Ann Arbor Musician Overcomes Fears to Forge Collaborations for Ambitious Psych-Rock Album

Songwriter Ben Freedman worked through his own anxieties for a breakout album. The result fuses psych-rock and free jazz that aims to “transport” listeners.

Musician Ben Freedman is the one constant member of a fluid cast of contributors that make up Vision Explored, an Ann Arbor-based “New Gaze” collective that bridges the adventurous arrangements of jazz to the gnarly-spacey sounds of shoegaze and indie-rock.

WDET is streaming a new single, “New Age,” from their new full length album, “Voyages,” above.  

The ‘exploration’ suggested in the band’s name, was inspired by Freedman’s experimentation with psychedelics back in 2011, when he was living in Burlington, Vermont. While that provided a certain kind of awakening for the guitarist/keyboardist, it wasn’t entirely a true turning point for Freedman. The band started gaining productive momentum in the fall of 2014, but Freedman considers an 18-month period in between those years to be “lost” due to his battle against heroin addiction. He got clean from heroin one week into 2013 and hasn’t slipped since.  

“You can stop. You’re capable of doing most anything you want. I’m proof.” – Ben Freedman

Recovery, then collaboration

Ben Freedman

That’s when he decided it was time to get over his fears and anxiety about performing and sharing his music. On a whim, he contacted Billy Martin, the drummer of an esteemed Brooklyn-based experimental jazz trio, Medeski Martin & Wood, inquiring about a potential collaboration. He agreed and they began collaborating, which pushed Freedman to continue songwriting in this space.

“I just decided to keep the momentum going,” says Freedman.

Soon, his long-distance collaborations stretched down to Mexico City, where musician/producer Todd Clouser and drummer Herman Hecht are based. Freedman says he was elated to discover that all he had to do to make a procession of creative connections that wound up building Vision Explored’s new album was to simply ask

“Honestly, I’ve been really introverted most of my life,” says Freedman. “But I decided to work on all of that” in 2013. When he looks back on overcoming his drug addiction, he’s conscious of how many people, as well as fellow musicians, are still trapped in similar straits:

“This doesn’t have to be your last chapter,” Freedman says. “You can stop. You’re capable of doing most anything you want. I’m proof.” 

These musicians “each probably remember what it was like to start in this business, which is pretty dang cutthroat,” says Freedman.

Fusing passions

Vision Explored’s music, and particularly the songs of the new album, fuses rock instrumentation with a jazz-like approach to arrangement, blending guitars and drums with saxophone and violin. You’ll hear a variety of talented musicians leaving their own signatures in the songs, with Freedman adding his melodic phrases via guitar and keyboards. 

And while there are plenty categories you could attempt to apply to this music — psych rock, progressive rock, or even Freedman’s own designation, ‘new gaze’ — it’s ultimate essence is captured by the spirit of adventure and head-in-the-clouds contemplation suggested by  the band’s name.

And in addition to his collaborations with artists in the local music scene, Freedman incorporates spoken word artists and a samples of interviews he conducted with former UFO Investigator for the UK Ministry of Defense Nick Pope and Dr. Dean Radin, the head of the Institute of Noetic Science, which studies the nature of reality. 

He added that “having one of my favorite drummers of all time sign on as the first guest definitely helped with confidence.” He was also able to connect with Seattle-based avant-saxophonist Skerik Skerik, and guitarist Neal Casal, a former member of the Cardinals, along with Martin/Clouser/Hecht. 

These musicians “each probably remember what it was like to start in this business, which is pretty dang cutthroat,” says Freedman. “I just approached them like they were my friends. But I was also able to get most of my musical friends from around here in southeast Michigan, that I love and respect, involved as well.” 

Freedman says there are uniquely “paranormal” qualities to the experience of synchronizing improvisational creation with fellow musicians.

“When you’re jamming, you have these moments where you all just lock in together, in the moment, with no verbal communication.” This, in a sense, is “a departure from everyday normal consciousness,” says Freedman, thus attaining an organic and shared ”psychedelic experience. And my goal with the music is to do exactly that: take people on a journey. They don’t need to be on drugs. I want to create an experience that transports people somewhere else.” 


  • Jeff Milo
    Jeff Milo is the host of "MI Local" on 101.9 WDET. He's a longtime music journalist documenting the Michigan scene for 20 years.