A narrator, that’s what Alec Benjamin is. The American singer-songwriter landed himself a record deal when he was 18, but was dropped by his label a day after the release of his debut album. Alec kept going, won his first fans over by giving shows at parking lots of Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan concerts and kept on writing music with an ambitious goal: to conquer the world with his personal, authentic lyrics. And that’s going well! He’s found a new label to work with, gathered a fan base online and his honest breakup song Let Me Down Slowly became his big breakthrough.
During his Euro-tour I spoke with him before his sold-out show in Paradiso, Amsterdam. We talked about his favourite John Mayer lyric, why he’s no longer looking for happiness in life, and answered my burning question: what is his newest single Jesus In LA really about?
Alec, thanks for having a chat with me. What role does music play in your life?
Alec Benjamin: “Music means pretty much everything to me. Interestingly enough, music is less important to me than words. I only use music as a vehicle to express my feelings. The content of what I have to say, is what it’s all about.”
Where do you find the inspiration for your music?
“My inspiration comes from random thoughts and things. It mostly comes from a feeling or observation. I see things happen and then I channel it through a song.”
To what extent are your songs autobiographical?
What songwriters or artists do inspire you?
“Songwriters like John Mayer, Eminem and Jason Mraz. I like artists who write their own music and I have an interesting perspective on what they are experiencing. Everyone goes through the same things, for example heartbreak, but I think that what makes a song unique is someone’s perspective on it.
Do you know Still Feel Like Your Man by John Mayer? He says: ‘I still keep your shampoo in my shower. In case you wanna wash your hair’. That’s an interesting way to talk about missing somebody.”
If I listen to your songs, I get the idea you really like visual lyrics.
“I think stories are the best way to transmit an emotion, because language is flawed. Words are invented to express an emotion, but emotions are very complex and they’re very differently between people. What I may feel as sad may be different from what you feel.
Telling a story is a more explicit way of showing you exactly how I feel. It makes it easier for people to understand, because then they get that: ‘He’s not just sad. He’s disappointed because someone that he looked up to let him down. I know how that feels.’”
Then Jesus In LA. What is it about?
“In that song, I describe my move to California and that it didn’t really become what I thought it was going to be. I told the story through a metaphor about myself.
To be honest, I don’t like talking about Jesus In LA that much. I thought it was going to be a big song for me and it wasn’t. Now I’m ashamed of it.”
Really? Why is that?
“I think a lot of people don’t really get it, they think it’s a religious song. You know, as an artist you don’t really create anything new. Everything already exists. We don’t make new colours, but we combine different colours to create something new. That’s what a song is. An artist’s job is to take a subject or event and put it in a different context. If you look at it then, you see it differently.
I feel like sometimes you get the ingredients wrong and I think that’s also the case with Jesus In LA. One of the things is just not right and that’s why it’s not as beautiful to other people as I thought it was going to be.”
If people don’t get it right, would you mind explaining the real meaning?
“The message of the song is that sometimes you’re looking for something in the wrong place.”
Well, I shook hands with the devil
Down on the south side
And he bought us both a drink
With a pad and a pencil, sat by his side
I said, “Tell me what you think”
I’ve been looking for my savior
Looking for my truth
I even asked my shrink
He brought me down to his level
Said, son, you’re not special
You won’t find him where you think
You won’t find him down on Sunset
Or at a party in the hills
At the bottom of the bottle
Or when you’re tripping on some pills
When they sold you the dream, you were just 16
Packed a bag and ran away
And it’s a crying shame you came all this way
‘Cause you won’t find Jesus in LA
Jesus In LA – Alec Benjamin
“I’m not religious, but maybe my use of religion, as in religious characters and metaphors, was off-putting to some people.”
So, what were you looking for in LA?
“I was looking for happiness and was hoping to feel accepted. I believe people often don’t really understand me. When I was struggling in high school I thought: ‘I’m going to LA and will be a star. Everyone’s going to love me and I’m finally going to be happy’.
Even now that I’m starting to have a little bit of success, I still don’t feel like… I realized that you should just be happy with what you have and you shouldn’t try to find it somewhere else.”
Is that also the biggest lesson you learned from that experience?
“Yes. Maybe we were just misled when we were young and happiness is not the ultimate goal in life. Because happiness comes and goes. Everyone is like, ‘I just want to be happy’, but I don’t know if that’s what we’re supposed to be all the time. You’re not supposed to eat candy until you throw up either.
I feel life sometimes ebbs and flows. Being happy is not the ultimate goal. Maybe that’s being content.”
What do you hope people get out of your music?
“I just want them to listen to what I have to say.”
Is there a certain message you’d like to be heard?
“I guess so, I have a lot of stories to tell. And if I’m completely honest, in school I always felt I did well, but I also felt misunderstood. I always believed people thought I was stupid. I guess my music is just me trying to show people that I’m not.”
If I take a look outside and see there’s a huge line of fans in front of the venue at 16.00 in the afternoon, I guess it’s working…
“I don’t know. I’ll let you know if it does or not.”
In the future, are there any topics you’re definitely going to discuss in your music?
“I think I’ll describe a gradual progression in my life. People are going to die, my friends are going to leave me. I have friends who are getting married, who don’t speak to me anymore because they’re starting a family. They’re pretty young for that, but it happens and it hurts. In every stage of my life I’ll have a new thing to talk about.”
Do you think you’re ever cover politics or societal issues in your music?
“Not really. I mean maybe, but I always try to talk about it in a way that’s not polarizing. I’m not interested in getting up on a soapbox and convincing people of something. I think everybody’s entitled to believe what they want to believe.
I find it difficult to talk about politics because on some level everybody is a hypocrite and they don’t even realize it. Sometimes people ask me about the environment and I’m like, ‘I want to clean up the environment, but look at all these water bottles I have in my dressing room. I’m not going to be able to tell everybody that they need to clean up their act, I ride a tour bus! How else am I going to do it?’ It’s difficult.”
Now you’re on your Europe tour, what’s next on the agenda?
“I’m working on new music and next year I’ll release an album. Then I’ll tour it. Hopefully it does well.”
Curious for more personal stories of artists behind their music? Read my previous Behind The Track-interviews. Would you rather like to know more about John Mayer’s lyrics? Or interested in the lyrics of Lewis Capaldi or Billie Eilish? Check the links!
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