Ben Fagan shares what he's learned from making music both locally and farther afield 

Pleasant Surprises

click to enlarge rut_2358.jpg

Ruta Smith

click to enlarge Yeah, he's talking about this Pirate Master photo. Sorry, Ben. - CBS ARCHIVE
  • CBS archive
  • Yeah, he's talking about this Pirate Master photo. Sorry, Ben.

Local music veteran Ben Fagan sits in his almost-complete home studio on James Island. A green screen hangs on a wall in front of video and audio recording equipment, blue lights are streamed around the sides of the self-built studio, and Fagan casually talks about his experiences on reality TV program, Pirate Master. "The worst thing that came out of it is the damn picture of me on the internet that pops up when you Google 'Ben Fagan,'" he laughs, referring to the swashbuckling clothes that CBS made him wear on the show. "That damn picture will haunt me forever."

Reality television scholars and longtime natives will remember Fagan. He was the happy-go-lucky twentysomething Folly Beach native who won $500,000 on a Survivor clone called Pirate Master in 2007. The series was a month-long excursion through a CBS-produced hell that found Fagan and 15 others out in the jungle, competing against each other for a total of 1 million dollars. The show was cancelled before its first season finished airing, and the unaired episodes were put on the internet for fans to see. Although Pirate Master ended tragically, Fagan wasn't crying because he still came out on top.

"Once I got done with Pirate Master, I had enough money to buy some property down in Costa Rica, cash, so I could set up a retirement plan for my pops," says Fagan.

That's an ending a lot of people would ask for, but for Fagan, it was the beginning of a new story. And there's a lot to tell, because the last 10 years show that the Pirate Master champion hasn't run out of good luck just yet.

Hometown Hero

Luck is usually the word people associate with Fagan, who grew up from very humble means. His mother was a social worker, his father a kung-fu instructor. "We didn't have money, but we had great lives," says Fagan. "We lived in a small house by the beach, we could surf any time we wanted — there was tons of love."

Even though he occasionally got in trouble, Fagan showed a knack for business at a young age. "I sold weed when I was in middle school and got kicked out of eighth grade for distribution, so I was always an entrepreneur," Fagan laughs. "The business plan was sound, aside from the illegal part." He put those skills to use in college, where he gained a degree in business. His business prowess has consistently come in handy ever since.

When on the east coast, Fagan works out of a studio space that's close to his Charleston home - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • When on the east coast, Fagan works out of a studio space that's close to his Charleston home

After surviving Pirate Master at the age of 23, Fagan used his winnings to kickstart his real passion: a career in music. In fact, music was something that got him through the entire Pirate experience. While he was on the show, Fagan would listen to the demos that his reggae-rock band the Plainfield Project had just recorded. "It was so powerful to me to be able to listen to these dope-sounding tracks that my band was creating, just to fire me up and give me some more inspiration while I was there," he says.

So what's a guy with dreams of being a musician to do with his reality show money?

"I went all in with the music, right away," says Fagan. And he's not joking. From 2008-2010, the multi-instrumentalist continued grooving with the Plainfield Project and the Fagan Brothers, his pop duo with his brother, Chris.

The Plainfield Project taught Fagan about band dynamics. "Marriage is hard enough between two people, then you bring in five or six people who are all intelligent, strong personalities. Then you add your career on top of it. That was a full-on democracy, which didn't work," he says.

He imported the lessons learned into his next project, Holy City Hooligans, which propelled him further in the local music scene. "I created the project, wrote the music, and then I hired in my main guys," Fagan says. "It slowly evolved into what it is now, where it's kind of a collective energy. Nobody's trapped. I look at it like my relationship with my girlfriend. We have to choose to be together to thrive."

With albums Freestyle Sessions and Freestyle Sessions 2, the Hooligans quickly became a local and touring favorite for their pop sensibilities.

Show Business

Like the relentless working musician that he is, Fagan opened up a new front on his quest for musical supremacy. "I started going out [to Los Angeles] in 2011 to work with producers and just feel the place out, and then moved out there in 2015 or maybe early 2016, and lived in Los Angeles for about a year and a half," he says. These days, Fagan divides his time. "I'm about four months here, four months Cali, and two or three months Costa, depending where the business is," he says.

Fagan's jet-setting life paid off in a number of ways. "I was doing the songwriting and production for other people for a couple years because I wanted to get my bearings straight on how the industry works and make connections, and get better at my craft," he says.

click to enlarge Writing with Chris Gelbuda and Meghan Trainor led to a song on Trainor's triple platinum album, 'Title' - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Writing with Chris Gelbuda and Meghan Trainor led to a song on Trainor's triple platinum album, 'Title'

Fagan's cowriting spots brought him esteem in the mainstream, two million spins on Spotify for his Floduxe collab "The Moment," and the chart-topping song "3am," which was co-written with pop superstar Meghan Trainor. And like a lot of things in his life, that success was a combination of strong work ethic and luck.

