Most musicians look forward to the time when they can share their hard work with the masses. The stage and the audience are often driving factors to flipping open the laptop or putting pen to paper.
Punk-blues-soul guitar man Benjamin Booker began writing songs for audiences of one. From the times when he didn’t feel he belonged in his churchgoing family, to trouble with alcohol or drugs (his and others’), or the abuse some of his friends put themselves through – he wrote songs to take the place of conversations that were too difficult to have. He gave those songs, individually, to the people they were meant for.
Some of those comprise his 2014 self-titled debut album.
“I can look at all the songs—I look at that record and just say, ‘I gave this song to that person.’ It’s for one person, most of them.
“There were parts of it that were embarrassing; it was really scary,” Booker recalled in a recent interview. “They were very personal songs, so going up in front of people and singing them was definitely very uncomfortable. It was just like reading your journal or something in front of a bunch of people.”
This Sunday, the 26-year-old will play those songs in front of his biggest San Francisco audience to date, at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival.
Booker’s songs blend multiple overlapping genres – punk, soul, blues, gospel, and garage rock – and are delivered with a piercing guitar and his coarse growl of a vocal delivery. The subjects touch on topics that are deeply personal and dangerous, sometimes taboo.
Lead track “Violent Shiver” takes on the personal demons of the woman Booker was seeing at the time. Even now, he winces at the thought of recounting the inspiration. She “was having a hard time with things…and, I guess, dealing with some lingering feelings of abandonment and other things. It came out in other ways—in the bedroom.” The song is Booker’s exploration of whether he could make the relationship work.
“The first line of the song is, ‘Into the fire, half-heart, you appoint me lover with a cord around your neck, and I ever love her,’” Booker explained. “It’s been so weird that that’s the main song that is out there, because it’s a song about erotic asphyxiation, and I don’t know how many people pick up on that.”
On, “I Thought I Heard Your Screaming,” another album track, Booker attempts to talk sense into a roommate who was endangering herself with an Oxycontin (and other drug) addiction. He wrote her the song around the time he moved out from the toxic environment she had created.
“This was somebody who was a sister to me,” he said. “Seeing her slowly wither away…was clearly very unhealthy. There was one night where I had manifested into this weird auditory hallucination where I thought I heard her screaming in the other room. I went over to see if she was fine. She was in there sleeping, but it was this constant anxiety about something really bad happening to her, or (her) dying.
“She knows that it’s for her. I don’t think she realized at that time how much she was affecting the people around her.”
Booker sings parts of “Have You Seen My Son?” from the perspective of parents mourning the loss of a son to a sinful world, and him turning his back to the church. And on “Slow Coming,” Booker’s introspection turns outward, as he sings about his friends still fighting for equal rights in the U.S.
Last spring, he combined that song and “Wicked Waters” and released a double video featuring him driving around through scenes that could easily have been set in the Jim Crow South, witnessing heinous acts by law enforcement against African-Americans. He had no way of knowing that the songs would be so well-timed with the current state of police brutality and the rights movements of the LGBT community.
“The songs that are in that video were written years ago,” he said. “I had never tried to write political songs.”
Booker delivers each song with flourishes from the various genres that have influenced him since he was a child. He was born in Virginia Beach, but his family soon moved to Tampa after his father, a Navy man, retired. He got his first guitar at 14, and grew up attending punk shows as a teen. He studied under an advanced, global education plan in high school, and then pursued journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In his spare time, he started writing songs. His friends eventually convinced him to post them online. About half of his debut album came from this time.
After college, he wanted to get out of Florida but had no solid plan or any job offers. After getting fed up working restaurant jobs in Gainesville, he decided to join AmeriCorps, and picked New Orleans as a destination because it was far enough away from home while remaining familiar.
The organization placed him with a nonprofit that sent him all over the city, meeting with law enforcement, educators and others involved in civic activities. At the same time, he also began listening to blues, soul and other types of music to which he hadn’t been exposed in Florida.
The influences – from Black Flag to bluesman Blind Willie Johnson, another raspy-voiced guitarist – coalesced into Booker’s sound. To him, those genres weren’t an inspiration from the past, but a living muse.
“I listened to a lot of the music from the past, but there is also all these people around me playing those things in the present,” said Booker, whose speaking voice is soft, velvety and unlike his own raspy singing voice.
Booker describes his sound, or at least his goal, as Otis Redding playing punk.
“If you see his live performances, it’s so energetic and it feels very punk to me,” he said.
Following that inspiration to fruition is definitely not a natural process, and requires much effort for Booker to avoid sounding “retro.” That’s why he layers gospel melodies over punk riffs or shoegaze keys over the blues.
After he moved to New Orleans, Booker felt the urge to perform in front of others for the first time, starting with solo acoustic shows that left him unsatisfied and wanting to electrify his sound live. He traveled back to Tampa and started a band that eventually included drummer Max Norton and bassist Alex Spoto. Eventually, “Have You Seen My Son?” was picked up by Sirius XM radio. ATO Records, home to My Morning Jacket, Alabama Shakes and Drive-By Truckers, offered him a contract soon after. His album debuted in the top 10 of Billboard’s alternative and independent album charts.
The people who were the original lyrical inspirations for his songs have embraced the roles they played in Booker’s upbringing.
“I think with most of the people, it made our relationship better,” he said.