The Local Music Scene

Ben Shaw: Musician, artist, modern-day renaissance man

This multi-talented singer, songwriter and musician believes music can save the world

By Michael Khouri
Posted 12/19/23

Ben Shaw is a modern-day renaissance man. He has taken on the weighty role of singer, songwriter, guitarist, saxophonist, pianist, jazz/classical composer and author. Alas, like so many artists and …

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The Local Music Scene

Ben Shaw: Musician, artist, modern-day renaissance man

This multi-talented singer, songwriter and musician believes music can save the world


Ben Shaw is a modern-day renaissance man. He has taken on the weighty role of singer, songwriter, guitarist, saxophonist, pianist, jazz/classical composer and author. Alas, like so many artists and musicians, he holds a day job to pay the bills – toiling as a landscaper. But in a poetic twist, the Portsmouth native’s vocation projects a metaphor for his artistic interests and imagination, all of which cover widespread amounts of terrain, possibly more than can be explored, unearthed, seeded and nurtured by one cultivator in one lifetime. But the artist is determined to fulfill his aspirations before sunset. 

Recently, on a crisp, clear fall afternoon, I caught up with Shaw at the Portsmouth Publick House. Over a pint (or two) we chatted for the better part of an hour and a half. Articulate, intense and engaging, he was a perfect gentleman, who spoke in constant unbroken orations, seemingly planning and dreaming out loud. As he bubbled over with thoughts and ideas, one after another, he would now and again stop cold in his speech to edit for clarity and exactitude. A talented young man with a promising artistic future who, eerily, appears to have one eye on the clock.

“I grew up here two minutes down the road. I went to Portsmouth Middle School and Portsmouth High. It’s a nice town, but it didn’t have a big arts scene,” said Shaw. “What they did have was good school band programs under the direction of Ted Rausch. He was a great guy who helped me see that music could be the thing for me. I played the saxophone. He must have seen something in me because even before that I somehow knew I was going to pursue music as a life-long goal.

I asked Shaw what and when was his first exposure to music

“My first memory of music is when I heard Elvis sing ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ Right there something kind of lit up in my being. I was about four years old,” said Shaw. “From that point on its a bit of a blur, but that feeling I got when I heard Elvis sing stayed with me. I didn’t grow up in a musical household; it was my own solitary thing. I didn’t have people in my life that were musicians, I didn’t know musicians. I didn’t grow up with anyone really in the arts. My mom did reveal to me later in life that as a young girl she would write poetry. But in my youth no one around me was into anything creative.”

What made music so special to you and what drew you to it?

“I’d hear music and be fascinated by it, the workings of it, how it came to be, the magic of it,” said Shaw. “Even when you start to learn all the parts of music on your instrument, be it the chords or the notes, there is still something inexplicable, something indescribable. I guess what draws me to it is the pure mystery of it.”

I wondered when Shaw began to write and arrange his own music?

“When I was in the boy scouts, to earn a music merit badge you had to write a melody. I was playing saxophone at the time, but I didn’t know how to write. When you’re learning your instrument, you have to play your scales and play what they tell you to play. I had never done anything like that before, so I just played around and came up with a melody,” said Shaw. “It occurred to me that I could create a melody out of nothing, just pull it out of thin air. When I learned that you could create music and codify it into a melody, make up songs, write them down and compose, that’s when things changed for me, what set in motion what was going to happen.”

From jazz to rock

How did you get into Rock and Singer/Songwriter while you were playing mainly band and jazz saxophone?

“I played in the high school band, which was a great experience, just learning how to work with other musicians. After high school I went to URI for jazz composition. The teachers there were great. It was an excellent music program. I got involved in as much as I possibly could. I was in all the ensembles that I could be in,” said Shaw. “While in college, I was listening to all kinds of music. There, I formed a band. It was a hip hop/funk/rock and roll band. I was writing that kind of stuff, as well as singer/songwriter stuff. Even though the class was jazz composition, the professors were very opened minded. They let me bring in whatever I wanted, even though it was strictly a jazz composition class. Their attitude was, it doesn’t matter. There are no boundaries. It’s all music as long as you’re intentional and serious about what you’re playing.”

Do you prefer working with other musicians or working as a solo artist?

“I enjoy both equally. No one in my college band wanted to sing, so I stepped up and became the singer. The more I sang the more I enjoyed it. It was tiring trying to book a band, having to work around five or six people’s schedules, so I decided to quit the band and become a singer/songwriter. It was easy to book, easy to put together, self-contained. It was then that I experienced firsthand what I already knew – that the power of a single voice and a guitar can move mountains.”

