Seven years ago, a seventh-grade student sat down to write a song. Little did he know, this song would be featured on his debut album when it was released during his sophomore year in college.
Benjamin Cortez’s self-recorded debut album “In Your Hands” was released on Sept. 21, and from jazzy grooves to anthemic ballads, it was a long, careful project.
The ASU sophomore majoring in jazz studies was raised by musicians and started playing music as soon as he was old enough to walk. He said his musical influences growing up included Steely Dan, Yes, King Crimson, the Beach Boys and, of course, the Beatles.
Cortez said he had to stay patient while recording the album and that it was important to him that he put out a body of work that was clean and polished.
“It was a multi-year experience,” he said. “I didn’t want to rush it, and I wasn’t on any particular deadline. I was just trying get some music (that was) very all-encompassing and say a lot of different things.”
He said that over the two years of recording, the biggest challenge he faced was finding balance.
“I think that was the hardest thing,” he said. “How can I allow myself enough time to make sure I can practice and make sure I can finish all my assignments to the best of my ability while still being able to put 110 percent into this record as well?”
Although the recording process of “In Your Hands” began in 2016, Cortez said he wrote the oldest song on the record when he was in seventh grade.
“It’s really spread out,” Cortez said. “And I think the biggest theme that comes out of it is what it’s like to be in my shoes.”
He said that this is due to the fact that every song he writes is personal and relates to a specific time in his life.
The song “Empty Promises,” for example, was written in the wake of the 2016 election and was born from his political frustration.
“I remember being a little politically-charged … just being frustrated with the really polar way that politics are conducted,” he said.
He said the song “Arizona” also comes from a personal place in his life.
“That song was born out of me just being frustrated and stuck in a rut,” he said. “It felt like I needed to get out of Arizona … and I stopped myself, thinking, ‘What am I trying to get away from?’ So instead of looking at it as a negative thing, I thought ‘Why not reflect on the things that I love and things that draw me back to feeling at home?’”
Cortez said his musical family was fully supportive of the record and that was a big part of what made it possible. As composers themselves, Cortez said his parents were able to give him feedback and suggestions throughout the writing process of the album.
“It was very homegrown and done with family support,” he said. “I appreciate them putting up with those moments where I was trying to fit those drum tracks in, when maybe it was to the inconvenience of everybody else.”
Dom Moio, a jazz lecturer in the School of Music and conductor of the Latin Jazz Ensemble for which Cortez plays piano, said that Cortez’s record is “some of the best pop music (he’s) heard in 10 years.”
“He has beautiful harmonies, beautiful chord changes and great grooves,” he said.
Moio said he thinks Cortez’s recent album is just the beginning of a long career of great music.
“I think Ben is going to be somebody to be reckoned with as a songwriter,” he said.
Tom Booth, a longtime friend of the Cortez family and professional composer who has known Cortez “since birth,” said he enjoys the positivity of the lyrics on “In Your Hands." He said that a lot of where this positivity comes from is the environment in which Cortez was raised.
“It is a very special family,” he said. “They love each other, and their home is just so filled with love.”
Booth said the musicality and lyricism on the album matches that of the many talented musicians he’s met in his career as a professional songwriter.
“I know musicians, not just in Arizona and not just in United States," he said. "I've met people all over the world and some really talented and successful musicians. Benjamin has as much talent as anyone I've ever met. I mean that.”