As Brendan Benson returns with his seventh solo record, he talks about how his life and songwriting have turned around in the last years, becoming more positive and openly honest with himself. The result is one of his best records to date.
Check out Louder Than War’s review of Dear Life by Brendan Benson here.
Hi Brendan. How are you doing?
I’m good man.
Congratulations on the new record. It sounds great. But it’s been a long time since your last solo record. What took you so long to get to this one?
Thanks very much. There were a lot of different things going on. I had kids, I was producing some records, co-writing. I just sort of went off on a different road for a while. And then, of course, The Raconteurs, and now it seems like the right time. Well, aside from the virus.
Yeah, I imagine it must feel a bit frustrating in some ways to be putting the album out now.
It’s kind of weird. I don’t know how I feel about it. It might be a good thing. People are home and probably streaming more than ever, but not being able to tour it and play for people is kind of a drag. I mean, I’m doing a live Instagram thing where I play a song every day. It’s not the same but I guess it is what it is.
It’s interesting hearing the first two songs on the record as they’re more synth-based and use the programmed drums. They sound less organic than your previous work. What led you in that direction?
It was kind more out of necessity, but obviously I have used synthesisers quite a lot before. It’s not so folk-rock. It’s not so singer-songwriter kind of music as I still want it to sound like a band were to play them. I’ve always done it that way, but this time I wasn’t able to. I didn’t have a studio. The building was torn down and I had to move everything into storage. I was just at home with a simple rig in the basement and I couldn’t really set up drums or play guitar or anything so I just went searching in the box for new sounds and that’s what I came up with. It was just my environment dictating what I would use on the songs. Plus I’ve been listening to a lot of hip-hop and I’m sure that’s been influencing things. I like the different textures. I’m not always excited by an acoustic guitar sound so I go looking for other inspiration; sounds, textures, whatever.
In that sense, are any of the songs on the new records one that you’ve held back from previous albums because they didn’t quite fit?
Actually, they weren’t held back, but I did have more than I needed, so I used stuff for The Raconteurs. There was stuff that didn’t fit on my record that seemed like more suited for The Raconteurs. So I would do that kind of thing. Also, the songs are a few years old by now because it’s just been so long. It’s weird. They’re not exactly brand spanking new, but they’re still new to me. They still feel fresh. I haven’t really performed them.
I was going to touch on that with collaborations you’ve done over the years. You started out working with Jason Faulkner, obviously with The Raconteurs, Willy Mason, played with the guys from The Posies and written for other people. How do you make the decision about what you’re going to hold back for yourself and what you’ll use for other people or other projects?
I think there’s different things going on. It’s different in every case and sometimes I’ve been wrong. I’ve saved songs thinking that they’d be good Raconteurs songs and the band just didn’t really get it. It’s not always an exact science and then there are just certain songs, like Only Child, which I had and it just didn’t fit on my record. It’s on a case by case basis. I wrote a song with Will Hogue here in town, in Nashville, just as a matter of course. I was kind of co-writing with people and Will and I got on the books as they say and we wrote Baby’s Eyes. I really liked it and in the end, so I put in on my record. I don’t know, there’s no formula. It’s just gut instinct.
When you go into a collaboration, as an artist, what are you looking for?
Well, I should say at this point that I don’t like to do it anymore. It just comes down to the relationship. In Nashville, it’s not uncommon, in fact it’s very common for writers to get together, to meet for the very first time, spend three hours together and write a song. I just can’t do that. It takes me three hours just to say hello. I don’t know. It takes me that long to just get accustomed to who I’m sitting with, with strangers. Other people are really good at it and they can do it on command and they can write a song in three hours. Frankly, you can hear it on the radio. So I realised that I wasn’t very good. I’m slow. I look for co-writers that are kind of like me and don’t mind taking artistic liberties and being strange, saying something just because it sounds cool, but you can’t explain why it sounds cool. Doing those co-writing sessions a lot, I just couldn’t take it. You come up with a line and then have to explain the line to the other person, to sell them on it.