Music as math

My dad is an engineer and my mom’s a teacher. Not that he’s not empathetic, but I think I got my mom’s value of empathy in trying to understand other people and trying to meet them where they are,” said Shaw. “And my dad’s brain is always trying to fiqure out everything. How does it work? He sees a door swing both ways and wants to know exactly what that function is. So, for me, music is a way to connect with people and understand the human experience, but also music is math. I have my Dad’s head for math. I can break it down into chunks and understand it clinically as well as artistically.”

Shaw explained to me that the roll of any musician or any artist is to take what they see in normal life and reflect it back to the audience in higher contrast in better or different colors to change their perception of it. To see how complex, beautiful, weird, and how ill-defined human experience is.

“Music doesn’t exist, but it does exist. It’s like in between worlds. It’s just vibrations in the air. It lives in space and time. It’s so different for everyone, yet so universal,” said Shaw. “Some folks have trouble connecting to, for instance, Jazz and classical music because there are no words, just music alone without lyrics, but that can be just as moving and expressive and can affect you, just like seeing a beautiful sunset. No words are necessary. It can move you in ways that you might not even understand.”

Playing locally

These days Shaw plays a wide variety of music and venues. An East Bay favorite, he has played The Galactic Theater and Warren Kouse of Pizza on Main Street in Warren as well as the Warren Folk Festival. Statewide, he runs a jazz jam at the Parlour in Providence the first Sunday of every month from 5 to 8 p.m. There Shaw plays sax in the house band. Other venues include The Graduate Sessions - an intimate setting for original songs and storytelling - at The Poindexter Café in Providence, and Askew Prov, where he plays guest sax for Funky Submarine. He has also appeared at Boston’s famed Club Passim.

Shaw’s recorded works are stylistically diverse. At the risk of hyperbole, it’s astounding how one artist can be so magnificent in so many different musical arenas. Imagine singer, songwriter James Taylor playing jazz saxophone or jazz legend Charlie Parker as a singer, songwriter? Well, imagine no more. Shaw’s EP “Seven Songs” is singer/songwriter, “Five Preludes for Solo Piano: No. 1” is classical, and “DIA” is jazz. All three digital albums are performed with such depth, breadth and feeling that one wonders why this artist isn’t a household name.

And then there is his bohemian art piece, “Madeline.”

A story through song

“Madeline is a concept album of nine songs that I believe flow well to tell a story. When I conceived the album, I started to create an over arcing narrative. This was during the pandemic,” said Shaw. “I had already gotten into short story writing, so I wrote a 17,000-word novella that compliments the music. If you buy the book you get the album along with it. I have physical copies and digital copies of the book. It’s a limited run of 100 copies physically. But you don’t need to read the book to understand the album.”

Madeline is the saga of a beauty queen who seems to have her best days behind her. Working in a late night gas station off the highway, she struggles to find a minimum of dignity and purpose in her life. As Shaw’s website explains, “... this is a story about ruined dreams and renewed possibility, of the life we imagined and the reality we find ourselves in, and the beautiful, complicated mess that is getting through a single day. This is for all who struggle to survive, who strive for a better life, and to those we’ve lost along the way.”

“We did the album and show at the local Pawtucket art gallery, Machines with Magnets, and it was a great performance. The show was in the round. I had my friend Christine Treglia, a local actress at the Wilbur Theatre, prerecord some of the dialogue in the book. She imbued the character of Madeline. The dialogue came over the PA before the musicians and I played each song to assist in framing the story. People told me that they had never seen or heard anything like this. It was done with dedication, care and focus. In a sea of musicians playing locally and nationally, I wanted to separate myself with ideas that are more intense and different.”

As we were concluding the interview, I asked Shaw if he had any last words or thoughts.

“Music is storied, it’s mystery, it’s magic. I want to examine life and music and experience it totally and find ways to express that to people. I’ve been reading a lot about loneliness lately,” said Shaw. “There’s an epidemic of it in this country and across the world. Young and older people feeling alone, feeling cut off, and I think music is one of those great things that can bring people together and raise their voices in unison. That’s what church does. People sing together in church because sharing music is profound and moving – as to be part of a greater spiritual whole. It could save the world.”

Follow Ben at

Michael Khouri is a Barrington resident writing occasionally about the Rhode Island music scene. Reach him at

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