INTERVIEW: singer-songwriter James Bennett
Occasionally an artist stops you in your tracks and belts you right in the feels, and singer-songwriter James Bennett is certainly in the business of crafting tracks that get stuck in your head without overstaying their welcome. There's an effortless charm to Bennett's songs that carries over into real life when he talks about his music - a self-taught guitarist, a silver-tongued lyricist and a voice coated in rasping honey, it's no surprise or coincidence that a boy who grew up off the grid listening to uninterrupted Bob Dylan would end up conjuring dreamy folk magic.
James is currently touring his new album 'Run with the Hunted' but in between his performing adventures he took a few moments to chat writing, recording and why you won't catch him writing a love song anytime soon.
TIANA: Your backstory seems to be something you've been asked about a lot in the past, you were born in Byron and then lived off the grid for years after moving away. And you seem to have this kind of 'old world' vibe to your music, do you feel like that upbringing impacted your style?
JAMES: Yeah, definitely. Out there in the country we just listened to Bob Dylan when I was growing up. And it was the only music my parents would listen to. They were just huge Bob Dylan fans..fanatics! And we didn't have any power or anything, we just had this little battery-powered radio and every now and then we'd go and buy another one of his albums...every couple of months we'd get a new Bob Dylan album. I've got two brothers and a sister and all four of us would be just so excited to hear the new Dylan album, even though they were so old they were new to us. And we'd just listen to one at a time and just become obsessed with each album as we got the new one. So that's pretty much where I got everything from: Dylan.
TIANA: Well you just pre-empted my next question there! Was there a particular Dylan song that just stood out against the rest?
JAMES: All of them. Any song that he's ever written is just amazing. I just love his songwriting skills, his ability to put words together is out of control and I've just never discovered anyone that's on par with that. And I just find it hard to match Dylan's lyric writing abilities. I'm just obsessed.
TIANA: So you obviously fit into the whole "roots" or "folky" kind of thing, inevitably that's drawn comparisons from the usual suspects like John Butler, Xavier Rudd, all those kind of people. But is there anyone in or beyond that overarching genre that you've been inspired by?
JAMES: Most of my guitar stuff is inspired by John Butler. I'm probably nearly equally obsessed with John Butler. I find myself, if I get into an artist I go all-out. I don't just like one song here or there, I just get into everything they do. So John Butler, for me, is just the epitome of what I think a good guitar player is.
TIANA: It's interesting a lot of the time when you go deep with an artist, going beyond those lead singles and stumbling upon a track you would never have found unless you went through the whole album.
JAMES: Yes, both those artists, John Butler and Dylan, a lot of their songs that aren't as popular or aren't on the radio are a lot better. And more inspiring and I think you can really draw from those other songs more so.
TIANA: In terms of your music, you've got a fair few instruments popping up, you're self taught on the guitar I believe...so you're rockin some guitar, harmonica, stomp box...
JAMES: Yeah, I play lap steel as well, a Weissenborn slide-guitar type thing which I'm pretty obsessed with. I got into that via John Butler and Xavier Rudd, obviously. But other than that I play a bit of ukulele, I mess around on the piano at home, but I don't think I'd ever play piano live. I just muck around with it at home.
TIANA: And your voice, I've decided to call it "Seductive Raw Honey". That's what I thought when I first heard it. You have that epic blend of rasp and smooth, but how did it come about, did you just wake up one day and you could sing like that? Or did you have to work at it?
JAMES: I don't really think about it, a lot of people say it sounds very much like Dylan, which is actually not intentional. Obviously I grew up listening to Dylan, but I got to the age of 12 and I hadn't listened to any other music. I'd hear music at school, or on the school bus but I wouldn't take notice of it.
TIANA: You're a purist!
JAMES: Yeah, as a young child it must've just etched on me and that's how I started to sing. And it's kind of evolved into what it is now but I just always remember singing that way. I try to sing like really pop sometimes, but it just sounds funny...and bad. I don't put any effort into my singing and I just try to sing the lyrics. Ultimately I'm singing these lyrics which are like little poems, little stories and I want to showcase that in the best way, not my "amazing" voice, you know?
TIANA: You have played some shows with some additional band members I know, but as a solo artist how have you found breaking into the music industry in its current state?
JAMES: I'm still sort of breaking into it. I'm happy doing what I'm doing right now and I could do it forever. And I have been doing solo gigs and just playing around for six to seven years now, which I will probably never stop doing. With the band sort of thing, it's something I've always wanted to do I've just never been able to get the right crew together, and as it is now I recorded the last album with a band and it's not over-produced and not in your face but there are drums and bass in there. I'm doing my current tour with just me and a drummer, but it's sort of missing that bass. There's some side of me saying "I should just do this solo" and not be like I'm trying too hard, and sometimes I'm thinking "I really need to get that bass player, but it's too late!". So...yeah, I don't know how I'm feeling about it right now, but we just do the best we can with me and the drums and just see where I go from there.
TIANA: It's not always an easy process to find someone that would organically fit into things.
JAMES: Yeah, some of the songs I can't do without the bass so we've had to re-work them. There's a couple of songs with a little solo in there, and I can't just be soloing over the top of drums! You need that bass and rhythm to keep going. I'm totally against using loop pedals, I like everything to be real and done on the spot. And for some songs I've had to use this pedal, a delay pedal that has a loop function on it and I've had to get my head around using it just for two bars so I can do this solo - and it's so tricky! Just because it's not an actual loop pedal, it does its job but it's not perfect. So I freak out about playing a couple of these songs, but I think they should be ok (laughs). We'll soon find out when everyone starts booing!
