Brendan Benson’s Older Songs Take a Right Turn

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Brendan Benson’s You Were Right collects original songs that have been left over for the past decade and a half. The Nashville resident supports his energetic new album on Wednesday (Dec. 18) at the Ryman Auditorium with Jack White, Eric Burdon, Willy Mason and more on the lineup.

“The Brendan Benson and Friends show started out as, ‘Why don’t I do a show and have some friends come up and play? That sounds like fun,’” Benson says. “It turned into something bigger than I had planned. I’m stoked. Hopefully, something awesome and beautiful will happen.”

CMT Edge: Explain how the new album took shape.

Benson: It’s a collection of songs spanning quite a bit of time. Some are really old. It started out as me trying to write a song a month to release digitally. That was my objective. And that was going OK, but at some point, I started delving into older recordings. I stumbled on some old demos and, god, some were from the ’90s. I thought, “These are really cool. I’d like to work on these and have them see the light of day.” In my mind, there’s not a lot of cohesion.

To me, it actually sounds pretty cohesive. How did “It’s Your Choice” come to you?

Oh, good. Yeah, that one I think I wrote while touring quite a while ago. I had a Dictaphone recording of the idea. I came across that idea, and I liked it and started working on it. I may have even done a version of that song with Ashley Monroe. I know during the sessions I did with Ashley, that song came up. It was just one of those older demos that I worked out and finally finished.

How do these songs represent your evolution as a songwriter?

Well, apparently, there’s been very little evolution if you think they sound cohesive. (laughs) I think, “Wow, that’s funny. That means I haven’t changed any.” (laughs) I don’t know. That’s kind of not my business. I can’t really gain that perspective when looking at my own material and how I’ve grown. Songwriting’s a reflex. It’s something I’ve done my whole life. Of course, I’ve picked up some tricks and been influenced. It’s hard to say.

I think one thing is that I’ve gotten better at the craft, which might not be a good thing. Honestly, sometimes the better you are at your craft, the more the art suffers. That naïve, spontaneous, impulsive thing falls by the wayside. It’s a natural evolution, though, and it can’t be avoided. You can also look at it as you get more advanced and transcend and become more of a master.

You’re in the minority. Most songwriters say it gets harder with age.

I don’t know. I was an apprentice to a sculptor when I was younger, and I also love to paint. He was teaching me how to paint, and one day he had me sketching in the garden, making me draw flowers. He said, “How’s it going?” I said, “I’m not really inspired by flowers. It’s not really my thing.” He said, “You don’t get to choose what you’re inspired by. You don’t get that luxury. That’s a bad attitude. What you do is hone your craft. You practice until it’s like breathing to you, so when inspiration does hit you, you’re prepared. You have a command over this gift, this ability.”

So, you’ve honed your songwriting craft.

That’s what I mean. I’ve been practicing for so long that when I’m feeling creative, it comes a little easier to me. When I was younger, I struggled a lot with playing the guitar and singing — the rudimentary things. I think something beautiful happened from that struggle, though. I didn’t know how to play certain chords, so I just made ones up, groping blindly in the dark. Great things happened.

In tandem with that, it’s less heartfelt and more cerebral now, and I admit to that. I think that’s true to say about artists historically. You always hear people say, “I love his early work.”

Of course. You’re young and hungry.

Yeah, that was the inception, the raw birth of it. I love John Singer Sargent’s early paintings. He was still trying to figure out himself. When he started getting older, he started doing watercolors. Just like watercolors, he got soft, but now I really appreciate his watercolors. I don’t know what it was. Maybe he got sick of cleaning his brushes. It looks like it came so easy to him. I guess I’m saying he lost that fire, but as a student of Sargent, I’m very interested in what he does.

Someone told me that you have to accept that you’ve gotten good at your craft to grow. It’s not egotistical. It’s just a fact.

Exactly. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore. Well, I’m constantly trying to prove myself to myself but not to others. I’m not so interested in impressing other people. It’s, “Do I still have it?” I don’t write songs to add to the world of music. I write songs because I’m compelled to.

Now I’m getting far out, but art in general is something I’d just do for hours and hours and that’s when I feel most fulfilled in life. Otherwise, I’m completely the opposite. I’ve recently had kids, and that’s changed my life a ton. I have a whole new purpose, but before them, if I wasn’t making art or music, everything else was pointless. It’s maybe a little dramatic to say.

Do you write every day?

No, that’s another thing. Once you do get more established — I’ve made a little money and I’m not so desperate — you get a little complacent. I don’t practice my craft as much anymore, and I should, but I do other things now that I like. I’m producing a lot, and I like that a lot. In fact, I think I’m more useful doing that than writing my own music. I think I’m at a point in my life where I’d rather impart things to other people and help them. I like being around these young bands that are on fire that think they’re the absolute shit. I love it. I like to be around that energy.

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