Born in November of 1970, in Royal Oak, MI. Addresses: Record company--V2 Records, 14 E. 4th St., 3rd Fl., New York, NY 10012. Website--Brendan Benson Official Website: http://www.brendanbenson.com.
At the time Jack White of The White Stripes was the reigning head of rock 'n' roll in Detroit in the early 2000s, his friend Brendan Benson was the Motor City's master of pop music. With two major label albums and one shining independent under his belt, Benson may not have had the same acclaim or sales as White, but his own brand of singer-songwriter, McCartney-esque pop music held as much clout to musicians in the city as White's did. As Interview magazine's Dimitri Ehrlich wrote, "Like a distressed Xerox version of Rubber Soul-era Beatles or Alex Chilton on antidepressants, Benson is an old-school hookmeister. He, however, infuses his cheerful melodies with a rushed, offhanded attitude, which gives even the prettiest parts an air of aggression."
Born in 1970 in the northern Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan, Benson actually spent the first few years of his life in Louisiana after his family relocated so his father could work. Living in the New Orleans suburb Harvey, at an early age Benson picked up on his father's keen music taste. While bands like the Beatles, David Bowie, and T. Rex played on the home stereo, the young Benson became fascinated with rock star personas. When his parents divorced, Benson and his mother returned to Royal Oak where Benson attended Shrine of the Little Flower Catholic School and later, Royal Oak Kimball High School.
As most kids do, in his early teens, Benson went through a punk phase. He even put on punk rock shows in his aunt's basement before he started his first band at the age of 15 with friend Andy Kemp. Benson spent his remaining teen years playing in short-lived bands including Smart Bomb, Pony Down, and Dog Born. When he turned 18, the Michigander dropped out of high school and took a demo tape of new pop songs he had recorded out to California. His venture to Los Angeles wasn't purely for pop music stardom---he was following a girl, to an outcome that would inspire his future songs.
Living in Los Angeles, then Berkley, and then Los Angeles again, after breaking up with his girlfriend, Benson began to meet other independent musicians who shared his love for power-pop and classic pop songwriting. One such person was ex-Jellyfish guitarist Jason Falkner. As his circle of friends increased, Benson's homemade demo began to circulate through California record labels and before he knew it, Benson was part of an all-out bidding war. Based on his self-produced and recorded demos---with barely a live show to his name, Virgin Records won the rights and signed Benson up to release his first proper album.
Soon after, Benson and his friend Falkner traveled to New Orleans to begin work on his debut album, One Mississippi. When they turned their efforts into the label however, Virgin was dissatisfied and asked Benson to rerecord the album in San Francisco with producer Ethan Johns. The label was counting on Benson to be the next big thing in alternative music. When One Mississippi was eventually released in September of 1996, critics adored it, but record sales were weak. Although Benson played nearly every instrument on One Mississippi, with additional help from Falkner on almost half of the album, the glorious personal songs sounded a lot like Falkner's first solo album, Presents Author Unknown, another album released that same year that was perfect for pop radio. Metro Times writer Chris Handyside called One Mississippi a "pitch-perfect blend of shimmering Beatles-esque pop, disarming autobiography and a home-brewed whiff of the psychedelic and surreal."
After the album's release, Benson toured the country opening for more popular bands, including a stint with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Although even Billboard called One Mississippi "a power-pop near-masterpiece" and "one of the most criminally ignored album of the '90s," the album sold less than 10,000 copies and Benson soon found himself on a label that didn't really want him. A year after the album was released; Virgin dropped a large portion of their roster. Somehow Benson was one of the so-called lucky ones who had his contract renewed---something that plagued him for the next few years.
In 1998, Benson returned to Michigan and with the money left over from Virgin, bought a large house in Detroit and furnished it with recording equipment and instruments. Setting up a proper home studio dubbed Grand Studio, Benson ended up not only recording his next two albums there but became a sought-after producer for up-and-coming bands and artists in Detroit. Upon his return to Detroit, Benson slowly became part of the city's growing music scene, playing solo shows and making friends in the city's emerging new energetic rock scene. For a short period in 1998, Benson was in a group with Jack White and some friends.
