Arts, Culture, and Entertainment

Your friend ben is making pop music relatable again

In a time of disconnection, the singer-songwriter harnesses the power of friendship, romance and nostalgia in his music

USC senior Ben Cho (artist name “your friend ben”) never planned on making pop music. An environmental studies major and childhood pianist, he had no prior experience in music production apart from the classical variety that comprised 12 years of his early life. While the exposure to piano taught him everything he knows about music, the absence of lyricism lacked personal connection to him, something that he later rediscovered at USC.

“I loved sad music, and I loved sad songs and I loved, like really really heavy music that I would listen to even when I was happy,” Cho said. Coming into USC, he wanted to explore the heartfelt, emotional songs that attracted him, so he picked up a songwriting minor in the Thornton School of Music.

During his initial years at USC, Cho would record piano ballads on his phone, produce them on Logic or Garageband and upload them to YouTube. Yet, despite the added lyricism of the ballads, there was still a disconnect between the music he was making and the music he sought to make.

“As much as I love sad music, and I love writing sad music, I myself am not a sad person,” Cho said, detailing this realization. “When you’re singing a song or when you’re listening to it and it actually sounds good to you, It’s such a different experience than just listening to someone perform a piano ballad. There’s that connection to the listener that I really really wanted.”

As his songs pivoted to take on a more fun, personal sound, friends and loved ones urged him to put his music up on streaming services. Thus, your friend ben was born.

Cho explained that his 2019 debut single “The look on our faces” wasn’t mastered, and that he actually learned to produce it while taking a few production classes for his minor, but he was confident in putting it on his platforms because of the accessibility of making the song – a perk of the now hugely influential bedroom pop genre.

“I feel like that’s what really inspired me at the beginning … because i was like “Oh, this music is accessible, I can make something that’s low stakes and minimal production.’” Although the artist said he still struggles to pinpoint a sound to compare his work to, it is most reminiscent of early Clairo, in true stripped-down, intimate bedroom pop nature.

Following his debut single “The look on our faces,” Cho released “Retrospect” in 2019, a breakup song inspired by his nostalgia for a relationship that only exists in a memory.

“It’s like my first real song,” said Cho, explaining that the production was more ramped up for this single.

The line in the song that is a callout to the title, “Some things you can’t forget / Now we’ve become a sad retrospect” directly relates to the notion of clinging to love lost, and the duality of emotions that ruminating on relationships evokes.

“Reminiscing and feeling nostalgic, [it] brings up a lot of polarizing emotions, like it’s so comforting and warming to think about these memories with someone, but it’s also so painful because what are they really for, if that person’s a stranger now?” Cho said.

If this phenomenon feels largely universal, it’s no coincidence – Cho’s entire mission as an artist is to convey universality and friendship through his music. As far as what Cho wants listeners to take away from his music, he wants the simplicity of his lyrics and the smoothness of his harmonies to feel comforting and friendly to the listener, hence the name “your friend ben.”

“I really want my music to feel like you’re just talking to your friend Ben, or you’re listening to your friend Ben about the stuff they’re going through … What I want them to take away is that I’m 100% going through what they’re going through.”

A small or independent artist himself, Cho wants to cultivate the intimacy of his songs with listeners, which is something he has experienced with small, independent artists as well.

Released this February, Cho’s recent single “Sneakers” takes a different approach to the common themes that he’s touched on in the past, largely inspired by the isolation of quarantine and longing for any kind of experience, be it platonic or romantic.

“I mean, for lack of a better word, I was just really lonely and I had never felt that lonely in my life … That song was not even about anybody in my life because that’s how, sort of, monotonous my life had become, because I’m not meeting people and a lot of us are not meeting people.”

The line “Wanna get all dressed, go out dancing / and ruin our sneakers that used to be white / ‘Cause in my head we do this every night” encompasses the heart of the song: a desire to dirty that pearly pair of white sneakers that have been gathering dust in our closets for the past year.

“I never knew that I could romanticize sneakers,” Cho said. “It represents that we lived our life that night, and that’s worth something.”

Unlike his two other singles, “Sneakers” describes fantasy that Cho thought could live not only in his mind, but in the minds of his listeners.

“I had never really put myself out of my body ... I was writing this song for everybody,” he said.

Cho addresses the importance of these sorts of stories for him during this isolating period. “I was somewhat embarrassed, like ‘oh my god, this is so cliche’ … but how I justify it is I genuinely feel that we need those cliches right now. I mean, we haven’t felt those things in a long time, and those cliches give us hope for what’s to come.”

In terms of inspiration, Cho’s musical influences are overwhelmingly female, crediting Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Amy Winehouse and Florence and the Machine for the self-awareness in their music and their viscerally poetic songwriting. He explained that male artists do not always unlock their vulnerabilities, a key to masterful songwriting.

“With toxic masculinity comes a lot of repression and a lot of surface level satisfaction that doesn’t really mean anything to me. I’ve always loved female perspectives on relationships and love and stuff like that,” Cho said.

‘s upcoming single, “Daydreams,” is set to release in the next two months, taking a different sonic approach as a dance track, but still discussing the deeply personal subject of remaining stuck on someone for too long.

“I wanna make a song that people can dance to and a song that I can dance to,” Cho said. “This is my sort of effort at trying to make a song that I listen to.”