NEWARK – Some careers take a different path.
“All I wanted to do was play music,” began Ben Shirley, “so I wasn’t exactly an overachiever in high school. Decades later, after having destroyed my life due to alcohol and drug addiction, I returned to school. Supported by the incredible people at the Midnight Mission, a homeless shelter in Los Angeles’ notorious Skid Row where I wound up broke, dope-sick, and homeless in 2011, I enrolled at Los Angeles City College. I became a straight A student and earned a certificate in music technology.”
“Several years later,” he continued, “I applied to the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music and was accepted, with a partial scholarship. I was in the inaugural class of the Technology & Applied Composition Program.”
“Incidentally,” he added, “my whole journey from Midnight Mission to SFCM is all documented in the film, Skid Row Marathon. I was one of five homeless individuals filmed for four years, and ultimately featured in the film that tells the story of the running club that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig Mitchell started. I was one of the original members of the club. Skid Row Marathon won dozens of awards at film festivals in 2018, including Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival.”
Today, Shirley is a composer and orchestrator for films and television programs, in addition to classical music. Plus, he was just named a board member of the Newark-Granville Symphony Orchestra.
“No matter if I’m composing for a chamber ensemble,” he said, “or for the Newark Granville Symphony Orchestra, or for a film, I try to compose from a place of honesty.”
Shirley grew up a self-described “Army brat.” He was born in Berlin, then moved to California, then Texas. He went to high school in El Paso and graduated early because he’d been a touring musician since he was 15.
“My earliest memory of music was hearing Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin,” he recalled. “The middle section scared the bejesus out of me, and I loved it. From that point on, I craved that danger and scariness in life and most of all, in music. I was a touring musician (bass player) for 25 years. I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. I was signed to Epic Records as the bassist for the band UPO and later for Chingalera. We had rock hits that charted, and we toured with most of the alt rock bands that hit big in the 1990s.”
“I didn’t start composing,” he continued, “until I returned to school, while living in the homeless shelter. I was in my 40s. Although I’d heard music in my head since I was a child, I never had any idea how to get what was in my head onto paper.”
“I’m so grateful to LACC for opening this door,” he noted. “I wound up writing a piece of music while in school that was dedicated to the Midnight Mission. I needed the piece to apply to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I chose to honor The Midnight Mission because the amazing people there set me on the path of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. The piece was called Midnight to 12:01.”
“Ben is the real deal – a musician’s musician, a composer’s composer,” assessed California-based composer Gabriela Lena Frank. “Artists are constantly questing beings, asking if their motives are pure and if their work is any good. I have the sense that Ben is perennially engaged in these questions and consequently, his music is unafraid to be whatever it needs to be – lyrical, rhythmic, raw, ugly, beautiful. I love this about him.”
“The only thing I ever wanted to do was music,” Shirley responded. “The truth is I’m a former rock n’ roll bassist who was homeless for 26 months, and I definitely don’t look like a typical classical composer. I’ve definitely lived two totally different lives. As a touring musician, I engaged in all the debauchery that comes with it for 25 years. Now I’m 11-plus years sober and live in the suburbs of Ohio. It’s literally the complete opposite of my life before sobriety, and I’m grateful for it every single day.”
For more information, log on to www.benshirleymusic.com
Aces of Trades is a weekly series focusing on people and their jobs – whether they’re unusual jobs, fun jobs or people who take ordinary jobs and make them extraordinary. If you have a suggestion for a future profile, let us know at [email protected] or 740-328-8821.