Interview – Brendan Benson
– by Stephanie MacDonald
Though now well-known for his partnership with White Stripe Jack White in The Raconteurs, Brendan Benson has enjoyed substantial critical, if not commercial, success as a solo singer/songwriter.
From 1996’s One Mississippi, declared by Spin to be the “most criminally ignored album of the ’90s”, to 2002’s fantastic Lapalco (which this writer played, to the exclusion of all other music, for, oh, about a year) to this year’s My Old Familiar Friend, Brendan Benson is now bringing his intelligent and hook-laden power pop on a world tour, coming soon to a venue near you. We caught up with him before a show in Toronto and learned some things about dodgy South American vacations and how to avoid sparkly belt-buckle types in Nashville.
Stephanie MacDonald: So you’re doing a show tonight in Toronto, How’s the big city?
Brendan Benson: Not too great. My hotel is kind of weird, and there’s all this construction going on outside at the moment. I have a view of a deli from my window.
SM: Oh well. So, I always remember this quote from years back: “I’m not a pop star. I don’t have the goods. But I’m fine with that.” Have you got the pop star thing figured out yet?
BB: It hasn’t really sorted itself out yet. I still maintain that attitude that I’m not comfortable with the whole pop star thing – I want to be successful and popular, but not a pop star.
SM: You’ve managed to kind of be the down-low guy in The Raconteurs.
BB: Yeah, that’s sort of the way I like it.
SM: You’ve got My Old Familiar Friend out this month, a Raconteurs album, Consolers of the Lonely, earlier this year and you’re working on another album for next year?
BB: Well I’m doing a collaboration with Ashley Monroe, that’s what will come out next year. At the moment it’s called Ashley Monroe and Brendan Benson, but that’s quite a mouthful isn’t it? Maybe just Ashley and Brendan. That sounds pretty good.
SM: But you’ve been pretty maniacally busy. Do you ever take time to relax?
BB: Well earlier this year I took some time to go to Colombia. Not really my first pick for a holiday, actually, but we have these neighbours and she’s from Colombia and set us up with this house. My girlfriend was really excited about going, and it was her birthday, so I had to go along with it. And it was really fucking gorgeous, as well as cool and interesting culturally. There’s poverty, but the people are amazing and it’s just an incredible place. I had to leave early to do press in Europe, and my girl stayed on and did all the cool stuff like hiking up mountains and swimming around under waterfalls.
SM: No doing blow and shooting people?
BB: No, but I did see some pretty shifty types, around the airport especially, people who definitely looked into that.
SM: Your music never succumbs to the tyranny of irony pervading so much music today. Meaning I guess, your lyrics are authentic and smart without being corny. Do you have someone you run ideas past while you’re writing? Someone who can tell you, “Brendan, a body is not a wonderland. That’s cheesy.”
BB: Well not really, but I do like having someone else’s input. I got Gil Norton to produce this last record for that reason, I couldn’t bear the thought of going back into my room by myself to write songs. He is known for being very disciplined, very strict with high standards. But he didn’t really end up helping with the lyrics – he’s more of a music man.
SM: Did you record the album in your studio?
BB: It was recorded in Nashville and London
SM: Is there a difference between the Nashville songs and the London ones?
BB: A lot of times a studio is a studio and you spend so much time indoors that you kind of forget where you are. It’s funny. So I guess they don’t feel too different.
SM: Since you live in Nashville, are you inundated with the whole scary New Country vibe all the time?
BB: I wouldn’t say it’s scary, fortunately you can avoid it, it depends where you go. There’s one strip downtown where you can see all the huge cowboy hats and glittery belt buckles, but we have lots of friends who are like-minded and we hang out and ignore that scene. The thing about that whole genre, it’s formulaic. The songwriters meet the singer over coffee or something and then just go into an office with one window or no window and sit at a desk and write those songs. My girlfriend likes some of that music but, I just, I really don’t like it.
SM: So [hopefully] do you have any plans to come to Vancouver?
BB: No concrete plans just yet, but it’s a proper world tour and the dates are being sorted out right now. I can almost guarantee we’ll play Vancouver.