Ben Trevor, otherwise known as the Tree Top Troubadour, has been an arborist for over ten years and a musician for over twenty. His two occupations combined in a wonderful way in 2012, when he started performing gigs at the tops of very tall trees to raise money and awareness for cancer research and tree conservation charities. In our latest Tentsile People blog, we talk to Ben about his life, his work and the trees that make him tick.
1) Can you explain what you do and how long you've been doing it?
It all began in 2012 when I climbed the tallest tree in my then home county of Surrey and performed a gig to raise money for The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity - the hospital that treated my mum for breast cancer. I've since gone on to climb and perform up the tallest tree in the UK and, performing from the top of a large oak tree, was the Saturday night post-headline act at Larmer Tree Festival 2015. I am currently writing an album of songs to be recorded at height in notable UK trees, and my ultimate goal is to perform this album atop the Tallest Tree in The World - Hyperion, in California, USA.
2) Why are trees so important to you?
My first memory of tree climbing was in my early childhood on Wimbledon Common. There are some gorgeous English oaks there - they seemed huge to me at the time but probably wouldn't so much now. I just remember the sensation of first getting my feet off the ground and being supported by this beautiful network of branches. I found the vibrations and movements of this structure to be hugely reassuring, and still do now. I love the sense of sweet isolation, containment and solitude, and I remember the moment it triggered in my mind, the vivid realisation that this thing was alive!
The seeds from which these immense organisms grow - just little balls of pure energy and potential. The perfection of an acorn in its cup, or the way a 'conker', if allowed to remain on the ground, un-assailed by competitive little hands for the right amount of time, opens a flap on its side and a root goes down and a shoot goes up - AMAZING!
As individuals they're incredible. The reassuring confidence of a veteran oak in full leaf, or the almost mystical wonder of the redwoods. The majesty of a city avenue of mature London Planes to the tenacious grit of the hawthorn on the moor. I can't actually even begin to describe why they're so important to me - I'm afraid it goes beyond my vocabulary!
On a planetary level they are quite simply vital to our survival, along with that of many other species.
3) What's been your biggest challenge, artistically or emotionally (or both!) since you started out as Tree Top Troubadour?
Without any doubt, performing at Larmer Tree Festival 2015 has been the biggest challenge so far, both artistically and emotionally. It all came about thanks to Tentsile, would you believe. My friend, co-conspirator and all-round rigging guru, Syd Howells, had been at Larmer 2014 setting up a display for them, and had mentioned to the organisers that he had 'a mate who does gigs up trees'. Their response was, 'well, bring him in!', and there it began.
When I first agreed to play Larmer I had expected to be very much in the sidelines doing surprise appearances around the site, acoustically and unscheduled. The organisers had different ideas, however. I was approached by festival director, James Shepard, while doing a 'recce' of trees around the main lawn on my first visit. We exchanged a few pleasantries, then he casually dropped the bombshell that he'd like me to go on after the main headline act on the Saturday night! This was to be no simple stage performance, either - Syd and I got carried away with planning and before I knew it the routine was arranged as follows: I was to begin the set at the top of a large oak tree, descend to a lower point between songs, then onto a Chesterfield sofa (with adjoining mirror ball) rigged midway up the tree for a tune or two, then swing out over the crowd and descend into the throng for the Grand Finale - voila!
My heart sank and my head soared - I have never felt such bipolar emotions at any single time before - the absolute joy and excitement at the prospect of doing something so spectacularly awesome in front of so many people, versus the absolute terror and dread of doing something so spectacularly awesome, and potentially calamitous, in front of so many people! The previous TTT climbs were literally me and a few mates having a bit of a jolly up trees, then hitting the pub to celebrate. It had been the event that was paramount. The concept. The songs or quality of performance were secondary to the very doing of the thing - it was all for charity, all for fun. This, on the other hand, was real and I was fully accountable - performing to a large number of paying people, on the same bill as truly world-class performers. I had some serious work to do to get up to standard.
