From Pain to Beauty: Benjamin Scheuer

By Hailey Nuthals, Highlighter Editor

Benjamin Scheuer has been, quite literally, to the edge of hell and back. From a cancer diagnoses to personal loss within his life, he’s been through the ringer time and time again. After an amazing recovery from that cancer, and in an admirable way of coming back from his own difficulties, he’s created a world-touring, critically acclaimed show out of his story, “The Lion.” The record to go along with that show was just released this past Friday, and in celebration of that and anticipation of the final of his nearly 207 shows that he’s done since this past August, WSN took a moment to speak with him about the subtler pains of his experiences and how he’s been able to gain his life back since.

WSN: So how are you doing, Benjamin?

Benjamin Scheuer: Well, I’m doing really well! Yesterday the New York Times put up my brand new video for the song “Cure,” which is on the record “Songs For the Lion,” which came out today. My interest in premiering the music video on the NY Times Health website was a really cool way to do it. Because they talk about “well, how are you going to premiere the music video?” And they said, “well, the health section doesn’t premiere music videos.” And I said “Absolutely, that’s why I think it’d be a great place to do it. Because it’s all about this incredible paradox of how chemotherapy kills you to save you, and cancer kills you to save you, and sometimes it’s really difficult to tell the difference between the two when you’re getting it.

WSN: You’ve clearly embraced the notion of creating art from your most uncomfortable and painful life experiences. Does it ever get easier to write and perform about these things, or do you find it just as hard each time?

BS: Well the writing is what’s challenging. The presentation of them is always a pleasure. Because the thing that’s most exciting to me is I found a way to take bad things and turn them into good things. And that feels like it’s given me back a sense of control, because when I had cancer, I had no control in my life. And to be able to then create songs from it, to then be able to create theater from it, to then be able to create a book from it, a photo book with Riya Lerner – Riya photographed me once a week when I was ill, and we’re hosting a gallery show on Tuesday, the 7th of June at the Leslie Lohman Gallery, and we’re selling these images to raise money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. And so suddenly, this illness that separated me from the world is now quite literally bringing me together with people. I’m hosting, ostensibly, a party to raise money for cancer charity, to sell these photos. And that feels extraordinary. The discomfort of reliving the exposure is so far dwarfed by the positive in that I get to create art in different media with different collaborators. And put it towards a positive end. Riya Lerner is an extraordinary photographer. Working with her, I learned a lot about songwriting. Peter Baynton is an extraordinary filmmaker. And Peter, who historically has worked in animation, he and I made three animated videos, he and I decided that for “Cure,” we wanted to make a black-and-white video inspired by the photographer of Riya Lerner. And so Peter and Riya connected with one another and had some creative conversations and then he came up with the video concept for “Cure.” Similarly, Geoff Kraly is an unbelievable record producer, and I got together with him and started this conversation about this illness that I had – he’s also a dear friend, he was with me on the last day of chemotherapy, he picked me up from the hospital… To then be able to go into the studio with him and create a piece of recorded art alongside some of my favorite musicians in the world – I’m a huge fan of 90’s Nine Inch Nails, and Josh Freese, who plays drums in that band, came and played on the record. So suddenly this thing that disconnected me has connected me to some of the greatest artists I could ever dream to work with. That is incredible. I am a lucky man.

WSN: You’ve emphasized in previous interviews your passion for personal style and the freedom of expression and confidence it lends people. What do you think is the most harmful thing that happens when a person’s style is restricted or criticized?

BS: When we feel shameful about the things that we want or the way that we wish to express ourselves, it’s not merely the shame we feel for the pair of boots we’re wearing, but it’s the shame we feel for the intention to wear what we wanted to wear, or say what we wanted to say, or to love who we wanted to love, or to be who we want to be. It’s a very clear example, but when you’re in the hospital, they give you clothes to wear. And those are hospital clothes, and they strip you of your sense of identity. So when you’re in the world and you have the opportunity to forge that identity for yourself, to present yourself the way you want to present yourself, that’s an incredible sense of power… We associate with other people by what we wear. You see someone in a spiked necklace and a CBGB shirt, you think “oh, I know you probably like rock and roll music.” Not necessarily, but probably. And that allows you to be a member of a club. You dress in vintage clothing, oh, you’re probably interested, in some way, in history. Great! I’m interested in history; now we can be friends. And then when you mix-and-match that – I’m a big fan of wearing a tailored suit with a pair of fetish boots. Because I love the dandy attention to detail that a tailored suit allows me, and I love the naughtiness and aggression of a pair of fetish boots, and I love that they contradict one another. So by getting dressed, I can tell a story, and a contradictory one at that.

WSN: As we’re coming as a society to understand more about self-expression in all its iterations what sort of advice would you lend to someone struggling to find their voice, or struggling to figure out what to say?

BS: Write down the thing you don’t want other people to know about you. Or better yet, write down the thing you don’t want to know about yourself. And don’t worry if it comes across as stupid or boring, and don’t worry if you don’t think that other people aren’t going to like it or like you. They’ll appreciate the honesty, and they’ll appreciate the courage. I know I will.

Benjamin Scheuer is hosting a viewing of his work with Riya Lerner at the Leslie Lohman Gallery on June 7th, and at the Rubin Museum of Art’s “Naked Soul” Concert Series on June 10th. His book with Riya Lerner can be purchased here, and you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and the web.

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