Benjamin Booker is about to release his second album later this week. It’s called Witness, and after listening to an advance copy of it over the past few weeks, I can safely say that its going to be one of the highlights of 2017.
The title track features a guest vocal by Mavis Staples, but there is much more to this record. The songs were inspired by Booker’s recent trip to Mexico after suffering from a bout of writer’s block.
Once the record was finished, the artist wrote a moving essay detailing how the song Witness was inspired by the writing of James Baldwin and how being alone in Mexico caused him to understand what it was to be a witness.
I spoke to Benjamin Booker recently and we talked about the making of Witness and that game-changing trip to Mexico.
Click here to listen to the interview with Benjamin Booker:
Or read a transcription of the interview here. (You can read Benjamin Booker’s complete statement at the end of the interview)
MD: We’ll talk about Witness: it’s your second album, and I know you had quite a bit of accolades, and people enjoyed the first one; and I’ve seen the essay that you’ve written, which, I guess, was spurred on by a certain amount of writer’s block that you have. Was there quite a bit of pressure, on you, to come up with this second record, after how well the first one went over?
BB: Not really. Honestly, the people that I work with – management and the label – are not ones to tell me, “Okay, we need music,” or something like that. I think I’ve been lucky that the people that I work with are the kind of people who are just like, “Listen, you’ve got to get good songs, and when the songs are ready, then we’ll start working on the record,” but if the songs aren’t there, then they’ll leave you to do your own thing.
MD: What do you think was the cause of the creative blockage?
BB: I think that the songs that I write are closely tied to my… personal life; so, I think I couldn’t keep going and progress and write until I sorted some things in my own life. I think that I can move forward as a song writer when I move forward in my personal life.
MD: I know that you decided to travel to Mexico, to give yourself a bit of a kick start. What made you choose Mexico, as opposed to any place else you could have gone to?
BB: I played a festival there in November, the year before, and I had made a few friends down there, and it just seemed like an easy place to get away to: cheap rent, a bunch of artists, and people, are popping up there. It’s become a really cool place, and I started thinking that it’d be an interesting place to go and spend some time alone; and it was!
MD: You don’t speak Spanish; is that right?
BB: No, and it’s pretty rough. The reason I think I was able to write a lot of the record in a month, was because it was the most time I think I’ve ever spent by myself. It was basically a month of silence. I had a few people, a couple times a week, to hang out, and the rest of the time, I’d just be on my own; unable to talk to anybody around me.
MD: Was that the inspiration for The Slow Drag Under?
BB: Oh yeah, definitely. This isn’t the first time that I’ve done this. Part of the album was about…I guess I realized I was having these patterns in my life, where every five years, or so, I… just get overwhelmed and start isolating myself, and disappear for a while and then come back. It’s just been a way that I’ve been able to move forward…. I feel like I’m a transient person. I like to move around and travel which is why the job of playing music has been so nice. It definitely beats some other problems.
MD: Were most of the songs written in Mexico, or were they written after the trip?
BB: Just about all of them. I think maybe I had one and a half of them when I went there, and then I was writing at night time – when I came home from walking around, going to the jams, started hanging out with people – and… pretty much, the album came together.
MD: Was there something about what you did and what you saw, while you were over there, that got you into the writing mode?
BB: I think it was the solitude that was important. I think that I needed to get away from all the distractions; you can imagine that New Orleans has a lot of distractions.
MD: Yes, absolutely.
BB: Just being on my own, I was reading a bunch of books about a…like I was reading Don DeLillo, this writer who has this book called White Noise, which is about the absurdity of life and the things that we do every day, and how everything is just made up… all man made; and so, part of what I was getting into and trying to do with Mexico, was to get to a place where I was on my own, and that I could really try to figure out who I was as a person, without my surrounds; I think that’s what I was trying to do.
MD: As somebody listening to the songs on the resulting album: would they be able to learn more about you, do you think?
