Benjamin Booker Interview: Finding Balance In Mexico

June 7th 2017

On Friday, Benjamin Booker released Witness. It’s his second full length record, full of rugged guitars and beautifully coarse vocals exploring his responsibility to community.

Announcing the album with an essay of the same name, Booker took his audience with him to Mexico and delved into his isolation. Taking them through his experience of being black in America, Booker asks “Am I going to be a Witness?” and in today’s world, “Is that enough?” Chatting with Samantha Groth, Booker talks ‘Witness’ and balancing yourself in a tumultuous world.

Crediting those involved in the album, Booker surrounded himself with talented collaborators. “A lot of it had to do with the producer. I worked with a guy named Stan Cohen, in Woodstock, New York and in Brooklyn. We took a few days, sitting down for like eight hours a day just going through the songs and writing ‘This sucks’ or ‘This is interesting. Maybe we should work on this’ and that kind of thing. I put a lot of trust into him and I believe that he’s very talented.”

Booker also worked closely with the legendary Mavis Staples on creating the album’s title track. The pair started working together when Booker wrote a song on her last album.

“It was a very important thing for me to do… This is a woman who is 76 years old, who’s seen a lot of things and been through a lot of stuff and was very heavily involved in the civil rights movement and has just been around for a lot of things. It seemed like she’d gotten to the point in her life where she was really focussed on friends and family, the people that she loves and just enjoying everyday and touring… enjoying every minute of it. It was important for me writing this album to focus on those things.”

Reflecting on the first song he and Staples collaborated on, Booker discovered another side to his writing. “That song that I wrote for her album was the first positive song that I’ve ever written, that was optimistic… I think that was important to me too, to realise that I had another side to what I was able to write. I didn’t just want to write sad songs all the time. It was important to have sad songs, but have sad songs that maybe are pointing to a more hopeful time. That’s what I tried to do with this album.”

This focus on balance came after Booker was in New Orleans in 2016 and got shot at by this car that was passing by…

“I think the confrontation with just, like, death, and realising that everything is very temporary, that you can die at any time, really helps you to make the right decisions. What is important to me? Family, friends, spending time with people that I love… If you had that kind of thing in the back of your mind… all of the material things, and money, they’re just ridiculous. None of those things are going to matter to you later… I think that that’s helped me to find a balance in my life.”

 

 

Realising the importance of balance and dealing with conflict form a huge part of ‘Witness’, Booker’s second album.

“Obviously you can’t be a selfless person all the time, that’s ridiculous. You’ve got to do some things to take care of yourself but I think that I just struggled for most of my life to try and find balance and stability, so it’s something I’m hopefully getting better at. It takes time. I’m learning. I’m 27 so I don’t have all the answers right now…”

This internal conflict is really present in the album, you can hear Booker trying to combat it by being as open as possible. “I was trying to be more honest and more straightforward. There’s no metaphors or similes… I just wanted to express the feelings I was having in the simplest terms that I could…. Maybe that’s why it feels more in your face when you’re listening to the record. I didn’t want any cryptic language or people thinking about what I was doing. I don’t think I included words last time I put out an album so I think that this time that was important to me, to really connect with people and explore the things I was going through in a way that was easy to understand… There’s a lot more to listen to on this album than the last time.”

Now it’s out in the world, Booker feels like it’s closed and complete. “I was just way more involved in the process of making this album than I was last time. The last time was just so raw…this time I really wanted to take my time and edit more, and do the best that we could in the studio… I’m hoping that people see it as being more musical which is fun for people, but also more fun for us to play live.”

On bringing his live show to us, Booker has this to say. “I’m hoping I can come to Australia. The last time we went out and were touring different places, Australia had the biggest crowds and biggest response of anywhere… I’m excited to get back.”

And with that, he leaves us with a glimmer of wisdom in a pool of hope.

“I hope that people get out, volunteer their time. Stay educated, read. Keep up to date on what’s going on and donate money to organisations that are doing good things… Do all you can people, let’s try to make it happen.”

 

Witness by Benjamin Booker is out now through Rough Trade and Remote Control Records.

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Samantha Groth