BLURTING WITH… Brendan Benson

Talking dirty with the
pop Raconteur (and songwriter in his own right!).

 

BY
HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Brendan
Benson just can’t seem to get a break. For nearly 15 years he’s been pumping
out guitar-heavy power pop that has made critics drool. Yet during that time
Benson has been dumped by multiple record labels and remained a virtual unknown
until he and Jack White teamed up to form The Raconteurs. While that band gave
Benson his greatest success to date, it also led to an identity crisis. After
all, Benson wanted to be known for his own music, not just as Jack White’s
second banana.

 

With
the release of his latest album, My Old,
Familiar Friend –
his first since joining The Raconteurs – Benson has his
best shot yet at solo stardom. It’s a heaping helping of hooks and harmonies
that would sound great blasting out of a convertible, if radio stations
actually played this kind of music anymore. We talked with Benson about the
album and the challenges of balancing The Raconteurs and his solo career. 

 

***

 

You’ve been performing
for a long time but people primarily know you from The Raconteurs. How do you
feel about that?

 

I’d
prefer to be known as a solo artist, and in the beginning I was a little miffed
about that. I worked so hard at it for so long, and had no real success. Then
to team up with Jack and suddenly have huge success… [The Raconteurs’ hit] “Steady
As She Goes” was my song, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether it would have
been as big if I had done it on my own. That’s a bummer to think about, so I
guess I just stopped thinking about it.

 

You had to know The Raconteurs
would be a big deal, though.

 

I
thought I was well prepared for it mentally, but I couldn’t help feel sometimes
resentful. But there were just fleeting moments like that. Overall, I have a
great time in The Raconteurs.

 

How did playing with
them change your songwriting?

 

One
thing I picked up was bearing in mind how a song would be done live when I was recording
it.  I tend to go crazy with my solo
stuff, then I get onstage and go “Shit, we need 18 people to play this.” I
learned from The Raconteurs, how to get to the bare bones of a song, so when
you play it live, it’s still cool and identifiable.

 

Is the stuff you keep
for yourself different than what you write for them?

 

Not
really. Most songs that I write could work either way. With some, you
immediately think “The Raconteurs could kill on this song.” With others, I
think “This is a song I’d like to do because maybe they wouldn’t get it.” The
song “You Make a Fool Out of Me” was like that. I gave it to The Raconteurs,
but it didn’t pan out. They weren’t feeling it.

 

You’re often described
as a pop songwriter. What do you think of that term?

 

I
don’t think I’d be happy with any label, but I guess pop describes it pretty
well. I try not to think too much about that stuff. I remember when my first
record came out, a lot of reviews mentioned The Beatles. I wasn’t a huge
Beatles fan. I liked them, but I didn’t own any of their records. So I started
researching The Beatles to figure out what people were talking about. Then I
got caught up in it, and when I wrote my next record, I was thinking that I
needed to write songs like The Beatles. That’s when I realized it’s better to
just write and not think too much about it.

 

You wrote a lot of these
songs several years ago. Is it weird to go back to them now?

 

It
is weird, but I’ve done that with every record. I’ve never been on the same
label for more than one album. That means each time, I’ve had to shop a bunch
of songs, shop a record, find the right label, negotiate the right contract. It
just takes time. More time than you’d think. So by the time record comes out,
the songs are old. I’m used to it, but it’s not ideal.

 

How do you keep the
songs fresh for yourself?

 

It’s
a case of revisiting the songs. When it comes time to tour, I re-learn them and
rediscover them. And playing live, you can change things around and have fun
with the songs instead of trying to remember them or play them exactly like you
have been.

 

But you write so much
about relationships. It has to be strange to sing about relationships so many
years after they ended or changed.

 

That’s
true. Sometimes it’s hard to remember the lyrics for that reason. I’m just not
in that space anymore, so the words don’t always make sense to me. In those
cases, I have to memorize them, like you would with a speech.

 

You wrote most of this
album on the road, which is unusual for you. Do you like doing that?

 

It’s
not the ideal thing. But if I sit down with pencil and paper and a guitar and
I’m comfortable, then chances are the songs won’t come. They always come at the
most inopportune times. I remember having the idea for “A Whole Lot Better”
right before a Raconteurs gig. We had to be on in 15 minutes, and I was in the bathroom
trying to write it down.

 

 

 

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