BB: Yeah, I think so. All the songs are honest songs. I think that that was something that I was trying to do. A lot of times, with the second album, I think it’s easier, because people are going to see it to be less personal. I tried to stay away from cryptic lyrics, or anything like that, and really just talk about the things that I was going through at the time, in the simplest terms I could.
MD: One of the songs that’s most obvious is the song Believe, where you’re singing about… looking for something to believe in…. To me, the beginning of that song – the way the strings swell up at the beginning – reminded me, a lot, of an old Sam Cooke track, A Change is Gonna Come. I was wondering if that was something that was in your mind, or if it was just a coincidence.
BB: I think that we heard the song, and the melody demanded strings; so, we were like, “Ah! We got to do it on this song”…. It’s hard to get to a place where you – especially at my age – try to figure out who you are as a person, and the kind of person that you want to be…. When I take away a lot of things – like things that I grew up with, and things that I was taught, and all these other things – I was just like, “Aw, man! What do I believe in? Where am I?” Without all these things – if I was in a different place, if I was a different person – would I be the same person? I think it’s just trying to figure out to fill that void, that everybody feels, of wanting to be part of something bigger; to make sense of the world. I think that people around me who have tried to fill it with religion or joining a bigger group – like the military, or something like that – I think that I’ve struggled for a long time, because I try to avoid any organised groups. There is a safety in that kind of thing, I think I just wanted to explore that.
MD: Do you feel like you’re a part of any particular musical group, as far as a genre or a movement? Do you identify with any other artists that are doing similar things to you…?
BB: No. I don’t think that I’ve ever been with any groups. I’ve never stayed in a place long enough to be part of a musical community, or anything like that. It was hard, last time we were touring, to find opening acts: I couldn’t find anything that was similar to my own thing. I’m sure it’s easier for other people to make those connections.
MD: Sometimes you just get somebody that’s completely different. Back in the ‘60s, they used to have all sorts of wild bills, where totally unrelated artists would open for other ones; so, you never know…. I know the first album you recorded in Nashville in a totally analogue studio. I don’t know what the recording situation was with this record; so, maybe you can fill me in on where and when it was recorded.
BB: No more analogue! I’m never going back. Foolish, foolish to keep doing the analogue thing. We had two weeks to record it. I did a week in Woodstock, New York, and a week in Brooklyn, New York, with Sam Cohen…. I met with him, a little bit, before the recording, and we worked on the songs, edited things down… and then we went in later and met up in Woodstock. Sam is a very old school recording dude, who brings in his own people… and we didn’t have a plan for everything that we were going to do, but we had reference points; and we… played the songs twelve different ways, until we found a way that was like, “Ah! This feels good. This feels right.” It was like a completely different experience. It was nice to work with such talented musicians, because I felt like it was the first time… where the sounds and the way that I wanted the songs to turn out, were closer to what I had originally planned, because I was able to get that out of the musicians, with the help of Sam.
MD: Are you still working with your friend, Max Norton, or have you moved on to someone else?
BB: Yeah, that band I played with sometimes…the people who did the record, the producer’s guys, and now I’m playing with a group of people who live out in LA here with me. I’m a ‘practice’ person; so, I think it’s important to have people that are in the same town. At the end of the last album, me and the last band all ended up in completely different cities, like San Francisco and Nashville, and all these places….
MD: The title track on the album has you and Mavis Staples trading versus and singing. She was just here in Auckland a couple of weeks ago; she was fantastic. How did that all come about?
BB: Oh, what? She gets around!
MD: She does get around!
BB: She’s, like, seventy six years old; it’s so crazy! She loves the road. I wrote a song for her last record, and this time, we needed a team of vocalists on this song, and one of the big influences for this record was a Pops Staples record that came out a couple of years ago, I think. And that was just like left over recordings that he had, that Jeff Tweedy had put some stuff over, some drums and things like that, and that record was a huge influence; so, we were like, “We should just hit up Mavis,” with our fingers crossed, and she said “Yes” immediately. It was meant to be, I guess. We were very excited about it.
MD: Was it a ‘live in the studio’ thing with you and her, or did she come in and over-dub her parts? How did the process work?
