We caught up with London-based Singer-Songwriter, Benedict Benjamin, following his recent UK tour as bass player for Samantha Crain. Ahead of the Shacklewell Arms show this month, learn how his solo and band experiences compares, the writing process behind his recent debut: ‘Night Songs’ and his thoughts on the music industry.
So you’ve just home from touring with Samantha Crain – how did that all come about and how was the experience?
I supported and played guitar for her when she was touring Under Thorn and Branch and Tree, someone from her label asked me and we got on really well so she asked me to play in her band for this tour. She’s a very cool, really funny person and an amazing songwriter. I was a bit worried as this is the first tour I’ve done since having a kid but it’s been great and I love playing her songs.
Although you perform as both a solo and band musician, what set-up do you prefer? How is it performing without a band as backing when it’s just yourself singing vulnerable songs to an attentive audience?
I‘ve started to get a bit too comfortable with being in a band, it makes playing solo shows that little bit harder. I just love making all that noise and playing those arrangements. The record wasn’t made as a band so it felt pretty amazing the first time the band got together and actually played all those parts that had never actually been played altogether at the same time in one room. I think I still feel that glow whenever we get together. I do enjoy solo shows, I like how audiences at those shows will listen to your lyrics more but if I had to choose one set up over the other I’d vote for the band.
How would you say the dynamics compare between your set-up today to your previous outfits, both Peggy Sue and The Mariners Children?
If you mean dynamics in the songwriting it’s pretty different to Mariners. I wanted the arrangements to be a lot more stripped down than the songs we wrote and I’m not so concerned about the grand climaxes as I used to be! I wanted to write lyrics/songs that were a bit more personal and direct than the ones I wrote then too, I think back then I was often playing with language that I found interesting, it was often a bit more of a creative writing excercise than these songs are. I think there’s probably a greater weight of personal sh*t to pure creative writing in the new songs than there used to be. There’s still a fair amount of license taken but maybe not as much, I’m older now so I’ve got more stuff to write about I guess. With Peggy Sue my creativity was restricted to just the bass parts so my experience is obviously pretty different in terms of the process but I still really look up to Katy and Rosa as songwriters and guess what I’m doing now isn’t a million miles away from Peggy Sue songs. Just realised that you may mean a whole different kind of dynamic as in how things work within the group! I guess in Benedict Benjamin I write the songs and do 90% of the arranging but I’ve collaborated a lot with Dan Blackett and I really enjoy working with him. At the moment the band kind of play what we work out. Whereas with Mariners there was some dictating but all the arranging was very democratic.
As with the writing of your debut: ‘Night Songs’ was that written independently as solo material or did you, from an early point, write alongside band members and with them in mind?
It was all solo at the start, I wasn’t sure I wanted any arrangement and then I added one part, then another and it just spiralled into something I hadn’t originally intended it to be at all. Which I find kind of insane looking back! The next album will be much more of a band album.
So as to give us a little background to your career as a musician, at what point did you enter music? Do you come from a musical family?
I’ve played guitar since I was 9 years-old and started writing songs around then too so it was something I always wanted to do. My dad was in bands when he was younger and was always really supportive. He was in a kind of folk band called Ora in the sixties and a prog band called byzantium in the seventies. He taught me a lot about songwriting and he’s still someone I always play new songs too pretty early on.
Did you go to university, if so, what did you study and what would you say your subject feeds into your music in anyway?
I did, I studied history at Sussex and really enjoyed and valued it but aside from using that time to develop my musical education it hasn’t really played into what I do now. I feel quite sad and ambivalent about that. I got a lot from my time there but I don’t know what I’d recommend to someone who wants to do music now. Studying history definitely shaped how I view the world and that definitely goes into how I write songs but that’s a pretty expensive way to add a little bit of extra insight to your songwriting!
If you could contribute to the music industry in other ways, alongside being a songwriter what would you like to do and is there anything you would like to change about the way it’s run?
I don’t know, I really just wanna write and play songs! I think that’s the only thing I want to do in the music industry. I got work experiecne at some labels that will remain nameless when I was younger and quickly realised that I was there for totally the wrong reasons, which was that I just wanted to play music and wanted to be close something associated with that. Think there’s a lot of misguided young people who do the same thing! In terms of changing how it’s run, it’s really hard at the moment as there’s so little money. The things I’d like to change all depend on more investment and when there’s such diminished returns that’s perhaps just wishful thinking.
When it comes to airtime, how big of an impact does radio support have? Apart from the immediate effect upon the listeners, in the long-term is there really anything that supports you as an artist greater than regular gigging?
Touring is the most reliable revenue stream, I’m certainly not at a point where radio earns me much income, it’s just publicity. In terms of it’s impact though it’s always quite hard to quantify these things. I know it’s having an impact but I can’t really measure it outside social media and I don’t think it’s had much more of an effect of press pieces or certain gigs.
Recording and releasing music as an independent must make you a stronger person but perhaps it also has it’s challenges – is there anything you would like to change in the way music is bought and distributed?
I’ve got no specific complaints about how it’s bought and distributed, I’m not a business visionary I just kind of accept how things work and try to work within that. Streaming services are definitely a necessary compromise with piracy but it’s crazy how few people buy music now. That’s my main complaint.
When giving a live performance, you really connect with the audience, between your honest, relatable lyrics and your sense of comic relief in-between songs. Have you always been comfortable with performance? Perhaps you could talk us through times of highlights and lowlights?
I haven’t always been and I’d say I still nerves every now and then, often for no explicable reason. I think it’s just something you have to do a lot, the more you do it the less it freaks you out. Being tired and hungover doesn’t help in my mind though. I think lowlights for me were on tours where I was getting drunk a lot. Some of the shows on those tours I really enjoyed and then others were the worst ever, I had no energy to be remotely entertaining. So I don’t really drink before shows anymore, I’m pretty well behaved.
What is your greatest achievement in music to date and what are your future musical aspirations?
I don’t really feel I’ve achieved much yet. I’m really happy with ‘Night Songs’ but I’m hoping any greatest achievements haven’t already happened!
Listening to ‘Night Songs’ feels as though it might have been a cathartic process because of the very open lyricism. How was the songwriting process for you?
It might not sound it but I really enjoyed it. What I was writing about wasn’t fun and going through it wasn’t fun but when it came to writing I had enough distance to feel pretty clear and i just wrote and wrote for 3 months, so yeah cathartic is definitely how I’d describe it. I’d also just started playing with Dan (Blackett) and that was really encouraging and probably inspired me to write more too. Then I think the whole thing was written in that period which is really fast for me.
We’re looking forward to new material, can we expect anything exciting from Benedict Benjamin in the coming months?
Nothing over the next couple months as I’ve just had a kid and I’m setting aside a bit of time to get know her!
Before your eagerly anticipated follow-up to your debut, have you have plans to tour this record outside the UK?
I’d love to but I don’t think it’s gonna happen before the next album. I’ll keep you posted though!