Ben Cassorla is a man without a plan.
Cassorla, the Philadelphia-bred singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer, has not one, but two, albums on the precipice of release. And we use “precipice” because Cassorla — author of two EPs, utilizer of Aubrey Plaza’s talents on saxophone and touring player in myriad bands — won’t know for sure until at least the end of May.
“Tell your readers I’m open to ideas,” he says after we meet at Griffith Park for a round of batting practice.
This month, Cassorla has played the tease, posting one song at a time online, then taking it down, and emailing his followers: “What do you think I should do?”
The albums are titled “Plastic” and “Don’t Easily Shame,” and each has a distinctive backstory. Each has been collecting dust, so in the interest of “cleaning out the cupboard,” the songwriter says now is as good a time as any to send them into the world. “I figured so much music I’ve done is coming out this year — albums produced for Crash from Edward Sharpe & the Magentic Zeros, Skye Steele, songs with Madeline Spooner, Ali Barter, etc. — that I might as well add my own stuff to the heap,” he says.
The common denominator, he acknowledges, is that both albums are the work of guitar geek. “I think that’s the case,” he says. “Most of my professional life has revolved around playing guitar for people and recording awesome guitar sounds, so when I’m recording I’m really paying a lot of attention to the sound of the guitar.”
The similarity ends there, though. The songs on “Plastic,” which was first referenced back in 2013, are inspired by Cassorla’s continuing fascination with the music of the Plastic Ono Band. It’s a sonic homage, so to speak.
“I think I listened to that music for two solid years,” he says of the inspiration for “Plastic,” which was recorded in bassist Keith Karman’s basement several years ago. “Lyrics that were as simple and direct as possible and sounds that were as simple and direct as possible. It’s very consciously uncomplicated: OK, in this session there’s not gonna be any more than a certain number of tracks. Guitar, drums, bass and maybe organ if I feel ambitious. The amp that I used for that album? It shocked me every time. It’s my favorite amp in the world, but every time you use it, it shocks you. It’s the best sound ever, but it’s impossible to use.”
||| Stream: From “Plastic,” “Is There Something You Need” and “Like a Woman Is Supposed to Be Loved”
The second album has a rather bizarre history.
In 2015, Cassorla was invited to Macon, Ga., to perform a concert as part of its Music Ambassadors program. Cassorla, knowing he does not exactly have a headliner-sized following, responded, “I don’t now how this is going to help you.”
He spent two weeks there anyway — and in a feat masterminded by Tim Regan-Porter, ended up with free time at Muscadine Recording Studio with noted engineer Paul Hornsby. Cassorla had arrived with songs written, but, he says, “I didn’t really know what I was going to get when I got down there. I didn’t know who the musicians would be.
“I saw the whole thing as David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ — you know this weirdo from Britain who goes to Philadelphia to make an album with all these soul musicians. Not that I wanted to make that album, but there’s a parallel. I’m a super-weird indie-rock guy from L.A. who shows up in Macon, Ga., to make a record with an engineer who’s most famous for the Marshall Tucker Band and the Charlie Daniels Band. I think a lot of decisions I made made him think, ‘This guy is insane.’ Paul told me, ‘I don’t know what kind of music this is, but I like it. Does anybody listen to this kind of music?’”
The experience ended up transforming his songs. “Don’t Easily Shame” has background vocalists, a string quartet and horns. “One of the things that changed my vision was this singer I met named Jarquavis Sampson, who’s 20 and leads the choir at a Baptist church,” Cassorla says. “He’s a kid who’s never heard any of the albums I know and who’s never even been out of Macon. We got together and he burned the place down. I started reconfiguring songs because I wanted him to be a featured part of this.”
||| Stream: From “Don’t Easily Shame,” “What Kind of Man Am I” and “I’m on Fire for You Tonight”
So what does Cassorla do with an album that cost you virtually nothing to make? Maybe release it in a pack of baseball cards, one song at time?
“Yeah, good idea” he laughs, “with really bad bubble gum.”
On a serious note, Cassorla knows that as an indie artist — and in baseball terms, a free agent — the future is a blank slate. “There’s no right way to release music, and maybe that’s a good thing, because otherwise it would squelch creativity,” he says. “The fact that nobody knows what songs are going to be hit songs, what albums are going to b hit albums, what artists are gonna connect with people, is the beauty of being in an art form. If there was a clear-cut way that this works, then we’d all be bankers.
“Tell your readers I’m open to ideas.”