Originally published in The Irish Times, August 21st 2009
WHEN DOES a musical side project stop being a cheeky indulgence and start being the activity that launches the most successful period of a musician’s career? It seems disheartening, in a way, that a hardworking solo artist spends years lugging a battered guitar case around the world forging a fanbase, only to have all that donkey work brushed over in favour of a fleeting moment of fame.
It happened to Brendan Benson. The baby-faced mop-top from Michigan has had a moderately successful solo career, releasing three excellent albums that brim with vibrant melodies, honeyed vocals and distinctive guitar-pop riffs. But it wasn’t until he formed The Raconteurs with a group of old buddies from Detroit that the wider world recognised his potency as a songwriter.
Benson is now back with solo album No 4, My Old, Familiar Friend , and is in the unusual position of having his name acknowledged on a grander scale for the first time in his career. The gleaming light hidden under a bushel for more than a decade is finally beginning to filter through, but the 38-year-old recognises its bittersweet nature.
“I think especially for those of us in the band who had never had ‘success’, it was so thrilling, so rewarding,” he says of The Raconteurs’ unexpected and elongated life. “I mean, I’ve been doing it for, like, 20 years and all I had to do was get in a band with Jack the whole time!”
That’s Jack as in Jack White: old friend, co-writer in the band formed as an outlet for his heavier material, and one half of one of the biggest rock duos of the 21st century, The White Stripes. White’s gargantuan profile dwarfed those of his fellow Raconteurs, with most critics and fans describing them as “Jack White’s new band”. But, as any loyal Bensonite will tell you, such pronouncements are a major slight on their hero’s talent. Occasionally they were a source of mild irritation for the man himself.
“There were moments, depending on what kind of day I was having, when it would really get to me, make me kind of miffed and resentful. But it never lasted long. And a lot of times, y’know, I kind of enjoyed the anonymity of being in ‘Jack White’s band’, or being part of ‘Jack White and company’, or ‘Jack White and the boys’. Then there were days when I was really feeling like, well . . . ultimately, where am I headed? Am I headed for eternal obscurity?
“But I’m very proud of The Raconteurs stuff. It’s almost like I got my music out to a ton of people, and they like it, and it proves – well, I don’t know what it’s proof of. Maybe it’s proof that the music I write is appealing, and could possibly be very successful and popular.”
The success of his extra-curricular activities meant Benson’s solo career was put on ice for slightly longer than intended; his last album ( The Alternative to Love ) was released in 2005. Returning to solitary creative confinement never proved problematic, though, and his approach to writing songs for My Old, Familiar Friend remained the same.
“It was never an issue. I just never stopped writing, and even a lot of The Raconteurs stuff – a lot of times, there were songs that were pretty much completed that I had written; Jack and I didn’t really write songs together from the ground up very often. So I was just writing all the time, and showing The Raconteurs a song, and keeping others for myself.
“I knew there was stuff that was a little more aggressive, that rocked a lot harder, and naturally I would think The Raconteurs would do the best job with them. But not always. Sometimes I would just play a song at rehearsal and the guys might join in. Sometimes it would sound good and sometimes it didn’t – they didn’t get it. And sometimes I would think, ‘I can do this better. I’ve got ideas for this song, and I don’t wanna give it up, or share it.’”
Now that his star has been sufficiently buffed, Benson is aware it’s a critical time. Having dealt with label trouble in the past – the singer was dropped by Virgin after his 1996 debut ( One Mississippi) failed to clock up significant sales – he’s conscious of the pressure to deliver a strong album.
“I tried to put it out of my mind and tried not to think about things like that, but, yeah, that was kind of the word around the camp. Poised and Ready is kind of about that – being poised for greatness, or whatever, and the sense that my ship has come in and all that. But I don’t know, we’ll see about that. I have serious doubts about it.
“I know for sure that a lot more people know who I am. I think my audience now will be bigger, but how much I’m not sure. I’m not so sure that it’s going to be anything huge, or massive. I think it’ll be a little bit bigger, and for me, that’s great. I’m totally cool with that, if it’s a gradual thing.”
The affability and lack of ego in such a statement is cemented by Benson’s apologetic, good-humoured admittance that he hates interviews and “would rather talk about other stuff”. At the same time, he’s aware of how such an anti-industry mindset can be damaging to his career. “I need more of a strategy, more of a marketing ploy,” he agrees. “I’ve never had that. The Raconteurs obviously had Jack, and he’s very smart about marketing. So it’s not just his name, he’s also got a good sense for marketing, which I admire a lot. But I still can’t bring myself to do it. I can’t promote myself.”
He shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Produced by Gil Norton, My Old, Familiar Friend is a gem of an album. Wide-eyed tunes with bouncy choruses and gleefully simplistic melodiessit alongside sombre, dark-edged numbers. Benson says choosing a producer renowned for his heavier leanings (Norton has produced albums by Foo Fighters, Pixies and The Distillers) certainly wasn’t part of any strategy to make a scuzzy, harder-sounding record after his recent exertions.
“I thought the obvious thing would have been for me to make a really hard rock record, but if anything, to rock the boat, I might have made the guitars cleaner,” he says. “Gil had a real heavy hand in the sound of the record, it was almost not even in my control at times. But I didn’t want him for the stuff he’d done before, for his sound. He doesn’t really have a sound, which is great. He just works well with people, whether it’s the Foo Fighters or the Pixies or Throwing Muses or Maximo Park. He can make any kind of record, and is just very sympathetic to the music.”
Benson is adamant that there’s no conscious theme to any of his albums, but many of his lyrics deal with relationships in a clever, darkly humorous way, unparalleled by his contemporaries. He also claims to be baffled by his music being uniformly tagged with the rudimentary description of “power-pop”.
“I don’t get that at all,” he laughs, “and it sounds so pretentious to say, but I cringe about having a word that describes my music. It’s terrible. So I don’t like it so much. But I do understand that you have to give people some idea of what it is, so that’s fair. But no, if I had it my way, I would call it rock. Rock’n’roll.
“Well, pop is also just popular music, isn’t it? That’s what the original meaning of the word was. So it could also be, like . . . Britney Spears, or it could be Queens of the Stone Age, you know? They’re both popular. Then you have ‘power’, too. What does that even mean? Is that like, Weezer? Or it could be The Buzzcocks.
“I think the goal is to write a song that, whether it’s simple or not, it sounds like you don’t give it a second thought, or notice the song. You just feel it, it just moves you.”
Solo artist, Raconteur, musician, guitarist, singer, songwriter, performer: labels simply don’t befit Brendan Benson. He doesn’t know what the future will bring or how far this album will take him, but he’ll keep lugging his battered guitar case around the world, alone or with friends, like he has done for the past two decades.
“I would really like to make a name for myself, but, uh, man, I’m not sure what that expression even means,” he says with a smile in his voice. “I’d just like to be known, I guess. Be recognised for writing good music.”