Laneway Festival 2019 wrapped up last week and it has me thinking about the festival in 2015. Playing Laneway was an incredible introduction to New Zealand and Australia but also to new artists. This interview may not have been possible with out 2015s festival because that is precisely where I met Benjamin Booker. Although we were both living in New Orleans at the time we met half way around the world in Australia. Also by chance, whimsy, or happenstance, we again live in the same city where I had the opportunity to ask him to participate in this series.
Ben is working on and writing a new record and some of the songs are about Los Angeles. We also talked about his shows opening for Neil Young and our shared respect for Amiri Baraka (author of Blues People and Black Music) and Kim Deal of The Breeders. It is my pleasure to see Ben grow as a song-writer, singer, and performer. I look forward to the record and hearing his distinctive raspy voice from here to Oz and back again.
Read other interviews in this series here. *
Q Tracks like “Believe” on Witness feature string arrangements. You also play keys and guitar. What is your musical background?
I played piano and cello for a bit in middle school. It wasn’t long enough to get good at either but looking back it definitely help to give me a good music foundation. I left both of those instruments for guitar which I picked up learning all the Nirvana songs. At one point I could literally play all of them.
I’m still pushing and trying to learn stuff all the time. I’m not at the point of being able to do string arrangements. My friend Oliver Hill [of Pavo Pavo] jumped on to help with Witness strings. He’s way past me musically.
Q You've spoken about your time in Mexico City sparking your creativity for Witness. Have you been back?
No, I haven’t actually. I tried to make plans a couple times but things have come up. Hoping to get down this year for sure though.
Q How did you end up working with (one of my personal favorites) Mavis Staples? I imagine she lives up to and exceeds her legend. What was recording and touring with Ms. Staples like?
Mavis is one of my favorites, too. The more I learn about her, the more I realize the massive impact she has had on so many artists. Even Michael Jackson’s famous “shamone” was taken from Mavis. We met writing a song together for an album she did with M. Ward. It was called “Take Us Back” and incredibly has become a regular part of her set.
Sadly, I have never actually been in the studio with her. When she helped me by singing on my record, the producer flew to Chicago to record her vocals and I think I stayed home to save money. HUGE REGRET.
I was lucky enough to open for her in England last year. It was incredible! We sang a song together and I was in tears by the end. I love that woman. Truly. I’m doing something special with her this year but I don’t know if they’ve announced it yet.
Q What is inspiring your new album/songs?
Drum machines, poets like Amiri Baraka and Morgan Parker and Leonard Cohen, love, death, Los Angeles, Alice Coltrane, Ethiopian jazz, R & B, youth, traveling, friends. I love the time in between records. I see it as my job to soak in all I can. What do I need to do today? Live!
Q What can we expect from you in 2019?
I’m planning on hopping in to the studio at some point this summer. People will most likely hear something before the year is over.
Q How did those shows in Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis go with Neil Young?
Oh boy! I really am one of the luckiest people on the planet. The shows were incredible. My dream is to be able to play only beautiful, old theaters which is what I got to do on that run. Sitting on a gorgeous stage, with an acoustic in front of thousands of dead silent people ready to listen... what else could you want as a song writer? I’m very thankful to everyone involved for having me out.
Q It would be remiss of me to not mention our collective love for Old Style Guitar Shop in L.A.
Old Style is the best! Shout out to the crew over there. Everything in the store is there for a reason. It’s the kind of place where they won’t just try to sell you the most expensive thing. They had other fancier basses when I was looking but the owner said the Aria Pro II Cardinal Bass was one of his personal favorites. $300 and it rules! Kim Deal used one. God I love her.
Q As a musician, and even before, you’ve moved around. How did New Orleans shape you/your music? How is Los Angeles treating you?
I think traveling is in my blood. My dad was in the Navy and my parents would take us on impromptu trips out of town for the weekend. Life is too short to stay in a little corner.
I think New Orleans was the perfect place to start making music because there isn’t a music business there. I’m not sure what it’s like now but no one was trying to “make it.” Any success seemed lightyears away. I think that really helped to leave room for creativity.
I think I’m going to be in Los Angeles for a bit, or at least until it gets to expensive I guess. It’s been life changing for me. It’s a big city which has given me access to more music, museums, food, different people. I love the options and feel very inspired.
Q I have to ask, when are we djing together?
Anytime! I would love it if we could have regular house parties and DJ. Monty could be cool too. We’ll talk when I’m back from Australia.