BB: It was separate. Sam – the producer – flew out to Chicago, and recorded with her. I couldn’t be there, because I was working on something else. She knocked it out, apparently, in a very short amount of time; totally pro! I couldn’t be more pleased with the result…. It’s been hard to do it live, because there’s like nobody who sounds like her. It’s really hard looking at them. It’s just like, “Nah, I need a little bit more Mavis Staples.”
MD: I think everybody needs a bit more Mavis Staples!
BB: She just has so many distinctive things that she does when she’s singing; even the Michael Jackson ‘Shamoan’ thing that he does…: that’s Mavis Staples! She made that up, and he took it from Mavis… so, it’s like those kinds of things. You don’t even realise them, because you’re so used to hearing her, but… you can’t imitate this woman; she’s got too many tricks…
MD: I’m a few years older than you, and I remember watching Mavis on TV in the early ‘70s, when I was a teenager, and just being mesmerised by what she did with her voice. I’d never heard anybody sing like that before.
BB: Really crazy! And you know that she’s cool if Bob Dylan tries to marry her. She turned down Bob Dylan!
MD: That’s crazy! The other song I’d like to touch on is the opening track: Right On You. It just rocks right out, and gets you. Where did that one come from? It’s got a great, dirty rock & roll feel to it.
BB: That was a real surprise. I think that that song was an outlier track, and we put it at the beginning to mess with people. The album… overall, is way more chilled. It was really improvised: I came in with a song it was more of a soul feel to it…. it was a bass line and that kind of thing. I was listening to a bunch of Can at the time, and everybody was into that kind of stuff, and we just decided, ‘What if we do like a bluesy, krautrocky song?’; and we improvised it together, and I think that that’s probably the first take of it. Somehow, it just worked out. It’s just one of those things.
MD: It sounds like something that would go over especially well in a live situation.
BB: Oh yeah! That’s definitely my most favourite, from the new album, to play live. I’m sure that, for the shows, we will be extending it and playing it a little longer than the record.
MD: You just did a thing at the Austin City Limits TV thing, right?
BB: Yeah! What an honour. That was really cool. I’ve been watching that show since I was a kid; so, it was really nice to get out there. And of course, it’s Texas; so, everybody’s awesome and really nice. It’s the most comfortable TV show we’ve ever done.
MD: What kind of band have you got together? What are you touring with these days?
BB: Awesome people…. A few years ago, when I was putting music online, just to share with friends, the first email that I got from a non-friend, was this girl, Mikki, from California. She was like, “I like your music; you should keep playing,” and we became pen pals, and when I came out to LA to play my first show here, her band, Small Wigs, opened up for us, and I stayed in touch, and then when I was looking for a band when I moved up here, I hit her up; so, she was just like one of my first fans – and a pen pal – who’s playing bass. I met the guitar player – his name is (Matt) Zuk – through her, and I’ve got a drummer, who’s incredible, who’s from Australia, who’s just a friend. When we’re out on the road, I think I like to be around people who are nice, and who I get along with….
MD: That’s good, yes. There’s enough stress on the road…
BB: Yeah! So, everybody is just friends from here, but it worked out really well.
Here’s Benjamin Booker’s pre-release statement about Witness:
By Benjamin Booker
“Once you find yourself in another civilization you are forced to examine your own.”
– James Baldwin
By February of 2016, I realized I was a songwriter with no songs, unable to piece together any words that wouldn’t soon be plastered on the side of a paper airplane.
I woke up one morning and called my manager, Aram Goldberg.
“Aram, I got a ticket south,” I said. “I’m going to Mexico for a month.”
“Do you speak Spanish,” he asked.
“No,” I answered. “That’s why I’m going.”
The next day I packed up my clothes, books and a cheap classical guitar I picked up in Charleston. I headed to to Louis Armstrong Airport and took a plane from New Orleans to Houston to Mexico City.
As I flew above the coast of Mexico, I looked out the plane window and saw a clear sky with the uninhabited coast of a foreign land below me.
I couldn’t help but smile.
My heart was racing.