TIANA: And yelling "Where's the bass?! Who's playing that?!"
JAMES: "Where's that track coming from?!"
TIANA: I know you've been gigging a lot, has there been a standout show along the way?
JAMES: I've had a lot of really, really good gigs. One that I always answer with is my very first gig I ever played in Canberra. I'd never been there, and Canberra's just sort of there on its own and there's nothing much that surrounds it, it just pops up here and then it's surrounded by nothing. And I hadn't played around there, the closest is Sydney or Wagga and then it's Melbourne. This is probably two years ago, maybe three - very first time I'd ever been there to play and I rocked into a gig that was just packed out, the place was just full and I'd expected no one to be there, it was at the Front Gallery & Cafe, and everyone was just dead silent listening to every word - and as a muso that's what you want, you just want everyone to be quiet and listen to what you're doing so you feel like you're doing something honest. I just didn't expect it, so it stands out a lot.
TIANA: That is so rare, normally all you can hear besides the music is just "murmur, murmur, murmur" in the crowd.
JAMES: Yeah, I play so many gigs every year and to get even one like that you just feel "oh, this is why I'm doing what I'm doing". It keeps you going...for another year at least! (laughs).
TIANA: You've had a heap of releases over the years as well as gigs, and your latest album
'Run with the Hunted' was recorded over in the States...and you've had some killer singles coming out of this one.
JAMES: Yeah the first single was 'Fake Feathers', and the new one is 'Giants', that one is a song about a dream - basically I was being squished by giants and I woke up and wrote a song about it pretty much. I see it as being a bit of a dreamy song, a song I always thought about writing but never forced myself to write, because obviously you can never do that. Then I wrote it one day and thought "oh, that's that song I always thought I'd write!"...and it came out sort of exactly how I'd pitched it in my head which doesn't always happen.
TIANA: Is the songwriting process getting easier now that you've been doing it for so long?
JAMES: Definitely easier, but it's only because I'm getting older and learning new words, and working out how to put words together so that they don't sound really pathetic and corny, which a lot of my first songs were (laughs). They were all breakup songs or love songs and that's what brings me back to when I first started playing gigs and music, those breakup songs - I had a hell broken heart and I just started writing love songs, and mum's like "oh yeah, that's really good, you should keep doing that". And I did. And these days I try not to write any love songs because they're easy. Love songs are so easy to write, everybody writes love songs especially when you really feel something. But these days I really try not to do that. Sometimes they end up sounding that way or coming out like that. The first single 'Fake Feathers' was definitely not a love song. I don't even know where that song came from actually. I used to play a lot of gigs in Port Macquarie, I spent most of my life there. And they had this bar there called the Beach House, and I played there literally every Sunday for a year or two and I had a mate that came with me a couple of times and we'd play together. And because I don't read music I was just fiddling around with these random shapes and chords, and they turned out to be these jazz chords...well someone told me they were jazz chords. And it sounded really funky and really jazzy and me and my mate just used to make up words on the spot, just improv rap to these songs at our gigs after a couple of beers. (laughs) And we'd often write people off and pay people out while we were at the gig. We used to just crack up to ourselves and our friends at the gig would just be laughing while we were singing stupidly to these chords. Sometimes we'd play the same song for 15 minutes. Then we stopped playing gigs together and I dug the chords up one day and went "hey, I'm gonna write a real song to this", but keep to that sarcastic feel.
TIANA: It's resulted in a really, really fun and catchy song, so yay for diss songs!
JAMES: Yeah exactly, that's something I really try to do is to write catchy songs because that's what got me originally with Dylan's music, a lot of the choruses and a lot of even the verses are really catchy.
TIANA: You've succeeded, the first time I heard 'Fake Feathers' I was driving in the car and singing along even though I didn't even know the words?!
JAMES: That's why I chose it for the first single, I've got so many songs and it's really hard to choose a single, but that song was a standout with that catchiness.
TIANA: And without a doubt you fall into the singer-songwriter realm, but when it comes to recording and performing, do you prefer one over the other? Do you love getting in the studio and just bashing out a few songs, or just prefer being up onstage performing?
JAMES: Yeah, they're both definitely so different. I'll always love playing live just because of that spontaneity, and this is why I struggle playing with drums, everything's gotta be really well rehearsed. But when I play by myself a lot of the time, like a lot of those John Butler songs, there's just a space for me to just do whatever and just wing it and do a lot of improvisational stuff, which is where my guitar playing comes from - whatever happens happens! I'll only go into the studio when I have to, so that's more planned, I'm ready to go with a few demo songs and it comes out however it comes out. I definitely enjoyed recording the last album, but in the past it's always been a bit of a chore and a bit like "why doesn't this feel good?". I think it's because of that live thing when I'm just doing whatever, that gets taken away when I record. If I had to choose one, I'd choose playing live for sure.
TIANA: The whole studio thing is more of an obligation that you have to tick off...
JAMES: Yeah for sure, and you just hope that you do the best you can because you won't be able to change that once it's done.
TIANA: Now, one of my favourite questions I like to ask people - is there anyone that you listen to in secret that people would be genuinely surprised about?
JAMES: There's a couple...when I was growing up there were a couple of random silly bands...I think I was like 7 years old and I listened to Hanson (laughs). But that's not gonna be my one that I choose today. People might be surprised that I listen to Regina Spektor, she's just a really good songwriter and I was actually surprised, I stumbled upon her music and since then I've been into her music. She writes some really wicked stuff.
TIANA: That's a very respectable answer. Thanks so much for your time.
James is currently hitting stages for his 'Run with the Hunted' album tour, more info below:
BY TIANA SPETER