Interview: Benjamin Booker Lets His Music Speak For Itself


 

Benjamin Booker is not having the best day.

He’s standing on stage at the Sala Rossa for a sound check that was supposed to be done an hour ago; a sound check which, in all due respect, isn’t going well. His manager who seems like a rather level-headed guy—who greeted us at the door with a large smile and many apologies—is yelling at the sound board, swearing under his breath after each unwanted screech comes out of Booker’s microphone. The two other members of the band are on stage looking equally blasé, anxious to get this done, to move on and get ready for the show that starts in less than an hour. No one is smiling as they walk around with shoulders slumped, lugging in equipment, not exactly sure where to put everything. A few concert attendees even walk in prematurely and are told to wait outside until 8 o’clock. The only person who seems relatively happy to be there is Olivia Jean, the opening act who seems like a ‘50s retro vision walking around in stilettos.

Already running late, we’re told that Booker doesn’t have much time to chat before the show, mostly because there’s another interviewer after us. We head to the restaurant downstairs and find a table in the corner—Spanish pop music blasting through the speakers right above our heads. Booker sits down, his arms crossed with a kind yet tense smile on his face—anxious as well to just get this done and to move on with the evening. On any other day he’d probably be happy to talk to me. However, on this rather gloomy, cold Montreal afternoon—an afternoon when he went from his bus to the venue without seeing much more than the red drapes on the Sala Rossa stage—it’s clear that this won’t be a smooth, lighthearted conversation.

Florida-raised but New Orleans-based, singer/songwriter Benjamin Booker has been on a steady rise over the past two years. His signature blend of rock and roll (which takes notes from roots, blues, and punk) is intimate and intense; his scratchy, raspy voice layered over each heavy track on his self-titled debut album. Inherently talented and undeniably raw, Booker was hand-picked by Jack White to accompany him on a leg of his tour last year, resulting in a stamp-of-approval of sorts from the rock mainstream. With a performance on Letterman (“maybe the least exciting show ever”) under his belt and an international tour, complete with Coachella, Governor’s Ball, and Bonnaroo stops along the way, it’s clear that Booker is a man on the rise. However, unlike most rock musicians who start off playing in their parents’ garage with dreams of ‘making-it,’ Booker kind of, sort of, stumbled upon his newfound fame. “I eventually wanted to play around town and stuff, but I didn’t have any strong career goals,” he says, “I just wasn’t planning on doing this. We were just playing shows around town, and then a song got picked up by blogs, and we started playing around in the states, and then yeah. It’s been nice.”

Written almost exclusively during a time that he calls the worst year of his life, Booker’s album tackles heavy emotional demons and is written about—and for—his family and close friends. On his single ‘Have You Seen My Son’ Booker sings “Heard that you were calling out my name, my name /And you cried for a whole week / Said “have you seen my son, he’s lost in the world somewhere.” His parents, up until that point, had never been to one of his shows. “Now they’re very supportive,” he says, “eventually they came and saw what it was like…and it’s not like being a musician in the ‘70s…we just earn a dressing room and then play a show, that’s all. So they’re supportive of it now. I think they were just worried. If I had kids that play music I’d probably be worried too. There are a lot of opportunities to get into trouble.” When asked if he planned to have kids of his own, he responded with a quick “yeah totally, I’m not going to do this forever.”

Quiet yet frank, Booker is a man who doesn’t beat around the bush. When prompted further on his past he begins to slowly, but noticeably shut the interview down. Having a background in journalism himself, it’s clear that Booker has a feel for when a conversation is being led off-message—away from a quick promo for his debut and towards a more long-winded piece that he doesn’t have time to deal with. “How are you going to write this? Q&A?” he asks me. “I’d prefer to write this as a story.” He nods and smiles. When I ask him if he reads interviews written about him, he tells me “I don’t really read things that are written about me, it would drive me crazy if I read all that stuff.” And on that note, we get up, he heads back upstairs, and puts on a predictably stellar show.