Before each gig, Alec Benjamin takes five minutes. Five minutes to prepare, settle any nerves and take a deep breath before stepping out in front of a crowd fully tuned into him. For a musician who puts as much of himself into his lyrics and music as Benjamin does, these solitary, contemplative moments can be vital. After all, the vulnerability of a person stood on stage with just a guitar and their story is unrivalled.
That ability to set his emotional pace is a trait that directly informs Benjamin’s output. Referring to himself as a narrator, the 24-year-old musician places emphasis on nuanced songwriting and lyrical authenticity. Having grown up admiring those at the peak of their craft – Paul Simon, John Mayer, Jason Mraz – the Arizona native’s 2018 debut record, Narrated for You, saw him add his own story to this esteemed canon.
Alex James Taylor: How’s the tour going?
Alec Benjamin: It’s going really great. It’s not my first time touring in Europe but it’s my first time doing a headline run, so it’s definitely a new experience for me.
Alex: Have you noticed much of a difference between touring in Europe and in the US?
Alec: I actually started making music in the UK before I did in the US, so I have a pretty good grasp of what it’s like here, but in terms of Europe, it differs so much from country to country. One thing is that the quality of food is way better in Europe than it is in the US [laughs], the quality is so much better. If you’ve ever been to LA say, and tried to eat at a 7-Eleven, it’s like, “Good luck,” you know? [laughs] The problem is that when you’re on a van tour and you’re doing promo and shows, there’s pretty much no time for anything, you’re eating wherever you’re stopping for gas. So I
feel healthier being on tour in Europe, but it’s much colder here…
Alex: Do you enjoy that lifestyle of gigging, travelling and roughing it?
Alec: I do, but that’s just how it is at the minute. I think that next time I’m going to have a tour bus, so it’ll be easier and I’ll have a little bit more time to get my bearings and prepare for shows. When we went to Amsterdam we got in during the evening, so I didn’t really have time for anything, I only got to see the venue, the people and then we left.
Alex: It’s a bit of a whirlwind. When you say that you made music in the UK before the US, you were writing songs for other musicians?
Alec: When I was sixteen or seventeen I decided that I really wanted to get into music. My family is from Arizona, a normal middle-class set-up you know, no ties to entertainment or anything. So I started researching people on the internet who were my favourite artists and found some writers they’d worked with based in the UK. I sent them an email, we started chatting and they invited me to come out here to make music. I did, and eventually they signed me and I signed to Columbia Records, then subsequently I was dropped from the label and they dropped me too [laughs].
Alex: That’s a brave move though, to come over to the UK on your own and follow your dream.
Alec: It was exciting. My mum went to school in the UK so she was comfortable sending me here, and there were some people we knew. But thinking back on it, I did a lot of stuff that I probably should’ve been more afraid of doing.
Alex: Did you do any form of musical education?
Alec: I studied music at college for a semester or two, but I only really got past my general education classes and then dropped out. In my last semester I was actually just taking an online class, so I didn’t study music formally, I learnt from the internet and from various songwriters.
Alex: When did you first learn guitar?
Alec: When I was fifteen or sixteen.
Alex: Do you remember the first song you learned?
Alec: Well… there’s a band called Slightly Stoopid and they have a song called Closer to the Sun. There was this girl I liked who was into that band, so I thought, “Hmm, maybe if I learn this song then she’ll like me.” It didn’t really pan out that way [laughs]. My parents got me a guitar for the school holidays, I still have it.
Alex: You mentioned being dropped by Columbia Records, how was that time for you? It must make you reassess things.
Alec: I do good as the underdog, so in hindsight it was a really good thing. But getting dropped was like… I don’t know, it didn’t make me want to stop making music but I was definitely kind of ashamed of myself. I try to take personal responsibility for everything because if I don’t, that means there’s nothing I can do to change something. I always believe that if you try hard and do your best, something good will happen. I think there was a multitude of reasons why my first deal didn’t work, but a lot of that was just me not understanding how much work it would take for me to get it off the ground, and also I probably wasn’t mature enough at that point.
Alex: Did you doubt yourself during that period?
Alec: I didn’t actually release any music during that time so I never doubted the music, and I released what I’d written later anyway. That music is what built me my fanbase, so they responded to it really positively which helped me. I had doubts, but that didn’t make me change my style at all because I’d rather fail doing something I was proud of, than succeed doing something I don’t believe in.
Alex: Sure, it’s about having that integrity. You describe yourself as a narrator rather than a songwriter, what made you chose that title?
Alec: The singer-songwriter thing got a little bit played out I think, and some people maybe think it’s a bit lame now, even though I don’t. I feel like there was a generation of singer-songwriters I was really inspired by, like James Blunt, John Mayer and Jason Mraz, but the next wave kind of… people started to associate the singer-songwriter title with a dude in a fedora playing guitar on the beach, you know? I don’t want that to be the first image people see in their head, because that’s not who I am. I also thought that it’d just be a cool way of describing myself as I love to tell stories.
Alex: It places you outside of the story a little, as if you’re looking in and narrating from a different perspective, even if it’s based on your own experiences.
Alec: Right. Now we aren’t really living in the age of… Paul Simon or Bob Dylan, those were the rockstars. Now being a singer-songwriter can be a bit cliché, although you see a lot popping up lately, people like Lewis Capaldi and Dean Lewis. I was also inspired by Brockhampton, because they just own the fact they’re a boyband.
Alex: They’re reclaiming the word ‘boyband’, which became very outdated.
Alex: How did you get into Paul Simon then?
Alec: My mum is a big fan, she also loves Billy Joel. My parents never bought me music or anything, but they’d always listen to those guys so that’s how I got into them. To be honest, I much prefer Paul Simon with Art Garfunkel, because they compliment each other so well. Melodically it allowed Paul Simon to reach these different levels, so with Bridge Over Troubled Water, for example, Garfunkel was the dude for that song and his voice really made that track special.
Full interview available in the latest HERO, Issue 21, HOT WIRED, available now.