'It’s a weird time right now:’ Alec Benjamin on releasing an album during a pandemic

The US artist is part of new wave of brooding millennial songwriters

Alec Benjamin's music is more cerebral than danceable. Courtesy Warner Music
Alec Benjamin's music is more cerebral than danceable. Courtesy Warner Music

Whether you're a pop musician or the average person on the street, you've probably been affected by the coronavirus in some way.

Spending months in isolation at home, instead of embarking on an anticipated world tour, has, understandably, left US singer-songwriter Alec Benjamin feeling out of sorts.

“It’s just a weird time to be a human being right now,” he tells The National. “But I am feeling OK now. To be honest, I was pretty depressed for the first couple of months, but I do feel like I am finding my happiness again."

He asks me how I am. I tell him I am taking it one day at a time. “Good,” he says. “That’s the only way sometimes.”

Him asking how I am is an example of the empathy that has helped propel his introspective folk songs, which have amassed more than two billion online streams.

That empathy also permeates his quietly arresting debut album, These Two Windows, home to hits Oh My God and Demons.

A cerebral pop album

Part of his melancholy, Benjamin says, was down to his album’s May 29 release being an inopportune time.

“If you ask me how the album has been received, I can honestly tell you that I don’t know. Maybe it has not been received at all,” he says.

“But at the same time, it has been an interesting experience. I put the music out around the time the protests in America had just begun, and people have been understandably frustrated with how things are going in the country. A situation like that just makes you realise that it is never about you. So I have taken a step back and I was like, ‘Hey, this is not your time.' And I am okay with that.”

Then again, the timing could be viewed as a blessing in disguise.

Despite the wistful melodies and minimal production, These Two Windows is not exactly easy listening.

While quietly sung in his soft tenor, Benjamin’s songs are intense mini portraits of the anguish of youth, and the selfishness, self-doubt, paranoia and existential questions that come with the territory.

Surely the listener needs time for such heady topics to sink in?

Benjamin perks up at this. “I can see that and I do agree with you in that people need to live with the music for a while,” he says.

“While a lot of the time the best way to promote your music is to play live, my intent with my songs has always been to make you think, which is just as well, as they are not exactly danceable. The songs are meant to take a minute for people to get it. So, I agree with you.”

Benjamin has a knack for overthinking. This is something he admits to in the album’s opening, and standout track, Mind is a Prison. Over a lovely understated guitar arrangement, he talks about being in the grips of unwelcome thoughts: “Sometimes, I think too much, yeah, I get so caught up / I'm always stuck in my head / I wish I could escape, I tried to yesterday.”

Not only is it a personal trap, Benjamin says, but such "analysis-paralysis" can also affect songwriting as well.

“It’s all about finding that balance and that comes to the work as well. When it comes to the song, it is about finding that spot between being cerebral and honesty and feeling,” he says.

“It’s actually that same balance a lot of us are trying to find in the music industry. The hardest part of it all is being at the cross-section of art and entertainment. I don’t think they are two different things, you can be both.

"You can entertain and be an artist at the same time.”

A surprise success

At aged 26, Benjamin, who was born in Phoenix, is a mix of old soul and modern tastes.

While his lyrical approach to pop is a throwback to the singer-songwriters of the 1970s, such as Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne, his references, and the way he began his career, are very here and now.

Benjamin cites rapper Eminem and singer-songwriter John Mayer as inspirations, and he started out busking while releasing his songs on streaming sites.

Things changed overnight in 2017, when 12-year-old America's Got Talent contestant Merrick Hanna danced to Benjamin's I Built a Friend for his successful audition. As a result, the song immediately shot up the iTunes chart.

It wasn't long before Benjamin was snapped up to major record label Warner Music, and he is gradually taking his spot as part of a new wave of broody millennial singer-songwriters that includes Lauv and Troye Sivan.

While the momentum of his career has stalled, Benjamin is still enjoying some of its fruits, such as having one of his heroes on speed dial.

“John Mayer and I chat all the time,” he says. “It’s just amazing to connect with your heroes like that and he has been giving me a lot of advice and we just talk.”

With Benjamin’s expansive global tour now rescheduled for May 2021, he says he can’t wait to hit the stage to perform songs that will hopefully by that time be deeply ingrained within his fans.

“I am looking forward to that,” he says. “Going on stage also gives you a chance to bring the songs back to life. It’s a chance to revive them and make them connect again.”

Updated: July 12, 2020 06:58 PM

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