the washing machine. I think three times because I‚Äôm a fan and I want to watch these guys play again. I think four times because I‚Äôm a journalist, and if I don‚Äôt write the stories that Aliya Thon and Benjamin Yellowitz have to tell, then I don‚Äôt know who will. I think five times as a friend, who‚Äôs having a good time and just wants to hang out some more.
I stop thinking about my laundry and get in the car. Aliya laughs.
‚ÄúBen, I think we just replaced Adam with another Adam,‚ÄĚ she says.
We will continue this story in Part Two.
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Cover shot: Aliya Thon, ¬© Stella Dohrmann