Trying to squeeze this in around a full-time job and having young children meant I had to make some real changes to my lifestyle to prepare properly for it. I began getting up at 5am and going for a run every day to get myself focussed and in shape. I would then spend a couple of hours before work, planning and rehearsing my set and generally trying to get my head around the whole thing. Even just choosing what songs to play was a challenge - I ripped up the list and started again many, many times. Also, this was meant to be a big surprise on the Saturday night so I knew we wouldn't get a chance to do proper rehearsals up the tree as we didn't want to give the game away, and a bunch of people swinging about in the trees with guitars during the day would have done just that. This lack of preparation turned out to be a major problem on the night. I was in a state of high anxiety in the weeks building up to the big day. This was like nothing I'd ever done before and it blew my mind.
On the day of the event I was trying to focus on the job at hand and not get overwhelmed by it all. It took a great deal to pull myself away from my little family, but not letting the kids down was a motivator, not to mention the grilling I'd have got from my partner, Kelly, for not putting all that prep time to good use! What made things worse was that I'd ripped a muscle in my leg (thanks to those early morning runs!) and it was causing me to hobble around in a truly comedic fashion - like someone faking it. Syd being in a wheelchair due to a snapped Achilles tendon made us a highly unlikely looking pair for putting on a 'Tree Top' performance.
Thankfully I had about me the most awesome group of people helping out - a real Dream Team. Andrew Walmsley, world-renowned wildlife photographer, was there to capture the action, Syd co-ordinated and advised from the ground, arborists Marcus Undery and Alfie O'Donnell did an amazing job of rigging up the sofa, mirror ball and other visuals (Marcus even created an 'LED Stick-Man' costume for the show!), Dr. Matt Upson assisted with rigging and was responsible for enabling my 'Grand Finale' descent into the crowd and Andy Robertson was my aerial guitar tech. My confidence was hugely bolstered by having these guys around, and I literally couldn't have done it without them, but when it came to show time, I couldn't have felt more alone.
I was in position at the top of the tree for a full forty minutes while headline act Femi Kuti absolutely annihilated the audience's senses with his Jazz/Afro beat extravaganza - 'Tough. Act. To. Follow.' looped in my brain the entire time, along with 'What the hell am I doing here?'. I've got to say that I'd never felt fear like it. Of course I'm not talking real fear, like facing serious illness, but rather fear of failure, even before fear of falling! I felt frozen but knew I had to move - muted but I knew I had to sing. I very much had to separate 'feeling' from 'doing'. I longed to be with my family, somewhere down there amongst those silhouetted heads, and I experienced with great lucidity the physical sensation of the notion 'Be careful what you wish for'.
When we'd tested the wireless equipment earlier in the day, the sound guys had said that when the MC announced me, I'd hear it in my in-ear monitors, and know it was go time. I was getting edgy as Femi whipped up to his ultimate frenzied climax so I started calling to the sound guys over the mic, just to get some sort of reassurance that we were connected - just for someone to tell me everything was going to be okay. I was getting no response but kept calm knowing that, like they'd told me, as soon as the MC did his thing we'd be live and ready. The MC did his thing: "He's a singer-songwriter, he's raising money for The Royal Marsden, performing for you tonight from the top of a tree, give it up for the TREE TOP TROUBADOUR!!!..." - Nothing.
Nothing in my monitors, nothing from my mic. A thin and distant strain from the guitar echoed above the hushed, expectant crowd, wishing it hadn't gone out there alone. The spotlight blazed at the bottom of the tree, while I crashed and burned at the top. As I desperately barked into the mic and fumbled futilely with knobs on the battery packs, I could hear, but not see, the guys in the tree behind and below me shouting "there's no mic!". The crowd whooped, cheered and chanted, willing me to make something happen, but I couldn't. I zipped down the diagonal climbing line that was in place to guide me to position 2 on the tree hoping to gain a signal connection at a lower altitude, and merely gained some serious rope burn to my fingers in the process. By the time they'd got a handheld wireless mic up to me I was already defeated. I tried to knock out a verse and chorus of 'Kids' by MGMT, slowly, with single strums in an attempt to dodge the bounce-back and echo from the main stage PA but without monitors it was a fool's errand.
