Life is full of ups and downs. That’s what makes it interesting, and also makes for interesting songwriting. It’s when those obstacles actually get in the way of music making it out of the recording studio that things are less on the interesting side and lean heavier in the area of frustration.
Brendan Benson knows all those feelings all too well. Like many musicians before him, he heard grand plans for a career in the music business. But when reality set in and the dollars from his first release One Mississippi didn’t fly in huge numbers, he was out of his label contract, left with his heart in his hand and a ton more music to deliver.
Six years later saw his self-release of Lapalco in 2002, providing the next chapter to his musical saga and a step up for the songwriter. Move forward again to 2005 and he’s going for his trifecta with the debut release The Alternative To Love at this new home with V2 Records. With more years of experience under his belt and a new set of songs in the can, Benson is ready to once again take on the world, one gig at a time. We caught up with him for a bit, getting in line with other journalists who were also vying for a time slot to speak with the Detroit songwriter.
Kaffeine Buzz: So are you all interviewed out yet?
Brendan Benson: Just about. But I never can tell until it’s started.
KB: Well, okay (gulp). Well, I have to say I really enjoyed the new album…it seems like you’ve gone through some trials and tribulations to get to this point.
BB: It’s been a long haul.
KB: I guess it’s been a few years, going through some of the cliché things that bands go through as far as label stuff goes. But you’re over that hump and getting some recognition now. I understand you went over to Japan for a little while?
BB: We were over there for just four or five days I think. We did an acoustic show and some press and stuff, you know.
KB: How did that go for you?
BB: It was great. It’s always an adventure over there.
KB: I’ve talked to a number of different bands that have toured over there and they all come back saying how enthusiastic the crowds are, how much the Japanese love American rock. So how has the tour been going for you so far?
BB: It’s been going really well. We’ve only played four shows. We had a great time in Detroit.
KB: Well of course, being it’s your home town and all. How did that local music scene support you when you were first starting out?
BB: Well, when I put out my first record I was living in California. So it’s kind of difficult to say, although the last two records I’ve been at home, and they’ve been super supportive. This one especially, they’re really kind of…I don’t know…I think everyone in Detroit would like to see me have my day.
KB: It’s interesting, when you released that single “Folk Song” I thought it was kind of funny, because when I first heard your release, I thought of Michael Penn and Nick Heyward who are officially singer/songwriters. But the term ‘songwriter’ always seems to have that kind of singing Joan Baez songs connotation.
BB: (laughs) Exactly, exactly.
KB: So that song kind of took a stab at that type of thing in a tongue and cheek way, but not everybody got it I guess.
BB: No…in fact, I think that kind of…well, ruined me would be kind of too dramatic, but it turned a lot of people off…just the title “Folk Singer.” And the whole time I was really trying to prove a point that I’m not like that at all.
KB: Exactly. And I think there’s something so intimate about one person with nothing but a guitar and their voice that can connect with the audience. But I think that the fact you have such a wide range is a tribute to your musical skills and your upbringing, and impacts the overall outcome. Speaking of upbringing, I always find it interesting to hear about what musicians were exposed to as children in terms of music. I wanted to find out how you feel your parents’ musical influences may have impacted you.
BB: I feel sort of fortunate or lucky, because my parents were young when they had me and so they were still into cool music. So when I was growing up I was hearing Roxy Music and David Bowie, T-Rex just playing in the house. I still love those records. They’re nostalgic for me but they haven’t gotten old.
KB: I think that music is still relative because you hear those elements today. Musicians draw from the past. It’s just kind of a given. So they can become timeless of sorts.
BB: Right. In most art it’s that way. I painted for a while. In fact, at one point I didn’t know if I wanted to paint or play music. I was pretty serious about it. And that’s all I did was copy old paintings just to learn, you know. I didn’t quite do that with music. In fact, I didn’t learn a whole lot of songs when I was learning to play guitar…I think it was almost detrimental that I didn’t learn enough. I mean, all my friends can pretty much play any classic, and I’m like, ‘Shit, I can’t do that.’ (laughing) I don’t know, I’ve always just done my own thing almost exclusively.
KB: Well what’s impressive is the orchestration, how you mix the organic with more of the computer type of programming or sampling. But one thing that caught me off guard, and in a good way, was the song “Pledge of Allegiance” because it seemed to have this really big band, ‘50s Motown soul kind of thing going on.
BB: (Laughing) Yea, that kind of caught me off guard too. It did kind of happen accidentally. I wasn’t planning on it…I think it was after I’d done the drums before I realized that, ‘Okay, this is still Spectre, this is “Be My Baby” here.’ I’m not a huge fan…I mean, I am a fan of that song for sure, but I just thought, ‘What the hell, I’ll just go with it.’ So I started layering all sorts of things like castanets, tubular bow, stuff like that.
KB: Well it worked. Who was the background vocalist on “Them and Me”?
