Double Lives: Ben Sharkey

There’s full amplitude to singer Ben Sharkey’s daily show. Working as a 3D artist for visualization tech firm Real Time Technology (RTT) is his day gig. Nights and weekends he belts out jazz-pop ballads around Metro Detroit nightspots. He’s painting a series for his inaugural art exhibition. Seems like the needle never stops moving, and it’s been that way his whole life.

The 31-year-old’s flair was seeded early. Growing up with a mother who sang and played the guitar, Sharkey never had professional voice lessons, but still wrote songs and did the talent show circuit to good response. Raised in Stockbridge, a speck of a village (pop. circa 1,300), Sharkey struck out for the hotspot life his senior year of high school. He made “a rebel move” to the closest big city, Ann Arbor, for its jazz clubs like the Firefly and fine dining venues.

Sharkey went on to receive his BFA in digital animation from the College for Creative Studies in 2007. Post graduation he worked as a commissioned artist, painting for a stable of private residences and local businesses. When custom jobs slowed down, he took employment as a 3-D designer at RTT’s Royal Oak office.

And he kept his vocal chords honey-smooth at night. Jazz fit the Birmingham resident’s new urbanity. “I’ve always wanted to be a metropolitan kind of guy,” Sharkey says. “I like the country, but I’ve always liked culture and the arts and lots of different types of people and diversity. I think jazz definitely captures a big city feel, and I think that’s what really drew me to it.”

In the early days at RTT, he made and posted videos on YouTube as an experiment. Turned out to be a case of right place, right time. In 2007, YouTube featured him singing, “Can I” (by Canadian songwriter Elijah Lucian). It got almost 300,000 views in one week’s time. “I didn’t know I was going to get as much recognition as I did,” he recalls. Cue to turn pro as a performing artist.

For the past two years Sharkey’s been singing with The Ben Sharkey Quartet (or Quintet, depending on the size of his entourage). He thinks Detroit is the right place for his career.

“It would be easier for an artist to build themselves in Detroit than it would be for them to just go to New York or L.A., because I feel you’d just get swallowed up so easily out there. That’s probably why a lot of big people, big names come out of Detroit and Michigan, because it’s a good incubator for talent.” He cites the music program at Wayne State University, where nearly all of his band members have studied, as part if that dynamic.

Sharkey is frequently on at Detroit’s Cliff Bell’s and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge and has played at Crave Sushi Lounge in Dearborn and the Hamilton Room in Birmingham. Shoppers and ladies who lunch can find him some afternoons at Neiman Marcus. And he’s opened for Robin Thicke at the Royal Oak Music Theatre. Lots of variety there, but he’d love for the Fox Theatre to come calling.

Including weddings, six to 10 performances a month is enough to live on, he says, but he likes design work and the stability of a day job. He’s funneling his earnings into his first album, “Day Into Night”, a compilation of nine original songs and two covers. The album will have some familiars – like “Actually”, about a serially spurned lover who’s movin’ out – along with new originals.

His songwriting is on the spot, as the mood strikes – or maybe best described as on the jot. “I have tons of Moleskines in my desk and on me, or I take notes on my phone of different lyrics that might come to mind – or phrases or haikus,” he laughs.

Up to this point he’s been completing the arrangement, finalizing songs and laying down tracks. Eric Hoegemeyer, who’s worked with the up-and-coming Jessica Hernandez and The Deltas, is producer. The album will be recorded at Rustbelt Studios and is set for an October release.

He’s already got a big-city sized cadre of followers online; his YouTube viewings have passed the five-million mark. The vids have an intimate close-in feel; his torso against a backdrop of his own artworks often fills the frame. Three thousand viewers click on Sharkey every day.

“I have Michael Bublé to thank for that,” he says by way of explanation. He’s posted his take-offs on the doll-beautiful Grammy winner’s chipper love vocals (which get You Tube views in the tens of millions apiece), to warm reception. One piece in particular, “Won’t You Come Back to Me?”, a Sharkey original about the silent treatment, has tabbed over 685,000 hits. Sharkey will say only that the Internet works in mysterious ways. “I’m not exactly sure how that one got so many views.” 

Other than getting the occasional double take from visitors to RTT’s office or while traveling, web hype hasn’t impacted him much. He corresponds with fans online, he says, but “there’s a little bit of separation between your regular life and your popularity on the internet.”
A good chunk of his regular life is spent designing for RTT, a supplier of high-end visualization technology often used in print, online, and TV advertising. He’s worked with shoe and apparel brands, but the main focus has been on ads for cars, like the Chevy Volt. The creative is up to him. “You have control over how much glass reflects or the thickness of the glass or how much cushion a leather seat has.”

Seeing a Volt ad as a top banner on YouTube was a funny coincidence, “especially since I have my own videos on You Tube as far as the music goes. To be able to go on YouTube and see something that I did for my day job, that was kind of ironic.”

It’s easier to make a living in visual arts if you’re computer savvy, Sharkey says, but he’s still loyal to canvas. A new set of oils is due for an exhibition he’ll be holding in either Detroit or an Oakland County downtown this fall. Over the last year-and-a-half, he’s been brushing on a “Doll Face” series.

 “It’s kind of a commentary on our view of beauty and the modern world. It touches on plastic surgery and Photo-Shopping and all that kind of stuff.” Expect seven bug faces in a large format, with a sub-series based around that.

“I’ll probably end up releasing an album and having an exhibition around the same time,” he says exultantly.

A fan of Salvador Dalí, Sharkey coins his painting style “pop-surrealism”. Could be a pop surreal experience for him and his fans when the album lands too. Look and listen.

Tanya Muzumdar is the assistant editor for Metromode and Concentrate. She is also Concentrate’s development news editor and a damn fine freelance writer. Her previous article was “Metro Detroit YPs Get Game”.