I was running.
I rented an apartment on the border of Juarez and Doctores, two neighborhoods in the center of the city, near the Baleras metro station and prepared to be mostly alone.
I spent days wandering the streets, reading in parks, going to museums and looking for food that wouldn’t make me violently ill again. A few times a week I’d meet up with friends in La Condesa to sip Mezcal at La Clandestina, catch a band playing at El Imperial or see a DJ at Pata Negra, a local hub.
I spent days in silence and eventually began to write again.
I was almost entirely cut off from my home. Free from the news. Free from politics. Free from friends.
What I felt was the temporary peace that can come from looking away. It was a weightlessness, like being alone in a dark room. Occasionally, the lights would be turned on and I’d once again be aware of my own mass.
I’d get headlines sent to me from friends at home.
“More arrests at US Capitol as Democracy Spring meets Black Lives Matter”
“Bill Clinton Gets Into Heated Exchange with Black Lives Matter Protester”
That month, Americans reflected on the murder of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police a year earlier.
I’d turn my phone off and focus on something else. I wasn’t in America.
One night, I went to Pata Negra for drinks with my friend Mauricio. Mau was born and raised in Mexico City and became my guide. He took me under his wing and his connections in the city made my passage through the night a lot easier.
We stood outside of Pata Negra for a cigarette and somehow ended up in an argument with a few young, local men. It seemed to come out of nowhere and before I knew it I was getting shoved to the ground by one of the men.
Mau helped me get up and calmly talked the men down. I brushed the dirt off of my pants and we walked around the block.
“What happened?” I asked him.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Some people don’t like people who aren’t from here.”
He wouldn’t say it, but I knew what he meant.
It was at that moment that I realized what I was really running from.
Growing up in the south, I experience my fair share of racism but I managed to move past these things without letting them affect me too much. I knew I was a smart kid and that would get me out of a lot of problems.
In college, if I got pulled over for no reason driving I’d casually mention that I was a writer at the newspaper and be let go soon after by officers who probably didn’t want to see their name in print.
“Excuse me, just writing your name down for my records.”
I felt safe, like I could outsmart racism and come out on top.
It wasn’t until Trayvon Martin, a murder that took place about a hundred miles from where I went to college, and the subsequent increase in attention to black hate crimes over the next few years that I began to feel something else.
Fear. Real fear.
It was like every time I turned on the TV, there I was. DEAD ON THE NEWS.
I wouldn’t really acknowledge it, but it was breaking me and my lack of effort to do anything about it was eating me up inside.
I fled to Mexico, and for a time it worked.
But, outside of Pata Negra, I began to feel heavy again and realized that I might never again be able to feel that weightlessness. I knew then that there was no escape and I would have to confront the problem
The song, “Witness,” came out of this experience and the desire to do more than just watch.
If you grew up in the church you may have heard people talk about “bearing witness to the truth.”
In John 18:37, Pilate asked Jesus if he is a king. Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, that I may bear witness to the truth. Everyone being of the truth hears My voice.”
In 1984, The New York Times printed an article titled “Reflections of a Maverick” about a hero of mine, James Baldwin.
Baldwin has the following conversation with the writer, Julius Lester.
Witness is a word I’ve heard you use often to describe yourself. It is not a word I would apply to myself as a writer, and I don’t know if any black writers with whom I am contemporary would, or even could, use the word. What are you a witness to?
Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see. . . .
What’s the difference between a spokesman and a witness?
A spokesman assumes that he is speaking for others. I never assumed that – I never assumed that I could. Fannie Lou Hamer (the Mississippi civil rights organizer), for example, could speak very eloquently for herself. What I tried to do, or to interpret and make clear was that what the Republic was doing to that woman, it was also doing to itself. No society can smash the social contract and be exempt from the consequences, and the consequences are chaos for everybody in the society.
“Witness” asks two questions I think every person in America needs to ask.
“Am I going to be a Witness?” and in today’s world, “Is that enough?”
Witness is released on Rough Trade/Rhythmethod Friday, June 2nd.