Alec Benjamin: "I think I’m still not comfortable being vulnerable, but I’m more uncomfortable, not being myself. "
Tonya Antoniou | 23/06/2022
Singer-songwriter Alec Benjamin has been releasing music from the age of 16. Although born and raised in Phoenix Arizona, there is undoubtedly a British influence on his musical style, which can be attributed to the time he spent honing his skills here as a teenager. His music is made up of an eclectic sound, representing his diverse influences ranging from Paul Simon to Eminem. Originally gathering a fan base from performing in parking lots outside concert venues, Benjamin was able to raise his YouTube profile. In 2017, his song ‘I Build a Friend’ was featured on America’s Got Talent, he then went on to open for Camilla Cabello on tour and released the remix of ‘Let me Down Slowly’ in 2018, with Alessia Cara. This gave him his first billboard 100 entry and amassed billions of streams in over 25 countries, gaining a global following. He has collaborated with the likes of John Bellion on ‘New York Soul, Pt ii’ and Dream on ‘Change my Clothes’. He has fully established himself as an artist recently performing at Coachella and embarking on an international tour.
We talked about how Benjamin started his career by playing for fans in car lots outside other artists’ shows.“It wasn’t my first choice, If I could have been an international pop sensation, I would have chosen that. But I pretty much did whatever I could do to get my music in front of people. Because that’s what you have to do. It wasn’t possible during the pandemic to continue that, although it was a part of my career I’m going to be twenty-eight in a few days and I did that around the age of twenty-one. It was during that time that I put out my first mixtape, that’s what it was called, since then I have had a debut album and moved past that period, I now play live shows. However, people still see me in terms of that first part of my career and because of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to get out there and talk about things like I wanted to. Not to say that’s something that I don’t want to talk about, but it’s been a long time since I’ve played in parking lots, I’ve been fortunate enough to get out of the parking lots and it’s definitely evolved!”
He has amassed over 4 billion global streams and 10+ million social media followers over numerous platforms. I asked how that makes him feel seeing all his hard work paying off? “They say a watched pot never boils and this is how it feels for me watching it all unfold. I feel like I have a very myopic view as I’m watching it every day and I’m watching it closer than most people. Even while it’s happening, it doesn’t really feel like it’s happening, however retrospectively I look back and wonder about doing it all again. There’s not a point at which I’m able to enjoy it.”
Acknowledging everyone had some form of loss, both small and big during the pandemic. It must have been hard for Benjamin as well, especially having to halt the tour? “I wasn’t happy stopping, I had been forced to stop but in reality, it was kind of good for me. In the past, I had been afraid to talk about things on my records, because I wasn’t ready, and I was worried about alienating anybody. However, now I feel more comfortable sharing the things that interest me and it is a good time to talk about topics like politics.”
We spoke about how the process of his second album differed from his debut. “The circumstances under which I wrote the album, were very different as it was during the pandemic. So, the release of the album has been a lot different, because of the time that’s elapsed between the beginning of the pandemic, and now. A lot has changed, but I think the biggest difference is probably things on the album that I’ve decided to talk about because instead of looking inward, at myself, I was looking outward at the world. I was thinking a lot about what was happening around me. I was focused less on myself and more on what was going on in the world.”
I’d read he learned how to write songs in the UK, I wondered what it was about the UK that had ignited that process? “Well, I think that the singer-songwriter, culture is still alive and well in the UK. When I was younger, I was looking up my favourite records on Wikipedia to see who collaborated on them, so that I could try and get in touch with somebody who could maybe steer me in the right direction. I connected with a UK-based songwriter who responded to me, and then flew me out to London when I was sixteen. He mentored me and taught me how to write songs. Learning songwriting in the UK is totally different from the US. It was a great time for singer-songwriters in the UK, it was when Ed Sheeran and Adele’s popularity was escalating. I learned a lot from being there and when I got to LA it was so different; I found it very insular with most people producing beats on their laptops. I’ve always loved the UK, my mum went to college in England, she studied at York University, so we travelled a few times to York as well as to Wales, as her best friend lived there. I’ve learned so much from just being in the UK and working with English collaborators. There’s a songwriter who I’ve worked with on two of the songs on this album, and I wrote six songs with one guy named Sam Romans who’s also English, we did it via Zoom. I wanted to write a song about Nancy Pelosi, called ‘Nancy got a Haircut’. At the time, I was in a bad mood and I didn’t really want to do the session, but it was one of the ones I had that was on the books, and I didn’t want to cancel it. I was trying to give him a reason to jump so I could get off the phone, but he was adamant we do it and really enthusiastic and I thought I really like this guy and in the end, it turned out great.”