It must feel like you’re a salesman rather than just letting it flow.
It feels like you’re sitting in a boardroom instead of just vibing off each other. That’s what Jack and I do and that’s what Willy and I did. I’ve come across few people that I’ve really liked working with, that are like-minded.
Is there anyone that you would still like to work with that you haven’t yet?
Yeah, but they’re probably people that you’d be shocked. I’d like to work with say ASAP Ferg, Q-Tip or Cardi B. Those people are doing interesting stuff and I want to know what’s going on in the studio when they’re writing. It’s like intriguing to me. It’s funny. I just spoke about needing like-minded people to write with, but maybe that’s not really the case. I guess I need somebody with something to offer, someone I respect. You don’t always have to have a relationship to write together. It’s not that precious. When it’s your job, doing it every day, it’s like “fuck this”. That’s why I’m so excited about this record, because I was lying in wait, waiting to say what I wanted to say. Not being able to do it, producing somebody else’s record and not being able to put my ideas in there, this record was a big exorcism. It was like “This is what I’m trying to say” and “This is what I think is cool”.
When I listen back through your previous albums, lots of the songs feel like very personal windows, like you’re opening a piece of yourself to the public. In terms of writing, how cathartic is it for you as a process?
I’m not sure. It’s cathartic in that it fills me with a sense of purpose while I’m writing and in that zone. That feels good to me, feeling like you’re doing something important, but I think a lot of the times it happens more in retrospect. I look back on a song and can see like “Wow, I think I was in a really rough patch there.” I can analyse things after the fact. I’ve heard people say how cathartic it is to write, and maybe it is, but I don’t really notice. I feel it if I haven’t written for a while. I feel discontent and a little depressed. So maybe it is cathartic, but I can’t say exactly how.
It’s almost like the songs are like a diary that you open a year or two later and look back on.
Yeah, that’s a good analogy. With a journal I guess sometimes you’re not so consciously aware, but you feel like it works as a way of organising your thoughts. But, if you’re me, an hour later you’re lost again. It’s like an impulse or a compulsion for me.
Listening to the new record, it’s probably the most positive record lyrically that you’ve written for a long time.
Yeah it is, and I think I feel that. I’m working on that too. I’ve spent my whole life feeling like I’m having a pity party, singing about “Woe is me.” Again, that wasn’t a conscious thing, to make a positive record. It’s so hard to do interviews sometimes as you have to come up with an explanation and often I have none. I don’t really have a firm grasp or understanding on why I do what I do, or even what I do, but, of course, I understand the process and I want to let people in, to let them know how it happens. To not have some sweet explanation about this record, I don’t know, I should have some really lofty things to say about it. I feel like I’ve kind of said it. That’s the conundrum. It always has been.
I guess that with any artist, if it just flows out, they don’t necessarily know where it’s coming from, but just that it feels right.
Yeah, and maybe not attaching so much importance to it either. I look around me and I see people talking about their art and music and I feel like a lot of it is kind of phoney. That’s my personal hunch and I just never want to be that person, I think. I want to try to be realistic about these things. The answers are simple sometimes. Billie Eilish I’m sure could shock and stun you and say some shit.
Have you ever had a moment when you’ve written something and then felt that perhaps you’d shared too much, something too personal and should’ve held back?
Yeah, I do that quite a bit. It’s something that I’ve been working on forever. I think it’s hard for anybody and on this record I think I’ve said some things that I’m proud of because they’re so direct and so plain. I didn’t really search for any euphemism or any way to disguise it. I just said it and I think that it’s something that I’ve picked up from rap. I like that they’re sometimes talking about some plain and mundane things, like “Yo, text me. I’ll hit you back later.” That’s real shit though. Most of the time in rap they’re not saying anything super pertinent, but I like the language and I just think it’s really direct. They’re just freestyling most of the time and saying what comes to mind. So, I tried that. I heard a saying here in Nashville that’s “Just say it”, meaning when you’re thinking of a way to say something and can’t figure out the way, just say it. It sounds silly, but when you’re writing a song it’s a great thing to remember. You get caught up in trying to say it in such a beautiful way, a way that you might not ever say it. Maybe the best thing to do is just say it. It’s probably not going to read well in an interview, but that’s it. You know what I mean?
