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Dawn Diver’s Ben Lemi makes Melody Thomas feel good things.
It’s been a long time since a song stopped me in my tracks, sent shivers the lengths of my arms and had me hitting play immediately after it finished, but it happened when I heard Warming to You by Wellington band Dawn Diver. The first thing that hit me was Ben Lemi’s voice, which resonates over a background of sparse drums and driving guitars with a gorgeous warmth. I’ve seen Ben play and sing in numerous bands over the years, but I had no idea he could sing like that.
“I was always someone that hummed quietly along to the radio, but only in situations where I was certain that no one was listening,” he laughs.
Lemi was born in Wellington and grew up the kid of a diplomat, living in Washington DC, Tehran and other places before settling back here in the fifth form. He was introduced to music through his Dad’s record collection, and later through his teenage step-brother Rowan, who taught him how to play the guitar and “who knew precisely what music and culture I should be exposed to throughout most of my teenage years,” says Lemi.
After high school, Lemi enrolled at the New Zealand School of Music (“the jazz school”) where he studied for a couple of years before he started getting busy playing music outside of school, and dropped out. The next wee while was spent working in nightclubs, DJ’ing, and slowly adding other instruments to his roster as a way to gain a greater understanding of music.
These days Ben does a bit of everything – he’s the drummer for Trinity Roots, plays bass and guitar and sings backing vocals in French for Rabbits, and does all of that plus singing his own songs and sometimes drumming in Congress of Animals, alongside Bret McKenzie. He supplements band life with studio work, mixing bands and composing for film and documentaries (his 2017 EP under the moniker Courtesy Caller is a super-evocative little collection of offcuts from this work). Most recently he’s been working with Estère on her forthcoming album and release gigs.
And on top of all of this, he’s hard at work on Dawn Diver – which started as a solo project but evolved into a band project. With the help of Will Sklenars on bass, Hikurangi Schaverien-Kaa on drums, and Deanne Krieg and Rose Blake lending their voices to three-part harmonies, Dawn Diver has recently taken to the stage and they’ll be performing as part of the Wellington Jazz Festival in November.
It’s official – Lemi is no longer singing quietly when no-one is listening, he’s front of stage, leading his own band.
“At first I found the whole idea quite terrifying. I can’t hide behind the drum kit, palm backing vocal parts off to someone else, or pretend that I’m playing chords while my amp is actually turned down like I did (only once) in my 8th grade big band!” he laughs, before adding, “The process is scary but it’s cathartic. It helps me feel alive.”
Dawn Diver is music for musicians; dense, and at times possibly impenetrable by the average punter. Even Lemi’s description of the music is labyrinthine; it’s an “aural kaleidoscope” combining the complex harmonies of jazz with rigid song structures borrowed from his favourite classical composers, and, as an antidote to this rigidity, flowing circular rhythms inherited from African music, both tribal and Western-influenced.
It’s never boring, and even when you find yourself drifting off during a song, your mind goes to creative, dreamy places rather than the mundane.
From the sounds of things, this is exactly Lemi’s intention.