As Benjamin is releasing the entirety of his album in Mandarin, I was interested to know what had influenced this? “When I was younger, I was really interested in learning about East Asian culture, but it wasn’t something that we were taught in school. I think the best way to understand a culture is to learn its language. I never really set out to study Chinese with the idea that I was going to be totally, conversationally fluent. I wanted to show respect for the culture, as there have been several occasions where I’ve communicated with Chinese people in English. So, I took the next step and learnt the language, which enabled me to make music in Mandarin. I feel like it’s something that hasn’t really been done before and it’s important to try and bridge the gap between cultures. There have been so many Chinese, Asian and European artists making music in English, and I thought It would be cool if I could be the first American artist or Western artist to do the reverse.”
I was intrigued to know if he found the pronunciations easier when singing or speaking in Mandarin? “It’s actually much easier singing, as Chinese is a tonal language, you can say one word four different ways, there are four different tones, whether you’re going up or down. The necessity to sing the actual melody with the proper cadence supersedes the tonal part of the language, so you don’t have to pay attention to it. Later on, in life I’ve wanted to master things more, for example, I’m relearning how to play a lot of stuff that I couldn’t play, I’ve spent five or six hours a day just playing the guitar for the last eight months. I wish I had done that earlier on including learning Mandarin.”
We chatted about whether he had become more comfortable with being vulnerable in the music he makes? “I think I’m still not comfortable being vulnerable, but I’m more uncomfortable, not being myself. So, I don’t really have an option. I’ve never been at ease doing something that doesn’t feel right to me. And this feels right, it’s uncomfortable for me to put myself on display in my music.”
In his coming-of-age album (Un)Commentary, he explores his distinctive outlook and provides us with his “uncommon commentary” through his interpretation of an altered world and how it has impacted his own life. He has really taken a step back to question things on the album, anxiety crisis’, social media addiction, and pressures of adulthood. I wanted to know why this was important for him to tackle?
“When the pandemic hit, songwriting became a job to me; I wasn’t enjoying it and I was afraid, which is what my song ‘Oh My God’ was about. Lots of people during this time quit their job and were reevaluating their lives, I did the same thing. I just stopped writing for about eight months and only returned to it because I was thinking about a lot of the stuff that I wrote on the album, and I felt compelled to write about it. No one told me to sit down and write an album, even though I had a contract and obligations that come with that. I just wrote because I decided that I wanted to; I didn’t tell my label, my publisher or my management. I just wrote a bunch of songs and when the pandemic was winding down, I presented them with the songs and said here’s an album that I wrote for myself.
I didn’t even know if they were going to turn them into an album. The songs were just about things that I had been thinking of at the time; I had been reading a lot and watching the world change, and this melded into ideas and opinions that I wanted to share. For my first album, my debut album, I was trying to tell the truth, but also at the same time, I was really concerned about trying to recreate that same success. I think that hindered me. After ‘Let Me Down Slowly’, I felt it wasn’t the biggest hit in the world. But I was looking the other day, and I had been added to this playlist on Spotify called the Billions Club, it has a billion streams on Spotify. Then I saw that there are only 180 songs in the world that have that many streams, that really freaked me out on a conscious and subconscious level.”
We delved into whether he was able to write more freely as the absence of pressure to write, was not there because of the pandemic? “I didn’t know if I was going to make music or sell tickets again, once the industry closed. I thought maybe this is it for me. I didn’t know what was going to happen. In a way it was good because it put my life back into perspective; I was on tour all the time, and living in Los Angeles and had gotten so caught up in the rat race without realising it. After a while, due to the pandemic, I was able to shut everything out. I stopped checking Instagram for a few months because I realised how unhealthy it was - I guess that’s why I wrote about that as well.”
We discussed the link between his mental health experiences and his new album ‘(Un)commentary’ “Most of the songs that I wrote are a byproduct of the way that my brain functions. So, they’re an emergent property of my existence as a human being. If you could separate my brain from the rest of my body, it would be responsible for 80% of everything that’s going on in my songs. I guess some of it is about my mental health struggles, but some of the ways that I struggle may not be defined as mental health struggles, because they don’t necessarily fit that box. I do think that my ADHD has a lot to do with the reason why I make music and the way that I write songs. I don’t want to think of things as ordered or disordered, that’s how people categorise them, but ultimately, everything is just a different order. However, I’m oriented in a certain way and my music is the way that it is because of that.”
My final question was what his favourite song is to play live? “It just depends on the evening! I like playing my song “Water Fountain”, but I have a song right now called ‘The Devil Doesn’t Bargain’. I have a really cool live arrangement for it, it seems to be the one on the album that my fans are really liking and it’s just great to play the music that people want to hear. Some artists don’t want to play their old stuff as they are tired of it, even though I have played ‘Let Me Down Slowly’ a trillion times, it’s still a fans favourite, I believe it’s a wonderful privilege to have a song that people want to hear so much that you’re requested to play it.”
Words: Tonya Antoniou
Photography: Matt Vogel