Yeah, there’s not always the need to wrap the message in flowery language and hide your meaning.
That’s it. Hemmingway was known for not dressing things up so fancily, no fluff. Be very accurate and precise. I like that and always have. Those are the kind of books I like to read. I don’t really go for heavily descriptive work. I do like it sometimes, but people like John Updike, he’s a favourite of mine. He’s got a great command of the language and just describes things perfectly and so efficiently without laying it on. The Beatles did that. Every word counted and was perfectly placed. Others try and dress it up. It’s like a woman with a ton of makeup that you identify as beautiful, but when you take the makeup off you see it was a trick. Maybe that’s a bad analogy, but I do think that. You paint your face in a way that represents beauty. You don’t necessarily feel it. You identify it. It’s weird.
In that way, do you feel that you’ve turned a corner in your writing?
Yeah, I think I’ve made some headway, some strides on this record and it does inspire me to make more. It’s enjoyable and satisfying to write like that, to just write honestly. And I’m doing that in my life now with everything and that’s a new thing for me. I’m trying to strip it down and be honest, unfettered, unadulterated. I’m on a trip I guess. I’m almost 50 years old and thinking more about how I’ve been conducting myself. I think this record is a lot of that. I think it’s all life and death.
Is that something that becoming a father has made you more aware of and fed into the record?
Definitely. It’s changed me and I feel like it’s made me a different person. I don’t long for much anymore. I’m married to a beautiful woman and very happily married. These are all real things. They’re maybe not too sexy, but they’re real. So that’s what I have to sing about. It’d be a lie if I was singing about girls again, which I tend to do. It’s the go-to. I think I’ve always been accused of wearing my heart on my sleeve and all that crap and I’m not that guy anymore. I’ve figured some shit out.
And are you still working on things with your label, Readymade Records?
Man, that was a money pit. I lost a lot on that and it’s one of the reasons it took so long to get back. I didn’t know what I was doing either businesswise. I see Jack and Third Man Records and see what I tried to do was just a pipe dream. I wanted to work on stuff that I liked and put it out. I thought that there’d be enough people to like it, but it didn’t work that way. People like Young Hines, Cory Chisel. They were great. And the records I produced didn’t become very successful, but they’re still good. You’ve got to go and listen to The State I’m in by Leigh Nash (Sixpence None The Richer) and the latest by Robyn Hitchcock (The Soft Boys).
I wanted to ask you, now that we’re all in this lockdown and in some way people are looking again at full albums, what album you’d recommend listening to from start to finish with absolutely no distractions.
That’s like any one of my records! Okay, right now I would do that with a Gram Parsons record, no, I’ll change that. Right now I’d listen to Merle Haggard. People are going to think I’m all country and shit, but it’s because he’s such a great songwriter and it’s such a good record. I was listening to it just the other day; it’s still on my turntable and it’s so fucking great. I’d put on Mama Tried by Merle Haggard. Or I’d listen to Nilsson Sings Newman, Harry Nilsson covering Randy Newman.
To wrap up, when all this situation passes, have you got plans to get over and play in Europe?
We’re trying to figure all that out and reschedule a tour. It’s proving to be kind of difficult because everybody else is doing the same. Everyone’s scrambling, but now they’re talking about festivals not starting up until next year. Not sure how to plan, it’s so weird. But I will definitely get over to the UK and Europe. I love playing over there. I have a great following and do well there. The shows are always great, always fucking killer, especially in the north of England. I’ll get back for sure.
Great to hear. We look forward to seeing you over here.
Me too. Now go put on the Merle Haggard record!
Dear Life by Brendan Benson is released on the 24th of April on Third Man Records.
Read our full review of the album here.
Photo credits: Zackery Michael
All words by Nathan Whittle. Find his Louder Than War archive here.