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Death, love and discrimination: Benjamin Booker runs us through his iconic album Witness

benjamin booker interview witness happy mag

Benjamin Booker speaks on behalf of a generation. A generation of fighters, lovers and sufferers who want their message to be heard. Raised on the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, T.Rex, and The Gun Club, the 28-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist is a punk-adoring poet whose songs explore social injustice, heartache and the hunger to belong.

Although his sophomore record, Witness, was released in June 2017, it failed to make the rounds in the land down under. From an upbeat piano ballad inspired by a racially charged altercation to a rockin’ soul track about working overtime for the good things in life, Booker spent a month in Mexico City writing the album, aiming not only to keep the energy and intensity of his debut release but to make the songs stronger, and more layered.

Listening to an assortment of African music from the ’70s, classic soul, and Nigerian jams, Booker’s finished product showcases a funk influence in the drumming, making Witness a more rhythmic album. A record that’s definitely deserving of a few spins.

I caught up with Booker to find out the story behind five of the album’s standout tracks ahead of his Australian shows this March and April.

benjamin booker interview witness happy mag

Charging over luminous soul, blues and gospel music, Benjamin Booker’s Witness was easily one of 2017’s standout albums.

Witness feat. Mavis Staples

The album’s title track is a deep one, and features vocals from Soul Queen Mavis Staples, a collaboration which Benjamin says was every bit as unbelievable as one would imagine it to be.

“Witness was inspired by an incident that happened whilst I was in Mexico, I went out to a club and got into a racially inspired argument, an altercation. But working with Mavis was great, she’s the best! She’s like the grandmother everyone wants, if I could choose my grandparents it would be Mavis Staples and Morgan Freeman.”

“She’s just so happy all the time, it’s weird because usually those people really annoy me but it’s so genuine, she’s so loving, whenever she walks into a room everyone is immediately happy. She’s like the greatest singer of all time so it’s really great to have her on the record, I couldn’t believe that she wanted to do it, but she loves the song, every time I see her she sings it back to me. I love it!”

Believe

Believe speaks of the all-too-relatable human hunger to belong to something bigger, and the track was born out of Benjamin’s own existential crisis, and the search for something more.

“Believe is my favourite song on the album. It’s one of those songs that I don’t really remember writing, I think it was something that I recorded on my phone one night when I came home very late, and I just woke up and it was there. It just come out so easily.”

“A lot of people over here are going through an existential crisis with all the things that are going on in the country and I was just very confused about the world that I was living in, and all the things that I believed in. I just felt really lost which is typical because I was about 25 at the time I was writing it, and I think Believe came out of that, just wanting something to be passionate about. I spend all my time working on music and that’s something I really care about but I feel like I just want more out of life.”

Right on You

After a near death experience Benjamin had his view of the world altered, and Right on You was the product of the life changes that followed.

“I was living in New Orleans, and my life was hectic, my view back then was pretty crazy. There was a night where I was riding my bike to a dinner party and a car pulled up in front of me and started shooting at me and I got really scared, it was a big thing, and one of the reasons I left NOLA.”

“That really changed a lot of things for me, I started thinking about life differently and the idea that death is literally around the corner, that’s something I thought about more, but not necessarily in a morbid way, I just began to appreciate things more.”

Truth is Heavy

Inspired by the familiar inner conflict and struggle to genuinely accept the love coming your way, Benjamin believes that Truth is Heavy is his “only love song”.

“I honestly think Truth Is Heavy is the only love song that I have. It’s about opening yourself up to be intimate with another person and not be scared about being vulnerable, I think that’s the hardest thing to do in life, which is what I try to do every night as a performer you know, is to try to have that intimacy with the audience.”

“But I mean even if you do that every night I think in your personal life it could still be difficult to do, I’ve definitely felt it and I know other people have too.”

Overtime

Unintentionally written as a followup song to Truth is Heavy, Overtime is about working hard for and opening yourself up to the good things in life, and it was the start of a new relationship that sparked the inspiration for both of these tracks.

“The whole album was kind of all based off this relationship I was starting at the time and I think Overtime was a continuation of The Truth is Heavy and accepting that opening yourself up to other people is something that you need to do if you want to live a fulfilled life, and then deciding to make compromises and be a little bit more selfless, and work at it a little more.”

“I think that for someone who’s younger, it can be hard to realise that.”

Catch Benjamin Booker on tour around Australia:

Thursday 29 March – Factory Theatre Sydney – Tickets
Saturday 31 March – The Corner Melbourne – Tickets

Also appearing at Bluesfest Byron Bay. Tickets here.

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February 2, 2018

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