As much as the story behind Brendan Benson’s fifth solo album is the story of making a record, it is also a story of finding a family — of love, and marriage, and the birth of a son, and of another kind of family too: one made up of all of the musicians, music-lovers and friends, who have helped to make these songs and build a label to carry them.
Over the years, Benson had grown accustomed to doing things alone. Since 1996’s One Mississippi, through 2002’s Lapalco, 2005’s Alternative to Love and 2009’s My Old Familiar Friend, he had been a solo outfit. A brief hiatus — the three years and two albums he spent as co-founder of The Raconteurs, perhaps marked the beginning of a change: it would prove the catalyst that led him to relocate from Detroit to Nashville.
“Marriage and having a kid was the big thing,” Benson says of the years between this record and My Old Familiar Friend. Having welcomed Declan in the spring of 2010, the effect on his music was tangible: “I think it’s given me a whole new motivation, a new vigor,” he says. “If I was having a doubtful moment I could think of Declan and think ‘I’m doing this for him.’ He’s like my band.”
The songs on What Kind of World reflect this new clarity. “I think on this record I’m saying a lot of things I never thought I would say,” is how Benson puts it. “Maybe I’m just getting older, but I don’t want to hide now in my songs, I just want to be truthful. And I’m realizing that the truth is really interesting — I’m more attracted to honesty these days than to convolution.”
It’s a sentiment that surfaces on the refrain of the album’s title track: “I take it to heart,” Benson sings, “I take it too hard.” And rings out again on the album’s show stopper, “Bad For Me” — a dazzling, irresistible tale of a destructive kind of love. “Lyrically on this song, I’m going out on a limb,” Benson says. “I’m out of my comfort zone, and speaking really plainly. It’s a song where I realized the truth is far more compelling.”
“A lot of the time with me songs are random ramblings and word-play, but I’m proud of these songs, lyrically,” he says. He cites “On the Fence” as a particular personal triumph: “it’s concise, and it makes sense,” he says. “I think it’s a song that has a specific point, and I think I conveyed a specific feeling, which is something I always admire in other songwriters.”
But there are bursts of familiar Benson jabberwocky here too: “Met Your Match”, for instance, which Benson recalls beginning as a melody and a mumbling of lyrics. “And the only reason lyrics are there now is because I decoded the mumblings.” Or the “bunch of innuendos” of “Come On”; or “Light of Day
But many of these songs are also a testament to friendship, and a new found musical family. Some were egged on by the talents of Jon Auer (The Posies, Big Star) and Ken Stringfellow (The Posies, Big Star, REM), both of whom Benson met at a concert to honor Alex Chilton. The friendship evolved into a tour with The Posies, and the tour would not only bear new material, but also rekindle Benson’s excitement about some of his own songs.
The spur of inspiration came from elsewhere too: songwriting sessions with rising talent Young Hines and country singer Ashley Monroe (Pistol Annies), that sparked a half-thought and bore the songs “Keep Me” and “Pretty Baby.” Another track, “Thru the Ceiling” was written with local writer-producer Jay Joyce, and for “No One Else But You,” Benson succeeded in tracking down a couple of horn players after a half-remembered conversation at a recent party.
“Here in the Deadlights,” meanwhile, was a song originally written for The Raconteurs, but which Benson reclaimed. “With their blessing, I changed it a bit and included it here,” he says. “I do miss the camaraderie of when I wrote with them, the help of guys that I trusted and respected to write with.” Thankfully, Benson found a new camaraderie with the friends who contribute to this record, including Auer and Stringfellow, as well as Brad Pemberton (Ryan Adam’s Cardinals), Mark Watrous (Loudermilk, Gosling), Sam Farrar (Phantom Planet).
These external forces, from country to power-pop stars, horn-players and his own son, triggered in Benson a new verve for songwriting, and a new joy in looking elsewhere for inspiration. “It’s a great exercise to write outside yourself,” he says. “It’s so different to writing all those personal, heavy-duty songs. There are certain songs where you get on a roll, where you’re in another place, and you get all frenzied. I love it when you get consumed by a song.”
Recorded at Welcome to 1979 in Nashville, engineered by Joe Costa and produced as well as mixed by Benson himself, What Kind of World is being released on Benson’s own label, Readymade — a venture that has proved new and exciting, while simultaneously restoring a little faith in the power of good people and good music.
A year ago, discussing the process of finding a new label with his manager (or rather, “doing the usual whinging about the music business” as he puts it) he bemoaned the fact that with each new record he had been forced to find a new label, acquaint himself with a new group of people, from managers to marketing departments. When his manager suggested that instead they form a co-op or collective of sorts and put the album out themselves, Benson was elated.
The label name nods back to 1995, when Benson was newly-signed to Virgin Records and putting out a limited edition EP. “I was doing the artwork, and I just stuck my own imaginary label on there — the name came from Marcel Duchamp, and his ready mades objects.”
Although his solo album was the impetus for the foundation of the label, it has also allowed Benson to work with and produce a number of other artists, including The Lost Brothers, Young Hines, Leah Mason, and Cory Chisel, with many more to come. “I’ve never done this before,” he says with evident delight, “but it’s cool to do it totally on my terms,”
And of course the family is delighted with it too. “When I got my record back from mixing, I knew I had to listen to it,” Benson recalls. “My wife and Declan and I were all in the room, and we cranked up the volume. Straight away Declan started dancing. He was throwing it down, he just wore himself out by the fourth or fifth song. And then he fell asleep in my arms. I walked around the room with him like that, and it was the coolest, most perfect thing. I knew, then, that I loved my record.”