At a Costa Rica gig, Fagan was performing with loop pedals, beatboxing, and playing bass. After the show, Nashville-based professional songwriter Chris Gelbuda, who has a flair for reggae pop, told the singer he wanted to work with him. "I was kind of caught off guard because I'm a big fan of Sublime, and he had that same festive kind of reggae, kind of hip-hop, kind of a lot of influences [as Sublime]," says Gelbuda. "I was like, 'You're a star in the making and we should work together sometime.'"

About five or six months later, Gelbuda brought Fagan out to his homebase. "He invited me to Nashville," Fagan recounts. "We write for a day. The second day, he's like, 'Man, I know a girl. Y'all's styles are right in line. You mind if I invite her over?' He didn't mention who it was. Meghan Trainor comes over," Fagan recounts.

"We brought Meghan in to write for Ben's career, not vice versa," says Gelbuda. Two versions of "3am" were recorded; one with Fagan and one with Trainor. The latter landed a record deal shortly after the recording session, leading to the song on her 2015 album, Title, which also included "All About That Bass." The record helped Trainor earn the Grammy for Best New Artist.

The writing session went well, but because Fagan didn't hear from anyone for almost four months, he started to believe that the song was scrapped from the album. "Little did I know it would go triple platinum," he says. Fagan displays the platinum record plaque prominently in his home studio.

Fagan took notes the last few years about the music industry and how the business is run. He's seen a few bad deals in Los Angeles but continues to push forward with those lessons in mind as he begins his newest ventures. Just like the triple-platinum record he helped author, his latest projects happened because of a chance encounter in Costa Rica.

The New Deal

"We go play the last show of the tour. Small spot, just a little knockaround show, me and a DJ and a guitar player. It's just a little porch party, no big deal," Fagan recalls in reference to a 2018 series of shows.

click to enlarge Fagan and Meghan Trainor at the club - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Fagan and Meghan Trainor at the club

The songwriter was performing near his home in Dominical, Costa Rica. After the show, a man from the audience approached the band to see if they wanted to hang out at his temporary residence. "He invites us up to his house that he's renting after the show," Fagan says, "and we get to the place that he's renting and it's the dopest mansion I've ever seen in my life."

Turns out, after a moment in the house, Fagan realizes it looks familiar, because he'd spent time there before shooting one of his music videos. The coincidence sparked a friendship between the two and, only a few days later, it led to Fagan's newest venture, Youngsol Records. "He said 'I want to partner on a label. Let's push you, set up the system, and then we'll expand if we see success,'" Fagan recalls. "That was March 20 [of this year], when I left. Since then, I haven't taken one breath to pause." Fagan says that the man, who he refers to as his "angel investor," prefers to remain anonymous.

"I feel like the sky's the limit, right now," says Hooligans drummer Quentin Ravenel, who's also a part of Fagan's newest project, which is under Fagan's name. The project is a natural evolution of the Holy City Hooligans and, of course, part of Youngsol Records.

Ravenel says the new music sounds like L.A. "It sounds like you're by the beach. It sounds like music that you can listen to from front to back," he says. "It's a good listen."

"The concept is kind of like night and day," Fagan says of his new sound. "I'm combining the island energy that I love so much and that I'm from — I grew up two blocks from the water on Folly in a little beach shack. I'm keeping that energy, but mixing it with all of the stuff that I've learned from Los Angeles and Nashville, and these big-game writers and producers."

Fagan describes his new stuff in a similar philosophy to the Hooligans. "My music has a duality to it, where one song might sound bright and sunshiny, top down, going to the beach, and the next might be a club banger that you want to jump around in the club to," he says.

The new songs are more electronic-oriented, with Fagan incorporating a DJ just as much as live instruments. "I love the band aspect, but it gets to point where it burns you out trying to manage everyone's schedules and personalities," he says.

What he never tires of, though, are his roots, which continue to give him ongoing inspiration. "I grew up a little barefoot kid running around with my brother on the beach," he says. "The natural energy of the beach pairs directly in my soul with kind of an island-y reggae vibe."

RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

Long, Strange Trip

The road Fagan took was full of unexpected twists and lucky breaks, but that doesn't discount the labor he's put in. "It's been a crazy amount of work," he says. "I've put more hours into it than people put in nine-to-five for 30 years." In addition to the tireless songwriting and touring, Fagan pushes hard to network, juggles work life in three different places, and continues to grow key contacts in Nashville and L.A. Fagan's future endeavors, like turning his name into a lifestyle brand complete with clothing, shoes, and beer sponsors, are a sure thing for someone so industrious. "I've got big hopes for Ben," says Chris Gelbuda. "He's got the gift of hustle and he really understands how to make people have a good time, which is so important. So many musicians make their song and their craft about them, and Ben's whole thing is more outward."

But even he can't help but be surprised at some of the turns in his road. "I don't plan that far ahead in terms of ultimate goal. It's always been lifestyle-driven. I never expected to have a platinum plaque on the wall. That was a total surprise. I definitely didn't plan on being on a reality show. I got recruited for that. It's just all been a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other evolution. It's all surprising, but it's all not surprising, because I've gone hard as shit constantly in a general direction," says Fagan. "It's all just been based around wanting to have fun and making music and meet new people and travel. It's all been a very pleasant surprise."


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