BB: That was Courtney Sheedey. She’s actually, just sort of an acquaintance. I don’t know her very well, but I heard her around. She plays in Outrageous Cherry and I heard a tape of her singing a Kraftwerk song in German…
KB: Oh wow…
BB: …and she sounded amazing. I knew that she knew French. Does she sing French on that song? No…she doesn’t. But she sings French on another song. Anyhow, what I heard was kind of that French, ‘60s cinema kind of sound…
KB: Right, that cinema, spy movie kind of thing.
BB: Yea, but I’m not sure if it came across that way in the song. Still, I think she’s got a beautiful voice.
KB: She is amazing. Do you plan to use her again in the future?
BB: Maybe. It was really kind of a whim. If she’s around next time, sure. I like the idea of having a woman’s voice…so if it’s not her maybe it will be someone else.
KB: Well, I apologize if you’ve been asked this a bunch already, but I’m always curious to find out when you do productions like this where it’s mainly you behind the majority of the music or you work to collaborate with others in the studio, how do you go about getting that on the road?
BB: (Sighs, then laughs) It’s always kind of a drag. This time it was pretty simple. I couldn’t be happier with the band I’m with now. Matt, the drummer that played with me on Lapalco, he was in. I just needed to find a bass player and a guitar player. I was also working a bit with the Waxwings on their record and stuff. Dean from the Waxwings kind of became available, and I went to high school with Dean, so that worked out perfectly. Then I met Michael Horrigan who played bass, kind of a couple years ago I guess. Matt had suggested him and he’s worked out great. It’s a great band.
KB: That makes so much of a difference, if you’re going to spend so much time on the road…
BB: I think that’s almost as equally as important as their ability or their sound. Being able to travel, and as it happens, it’s a blast. We get along really well.
KB: And if you have that chemistry off stage you’re going to have it on stage.
BB: You’re absolutely right.
KB: Well I read that you’re a big fan of Elvis Costello, and I got to hear him speak out at SXSW.
BB: Wow, that must have been cool…speak?
KB: Yea, they did an interview with him on stage and he talked about all the trials and tribulations he went through with his labels and such, his musical history and what he’s been through over the years.
BB: Wow, that must have been great.
KB: It was a cool experience to hear how he got to the level that he’s at, despite the issues he had as most of you guys do…
BB: (Laughing) I bet.
KB: Well, it just gives you some perspective of what musicians go through to finally make it on stage or release a record.
BB: Yea, I don’t know his story too well, but I do know he’s been through the mill. But even without knowing he’s still been an inspiration because he’s managed to put out so many records. I don’t know if he ever had a hit single. I mean, I’m not sure how popular “Watching the Detectives” was like on the charts or whatever. I don’t think he’s ever sold a ton of records, you know? Now this is my impression, so I don’t know for a fact. He’s sold consistently enough and he’s recognized as being a huge, huge talent. He’s undeniable, that guy.
KB: Have you ever gotten to speak with him?
BB: I’ve never spoken to him. I was at a club with him…not with him…but at the same club as him and that was just a thrill. I didn’t even say hi, but it was funny…we were at Largo in L.A. Have you heard of that place?
KB: No I haven’t.
BB: Well, Jon Brion, he’s a bit of a younger legend. He’s done a lot of movie scores and solo records, and he’s worked with…anyhow, he has a show at this club and usually someone will show up and get on stage and play. Joni Mitchell I think has gotten up and done some stuff, and like Tom Waits…it’s totally cool. But he was there this one night but he didn’t get up. I was disappointed. But I heard that he’s done it in the past, gotten up and played piano without a microphone and apparently he’s just loud…his voice just carries.
KB: I guess the reason I brought him up was; he’s an example of what can happen for certain musicians even after they’ve gone through those growing pains, for lack of a better term. How do you feel about things for yourself moving forward?
BB: Well, I’ve learned to be realistic about things. I think I was naïve at the beginning in believing what people were telling me, which was that…promising me the world kind of, you know what I mean? And I think I know that I’m not going to sell millions of records, so you just have to plan accordingly. I’m on good label now and everyone has the same expectations and we’re all thinking the same way. And it just seems like generally there’s this willingness to kind of see me succeed by a lot of people in the industry. (laughing) They realize that I’m not going away, you know?
No, he’s not going away. The funny thing was weeks after our interview I was escaping a pile of work on my desk by browsing through magazines at Barnes and Nobel. Quite subtly, I heard a familiar voice trailing through the store and subconsciously started humming and singing along. It wasn’t until I got a few looks by the store’s patrons that I came out of my coma and realized it was Benson playing. I couldn’t help but smile, if ever so sheepishly, as I placed the magazine back on the rack and quietly left the building.
This Friday, May 13 I won’t have to hide my desire to sing along as Brendan Benson comes to the Fillmore, opening up for the pop stars Keane.