Find Benson a title other than singer-songwriter… please

Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 6:51pm

Brendan Benson has a bit of an identity crisis.

Yes, he is a prolific songwriter whose compositions have been featured in every context from rock and punk to folk and bluegrass. And he’s also a fine vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist (though he downplays his abilities on everything except guitar).

But there’s one thing Brendan Benson, who’ll be appearing Saturday afternoon at Grimey’s and in concert that evening at the Exit/In (with Cory Chisel in both places), emphatically declares: he’s NOT a singer/songwriter. At least not to the degree and extent that term has become defined in contemporary music vernacular.

“I do write songs and I am a singer, so I guess if you really want to get technical, yes I’m a singer/songwriter,” he said. “But I’m not a folkie, and I don’t write folk tunes, even though sometimes they might sound that way.”

He emphatically declares to be a “band guy,” which he says has always been his major thing.

“When you say songwriter, people immediately assumed that you’re an acoustic type doing introspective pieces,” Benson added. “I write some of those also, but that’s not how I see myself now and it’s really not the way I wanted to be viewed when I started out. I guess the big mistake I made was putting out early material under my own name. It kind of got the ball rolling and now it’s hard to turn it around.”

But Benson’s done his share of well-received group material. One early band was an ensemble known as The Well Fed Boys, which featured him with Woody Saunders and bassist Topper Rimel. That unit toured during the 1990s before disbanding in 1997.

He later cut an EP Metairie with another incarnation of the Well Fed Boys, which also marked one of the first meetings and collaborations with Jack White, who sang backup vocals on a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It.”

But over the last few years he’s truly focused on working within a band structure, having teamed with White for two discs as part of the Raconteurs, a group that also included Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler. The Raconteurs cut a pair of acclaimed releases, Broken Boy Soldiers in 2006 and Consolers of the Lonely in 2008. Benson and White teamed to write nearly all the material.

“The first thing that I think about in terms of Jack White is that he’s a really good friend,” Benson said. “The second thing is that he’s both extremely talented and very willing to share. There’s never any star attitude, no tantrums or insistence that a song has to be done a certain way. He’s always open to ideas and suggestions, and the Raconteurs was a project that I really enjoyed and everyone felt was a great thing.”

Fans may wonder about Benson's past-tense reference.

“I’m not sure if there will be any more Raconteurs releases,” he said. “Everyone has now kind of gone their separate ways and is concentrating on something else. However, Jack and I remain friends and we’ll always be close.”

Besides heading his own band, Benson has also become an in-demand producer and songwriter. He’s supervised projects by The Greenhornes, The Nice Device, The Mood Elevator, Whirlwind Heat and The Waxwings over the last three years. He also done various songs with keyboardist Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age and The Dead Weather) as well as collaborations with his wife Brittany (a clever cover of Smokey Robinson’s “The Hunter Gets Captured By The Game,” a ‘60s smash for the Marvelettes) and a bluegrass single “Old Enough” with Ricky Skaggs and Ashley Monroe that got heavy video airplay on CMT.

When asked how he decides what material to use for which project, Benson’s answer is a simple one.

“I never think that way, either in terms of voices or in terms of groups as a writer. I just kind of go along, get the song together on guitar or piano, and then see what happens. I can truthfully say that I’ve never really written a song thinking that this might be good for the Raconteurs or this might be good for my current group,” he said. “It’s really just a matter of trial and error. You try things out and you find that a voice you didn’t even think about when you were writing the lyrics really works when you start playing the song, or that someone will do it in a way that you never even thought would work.”

Anyone whose influences range from ‘70s rock to glam, first generation British invasion, punk and soul would naturally enjoy thematic variety, and that remains Brendan Benson’s goal. He’s willing to do anything from an anguished solo vocal to an experimental piece with lots of distorted guitar licks and odd rhythmic foundations underneath.

Just don’t label him a singer/songwriter.


Brendan Benson in concert along with Cory Chisel
2 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Grimey’s New and Preloved Records, 1604 8th Ave. S. (2 p.m.),


Exit/In, 2208 Elliston Place (9 p.m.)
Cost: Free in-store performance (2 p.m.), $19 (9 p.m.)
Info: 254-4801 (2 p.m.), 321-3340 (9 p.m.)