Brendan Benson has been recording pop-rock and acoustic tunes for over a decade, but he didn’t really hit it big in the music world until he took the stage alongside his pal Jack White in the Raconteurs. Thing is, Benson’s solo music is better than anything that band ever produced. Case in point: His latest album, What Kind of World, a collection of catchy, '70-tinged rockers with synths, piano, gritty guitar lines and Benson’s infectious, high-pitched vocal melodies. I popped it in the other day and I was hooked in one listen. Check out the title track and first single below.
So I called up Benson at home in Nashville. He skipped out on a trip to the park with his wife and two-year-old son to chat about the new album, from his eclectic collection of collaborators (including Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies/Big Star) to the process of growing up in song.
And be sure to pick up What Kind of World on April 21, when it becomes available exclusively via Benson's website. It drops at record stores and elsewhere online on April 24. Also, check out Benson live this summer. See dates right here.
Why did you call the album What Kind of World? It feels… loaded.
I just thought it had a nice ring to it! It has multiple meanings to me. The obvious one being, like, it’s a cruel world. What kind of world would treat, what kind of society would treat its people this way. How come the good guys don’t win all the time? How come there are so many artists, like Van Gogh, who never sell a painting during their lives?
Is this a new perspective that comes with being a father?
Yes. I also don’t think that I’ve ever been as interested in politics as I am now. I can’t wrap my head around it most of the time, but there are a lot of new sensations that come after becoming a father, like new thoughts about mortality. It’s suddenly becoming a topic that I dwell on. But I don’t think politics would ever—well I shouldn’t say never—but it’s not likely that politics would enter into my music. But the more I learn about it the better the chance of that.
For you, what really sets this album apart from the rest of your catalog?
Every record is a brand new thing to me. It’s hard for me to see the evolution, or the differences or similarities even. I don’t think of it like that. By the time I’m recording a new record, I’m not completely moved on from my other records, and I’m not following a trajectory. I just start again…
In a recent interview you said that you were singing about things on this record that you never would have before. What exactly?
I’m coming back around almost full circle to when I first started making music, to when I never cared about what I was saying because I didn’t have an audience. I just wrote songs for myself. And then when I started gaining an audience and I became more interesting in editing. I was afraid to say certain things. Maybe it’s age or having a son and living the married life, but I feeling more and more comfortable being honest. I spent more time on lyrics with this record. And that’s also what sets it apart from my other records. I take pride in that because too often I’ve blown off lyrics. And people love lyrics! They don’t like a clever chord change or a melody as much. Most people want to know what the song is about. They want something they can relate to, sink their teeth into. I’ve always been self indulgent, like, “This will do because I really like this melody and I don’t feel like sitting around writing lyrics.”
What was the hardest lyric to write on this album?
“Bad for Me” was really hard. It was an old idea. I had the chorus on a demo, but I was singing gibberish, and I grew to love the gibberish. So I had to decode it and I’m happy with what came out.
What is the song about for you?
I’m hesitant to explain songs because it’s never as cool as your own interpretation, but it’s just about being in relationships with women that aren’t very good, maybe even unhealthy or destructive relationships. Not being able to see it. Not wanting to give it up. Just being in addictive relationships. I’ve been in plenty. They’re great, they’re fun, they’re intense. But ultimately I can’t keep up.
My favorite song is “Bad for Me” and it sounds bigger than anything you’ve ever done?
This is a better sounding record than any other that I’ve made. I’ve come to learn the skills to record music in the studio, and to choose the right people to do it.
And you’ve worked with quite a few people on this record…
Yeah, I worked with two different bands. It was kind of a weird scenario. I had Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer from the Posies in one band, with Brad Pemberton (of Ryan Adam's Cardinals) on drums. Then they left and a new band came in, and that was Mark Watrous (Gosling, Loudermilk) and Sam Farrar (Phantom Planet), and still Brad on drums. It was a weird thing to change gears completely half way through the record. It’s a different dynamic, different style of playing, different strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t think I’ll do it again [laughs]. But it makes for an interesting record. I mixed it and I noticed how differently the two bands sound. It was like a little experiment.
I was watching a video of you playing with Big Star (filling the role of the late frontman Alex Chilton). Was that the first time you played with Ken and Jon?
Yes, it was. It was a blast!
Did you immediately become buddies?
Yeah. We hit it off. Then we did a co-headlining tour, just a short one around the U.S. To save on money we all shared a bus. Those guys played in my band, backed me up, so it was pretty cool. They played twice a night! That was really the first time we played together and it sounded really good. So when I made the record I thought, “I’ll call them and see if they can do it, since they already know some of these songs.”
How long have you been playing some of these songs?
They’re all pretty recent, but there are a couple that came from ideas from the late ‘90s. I was just sitting around listening to old demos and heard a few things that I just loved so much. So I thought these really should be made into full songs. Some had no lyrics or no chorus. “What Kind of World” is one of those. Same with “Bad for Me,” but the lyrucs were written last minute, just before I recorded it.
“Open Your Eyes” was recorded as a Raconteurs song, but you re-record it here in a different style. Why?
I liked the lyrics. I liked the mood of it. I was sad to see it not make the [Raconteurs’] record, so I thought I’d put it on my record, and so I did. I did the same thing with another song on my last record, “You Make a Fool Out of Me,” which was also going to be a Raconteurs song but didn’t pan out. So I put it on that record. And now Third Man Records is putting out a 7-inch for vault subscribers that will have those recordings, demos with the Raconteurs playing. ”Open Your Eyes” was fully realized in the studio with the Raconteurs, so that’s really not a demo. It sounds great. I’m glad [Jack White] decided to do that. The B-side is “You Make a Fool Out of Me,” which is the Raconteurs just jamming.
What’s up with the Raconteurs? Is that ever happening again?
We don’t really discuss it. It’s all about timing. If we all had the time, then we’d do it. And I don’t see there being very much time in the near future for that. But [the shows last summer] were cool. They were fun. The last one in Atlanta was great. It’s always really fun to play with those guys again.