Benjamin Booker was actually planning to write about music, not perform it, when he first took the stage in his adopted home of New Orleans. After an evangelical upbringing in Virginia and college in Florida, he first went to the Crescent City to work for a non-profit.
The 28-year-old guitarist and singer’s 2012 self-released 4-song EP, Waiting Ones, changed all that. He signed with ATO Records the next year.
His 2014 self-titled debut made the top 10 on Billboard’s Alternative and Independent Albums chart, gained praise from top-tier national outlets, and landed the suddenly red-hot artist opening slots for Jack White and appearances on the late-night TV circuit.
When the tour cycle finally came to a close, Booker sought solace in Mexico — with a mindset to reset and unwind.
Instead, he was inspired by a wide range of experiences, from reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise, to getting into a racially motivated altercation with locals. All of it informed his June-released sophomore effort, Witness.
While the album as a whole is not meant to be overarchingly political, the title track — and the statement penned by Booker that accompanied it — definitely are.
But more than anything, Witness has allowed Booker to get more comfortable with every part of his process, and marks what should be the first of many artistic evolutions for the dynamic performer.
PACIFIC recently spoke with Booker from his home in L.A.
PACIFIC: How did the creative process on each album compare?
BENJAMIN BOOKER: They couldn’t have been more different. And that’s something that I’m learning now, and something that people who have been making music for a lot longer probably know — but you’re really just hoping each time (laughs).
On the first record, the songs were written so slowly and I wasn’t really thinking about people on the other side, either. Also, there wasn’t really any editing. We pretty much recorded the songs exactly as we practiced them.
This time, we took apart the songs, worked on the parts we didn’t like, tweaked them, those sorts of things. And I feel a lot better about this record because I had forever to just sit and listen to every part of every song. I was able to decide if I wanted it or didn’t. And Witness feels more like a debut to me because of that.
Well, I think there are a lot of reasons this album is different. I was in a much different place and a lot less angry. But, also, the live show is the most important thing to me. And the last time we went out on the road, there were just things that were missing from the set and the show.
When I was writing Witness, I was trying to write an album that was great on its own, but would also fill in some of the gaps of the show. Like, if we just have a bunch of in-your-face aggressive songs, there’s no balance to it live. It sounds cheesy, but the show is about taking the audience on a journey — it really is. And I wanted to do that on this record. The show is much stronger for it than the last time we were around.
You also wrote an accompanying statement with Witness.
It’s been strange, honestly. We were releasing Witness as the first track, that was going to be the first single, and my management, or the label, asked if I could give them a couple of sentences on the song. I realized that there was no way I could just write a couple of sentences. So I wrote this long thing — I just didn’t think it was going to be “my statement.”
But I also can’t imagine the album now without it. It’s become something that people come up and talk to me about — something they’ve connected with. Even friends of mine have been like, “Hey, man. I’ve had those same kinds of things happen and the same problems.” It was all very unexpected. I wanted to explain the song so people would understand it, but I had no idea it was going to be a separate thing that people would connect to as well.
When: 9 p.m. Sept. 29
Where: Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach
Is it hard to reconcile not exactly wanting to be known as Benjamin Booker “political artist,” but also feeling free to make songs like the title track of the record or the statement that came with it?
I have had a hard time with it. If I had to describe what I most want to write about, it’s about people and just wanting to get through the day — just trying to figure out the world that you live in and getting through it, because that’s the stuff that I’m dealing with on a daily basis.
But recently, politics has been unavoidable. And I have absolutely no interest in politics. But that’s what the song, and the whole album, really, is about — being more direct and involved in those situations. And now, I think it’s unavoidable to at least do… something. Also, at the time, I was getting more involved by volunteering and going to marches. And I think that was something that I had to put on the album because it was really helpful to me.
Politics can be overwhelming. But if you just focus on your community, donate to those who are doing good around you, it helps. And it helped me. It helped me feel better. And that’s what I wanted to say in the song. If you can’t get your head around everything that’s going on all over the country, just focus on your own neighborhood.
And that was also something you did more before your music career happened, right?
Yeah. My parents have always been compassionate — even sometimes to a fault. But they’ve always been into the idea of volunteering and giving back. I think there were times when they didn’t have a lot of stuff and people helped them. And when I started touring, that kind of fell to the wayside. I knew it was something I had to pick back up.
On your Live at Third Man Records album, you say your first single, Violent Shiver, is your least favorite song. Have you made peace with it yet?
What? Is that on the record? Oh, no! I didn’t know that! (laughs) I don’t hate the song. I just hated where I was as a guitar player at the time. I’m more confident now, but I knew that one out of three times I was going to mess that song up back then. (laughs) And it’s just me by myself, so there’s this pressure in front of thousands of people. And if I didn’t play any other song on the album any night, no one would’ve cared. But I knew I had to play that one, so it kind of became this monster. (laughs)
Have you started working on the creative process for what’s coming next?
I have. It’s been happening recently. I’ve had some time off, and I’ve been getting into guitars that I like, amps, new gear — stuff like that. I started working with a guitar guy and it really feels like I’m playing a new instrument now. I’ve been playing way more than I used to and I imagine that the next record will be a lot more guitar-oriented. But there isn’t a timetable. I’m just really working on what I want it to sound like right now.