Onstage, Benjamin Booker is a blur, a seething mesh of influences. Too soulful to be punk, too damn unhinged to fit into any R&B outfit, the New Orleans-based singer – plus drummer Max Norton – crafts a sound that is raw and unpolished, yet also emotionally direct and spiritually demanding.
“Max is kind of like the wild man back on the drums,” he tells us. “I’m not a very technical guitar player – I just never wanted to be, I guess. It’s definitely more about putting on a good live show, making sure that people are having fun and not hitting every note.” He laughs: “Because we don’t. We definitely don’t!”
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Raised in Florida, Booker studied journalism at university before his lifestyle, and the people around him, spiralled dangerously out of control.
“A lot of the songs do come from a place of violence and depression. Some not-so-great things were happening. A lot of that stuff changed when I moved to New Orleans. That was one of the reasons I had to leave was because things were getting too rough in Florida.”
His voice lowers as he explores his dark past. “I was living with this girl who was, like, addicted to pills. This was one of my best friends... I had been in such a haze, like this crazy period where people were shooting up in my living room and I wasn’t going to school and going out too much.”
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I’m not good at keeping diaries or talking to people, and I don’t have a therapist, so sometimes stuff builds up and you’ve got to do something with it…
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Music provided him with a way out. Pushing his feelings into songs, Booker found that this natural outlet eased the pressure, allowing him to see beyond the helpless guilt he felt for what was unfolding around him.
“When all that stuff was happening I wasn’t very good at communicating with people. For a long time I wasn’t very good at it, maybe until a couple of years ago. I guess writing songs helped get some shit off my chest. I’m not good at keeping diaries or talking to people, and I don’t have a therapist, so sometimes stuff builds up and you’ve got to do something with it.”
The irony is that Booker’s eponymous debut album is, in the main, a joyous experience. It’s music that fills your lungs with air, which re-establishes the basics in order to progress. Recorded in a whirlwind fortnight in Nashville, it’s an album that feels, through its sheer ease of progress, like it simply had to be made.
“We didn’t change hardly anything when we got in, at all,” he insists. “Maybe, literally, like a few notes. We just went in and all the songs were done. I had thought about changing the songs and making everything more complicated, but just decided not to do it. Because why do that? It was more fun to do it the way we do it live.”
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‘Have You Seen My Son?’
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Fusing garage-rock shouters with slow, mourning, gospel-infused recitations, Booker’s debut statement feels varied yet complete, challenging yet gentle.
“I guess a lot of it, like anybody’s first record or their first book or their first movie, is kind of like a summation of what has happened up to that point. It’s me really learning to put that stuff in the past. I mean, it has been years since I’ve gone to church, but you still feel a kind of guilt from the past.”
Referring to a true soul legend, Booker accidentally provides himself with a mission statement: “Otis Redding said: ‘Sad songs are all I know.’”
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Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Sam Nixon
This feature appears in issue 97 of Clash magazine, details here.