Though Benjamin Wagner has no idea what he’ll face in Waterloo Saturday, he knows he’ll be coming full circle.
When Wagner, a singer-songwriter who was born in Iowa and now lives in New York City, performs at Smitty’s Bar, he’ll fulfill his end of a bargain made months ago. Looking for some funding for his most recent album, “Heartland,” Wagner offered rewards on his Web site — signed CDs, T-shirts, assorted tchotchkes — to those who would donate certain amounts to his recording efforts. Brian Ritter and Justin Smith of Smitty’s offered up $500 for a “performance any time, anywhere,” says Wagner.
“Brian and Justin sent an e-mail … and asked would I come to Waterloo. I said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s perfect! My parents and family are from Waterloo’ … I think it’s a poetic homecoming.”
Ritter discovered Wagner and shared his music with Smith, who ordered Wagner’s entire catalog off the Internet. Wagner’s music now graces the jukebox at Smitty’s, and he’s gained a following before even stepping foot in the bar, says Smith, who realized that a signed photo his father hung on one wall of the bar was a picture of Wagner’s uncle.
“It’s then you realize how small the world really is,” says Smith.
Wagner was born in Iowa City but only lived there a few weeks. After a series of moves, he settled with family in Philadelphia where he spent the bulk of his youth. He still has family in Iowa — including a very proud grandmother in Waterloo — and considers it his hometown.
Wagner is equally addicted, it seems, to writing and music. An executive producer for MTV Online, he keeps a daily journal on his Web site and has a recording studio in his apartment. He didn’t seek out his obsessions, but rather was somewhat born with them.
“I’ve always had a parallel track. I’ve been singing since I was a little kid and writing since I was a little kid,” says Wagner. “The things I did in high school and college, the two things I loved, remain the two things I love. The music thing has grown larger and larger. I would have thought, and others thought, I’m sure, that it would have been the kind of thing one kind of works out of his system. Instead, creatively I’m gaining more traction, I’m getting better at it and growing my fan base. I would be reticent to stop.”
He is far from stopping, releasing three records in the past year — and it’s barely December.
“I got a little carried away,” he admits.
Wagner calls “Heartland” the most current accurate portrayal of his life. His writing touches on the classic themes in rock music — “breakups, falling in love, getting it right, getting it wrong and trying again.
“It’s very personal stuff, it’s a portrait of 365 days. The last three official LPs — ‘Heartland,’ ‘Almost Home,’ ‘Love & Other Games’ — feel mature and cohesive, both sonically and in terms of lyrics,” he says. “I kind of feel like since about 2000 it’s been the real deal and everything else has been rehearsal.”
All that rehearsal time is paying off, with Wagner gaining time on the road with popular Midwest band the Nadas, including an appearance at the Iowa State Fair that “you’d swear was U2 at Madison Square Garden.
“It was one of the most epic five minutes of my life. It was the biggest crowd I’ve played to — 3,000 to 4,000 people — we played ‘Do It Again,’ and the song starts quiet and grows and grows. It’s sonically enormous … it was such a release.”
Wagner calls a life without music “inconceivable,” and says he enjoys every part of making an album, from the writing and performing to the album art and liner notes. But playing live, with which he’ll fill the days until 2006, has its moments too.
“The coolest thing I can equate (performing) to is running,” says Wagner, a marathon runner. “You get out of your head and you’re not thinking, you’re plain old feeling, and that’s hard to come by. We’re always so busy thinking, it’s great to just shut up and get out of your head and heart and let go. It’s a great feeling, and it’s just what happens. It will happen at Smitty’s whether I like it or not.”