The absurdity of sitting on a sofa, up a tree, close to midnight, with an enormous crowd in front of and below me, while super-esteemed wildlife photographer Andrew held a mic to my mouth, just tickled something in me and the humour of the situation thankfully overcame the despair. I made my apologies and promised to return the next day with a proper set. The response of the crowd, even though things had gone so wrong, was incredible. That famous 'Larmer Love' - I had never experienced anything like it. The effect it had on me was fundamental, like something clicked and I knew that this was just a challenge to overcome, to not give up and that what I was doing was right and worthwhile and wonderful. I felt like I was circling in a different atmosphere, operating on a different level than before. We'd tried something that had never been done before and without someone falling from the tree, things couldn't have feasibly gone more wrong, but somehow it was still okay, we'd simply learned something. I'll never forget how that felt.
We returned the next day, swapped a few leads and stuff around but essentially did everything the same, and the gear just worked. What can you do, right? It was a great set and the crowd were lovely, if not quite as frenzied as the previous night. I was approached and congratulated by lots of people afterwards which was amazing. There were a few things that really stuck in my mind: A lady came over and mentioned my version of The Verve's 'Drugs Don't Work' that I'd played in reference to a friend who'd recently lost his dad to cancer. She said that after hearing the words in the context I'd described it really meant a lot to her and gave her comfort in the wake of losing her husband to cancer. A chap who had complimented me on the music said he'd 'never really thought about trees before' which astounded me. He left, regarding the trees around him, looking like he was trying to put a name to a face he hadn't seen for years. Like a whole new realm was opening in his mind, or something very old and distant was being reawakened. I knew he'd be a tree fan from then on. A boy, around 8 years old asked if I climbed trees every day. I told him, yes, and he said he was going to climb trees every day, too!
If nothing else had come from that event, I would have been happy - just the experience and these three conversations alone made it all worthwhile. So much more did come from it, though - a seed was planted, if you'll excuse the pun, and plans for next year's festival season are already being made...
4) What's been the highlight during that time?
See above! Really, though, it's the people I've met that have had the biggest impact on me. Experiencing the energy and generosity of spirit of some really special people has inspired me beyond words and encouraged me to work on a whole different level. Meeting Brian Blessed in a basement studio in Soho to have an on-camera chat about TTT was a major highlight.
An abundance of stories came out of that meeting alone but just to experience first-hand the immense warmth and power of his personality, and to know he was interested in what I had to say, was astonishing. He's the real deal, it's no act; he's even more mighty and magnificent in person than the character you see on TV. He's a full-blown force of nature and I'm utterly humbled to have met him.
5) Can you tell me a bit about your fundraising through Tree Top Troubador?
I've so far raised over £4000 with TTT, but the plan has always been to hold a big fundraiser at the end of the campaign, where I'll show a film of the whole endeavour and auction off all donated equipment. As the campaign progresses, however, it's becoming increasingly difficult to see an end to it, so I'm now in the process of devising different strategies to raise money.
I have begun to write an album that I intend to record at the tops of a number of notable trees around the country with a view to touring it around the UK and across America, ultimately hoping to perform it, in its entirety, up Hyperion in California. I'm hoping to fund the album by busking it around towns and following the 'living room show' template a lot of artists now use, but instead of living rooms I'll offer to come and play up their favourite tree! I'll also be talking/performing in schools and commercial organisations.
I'm hoping to enlist some well known names to help promote this and have already had some great help from people like Andy Beckwith (Game of Thrones), John Parr (St Elmo's Fire), Labi Siffre (Something Inside So Strong) and, of course, the great Brian Blessed (all-round legend).
So far I've been raising money directly for the Royal Marsden, but now want to expand that fundraising into tree charities. I'm now looking into setting up a specific tree charity with the arb. company I work for which will enable us to provide people and organisations with trees to plant free of charge. It's a complex subject, though, so I'm doing a lot of research to find out where my energies would be of most benefit. Watch this space…
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