Finally cutting himself clean from his Virgin contract for good in 1999, Benson began to use his experiences to record and produce bands at home including the Mood Elevator, Whirlwind Heat, the Waxwings and Blanche. For a while, he retreated to his home studio, barely going out, thinking twice about playing his own music, wrestling with writer's block. "There was a point at which I said, 'OK, I guess that's it. I'm going to focus on producing other people's music.' I've always really respected the people who make a living away from the spotlight, who aren't necessarily famous, but who do this great work," Benson told the Metro Times. "When you have the people around you saying your songs aren't good enough, it has an effect on you," Benson told Now magazine about his trials with Virgin. "It took me a while to come to the realization that I'm not a pop star---I don't have the goods. But that's O.K. I'm happy just being myself."
While One Mississippi became a favorite in underground circles and became a much-sought-after out-of-print album, Benson's faith in his own songwriting abilities slowly became renewed after he felt the energy of other burgeoning bands in Detroit. After a while, he collected a strong collection of demos and Benson, in his stereotypical self-effacing manner, sent out a number of the demos to various record labels without any of his contact information on them. After seeing Brooklyn band French Kicks at the now-defunct Detroit bar the Gold Dollar, Benson sent one of the demos to the French Kicks' indie label StarTime International. When the label's owner Isaac Green heard it in March of 2001 he had no idea Benson was once touted as the "Next Big Thing." He just heard the demo, thought it was great, and wanted to put a record out for Benson. In February of 2002, StarTime International released the stunning pop masterpiece Lapalco, an album recorded almost entirely by Benson (with a little help from Falkner again) at his home studio. To kick start Benson's coming out---six years after his first album---he put together a live band with the Mood Elevator's Chris Plum, and former Atomic Numbers' members Zach Shipps and Matt Aljian.
Buzz quickly began to build on Lapalco and soon European labels caught on. Major label V2 Records quickly purchased the rights to Lapalco in the United Kingdom. and sent Benson on his first large overseas tour. Critics adored the album and sales were nearly three times that of One Mississippi. "There's not a single note out of place on Lapalco," wrote David Peisner in Creative Loafing. "And Benson manages to never sound too precious, kicking out his tunes with a reckless, unbridled joy that's simply infectious." The album's hooky single "Tiny Spark" was licensed by Saturn for a car commercial and played prominently in a scene from the 2004 Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston movie Along Came Polly.
StarTime International took notice of Benson's increasing fanbase and thanked Benson's supporters by re-releasing One Mississippi in 2003 with a load of bonus tracks. In June of 2003, the indie label also released the five-song EP Metarie under the name Brendan Benson and the Wellfed Boys. The tracks included a new track called "Alternative to Love," a full-on rocking band version of "You're Quiet," and a cover of Wings' "Let Me Roll It." This was the first time Benson released songs recorded with a band.
After extensive touring across the world for Lapalco, Benson was eager to get home to write and record for his third record. After the six-year break between his first two albums, he was enthusiastic to get his next record out much quicker. In five or six months he had the record done, because, as he told The Boston Phoenix, he wanted to avoid becoming, "the guy who always takes forever. I had to answer that so often that I thought, 'All right, I'll show them---I'll have this record out so fast.' But no such luck," he said. In a twist of fate, soon after he was done recording his third album, V2 dropped him in the United Kingdom. Strangely enough, V2 in the United States quickly signed him up to release March of 2005's The Alternative to Love.
Even with major label bucks at his dispose, Benson recorded the album himself (besides a few friends stopping in to sing and play various instruments); the only help outside of Detroit he used for the album was from mixer Tchad Blake (Sheryl Crow, Paul McCartney, Tom Waits). Expanding his style to incorporate diverse sounds, The Alternative to Love was praised by every major music magazine including Rolling Stone who said, "Like Fountains of Wayne, Brendan Benson writes pop songs for an alternative universe, one where hits are still forged out of crisp guitar lines and Beatlesque backing vocals."
In-between his time recording The Alternative to Love and touring, Benson recorded a highly anticipated album with Jack White at Grand Studio. "I could happily spend the rest of my days something with music," Benson said in his official biography. "If I'm not working on music, anxiety sets in."
by Shannon McCarthy
Brendan Benson's Career
Moved to California and signed to Virgin Records; released debut album One Mississippi, 1996; parted ways with Virgin, 1999; moved to Detroit, MI; signed to Brooklyn-based independent label StarTime International, released Lapalco, 2002; signed to V2 Records, released The Alternative to Love, 2005.
- Selected discography
- One Mississippi Virgin, 1996; reissued, StarTime International, 2003.
- Lapalco StarTime International, 2002.
- (With The Wellfed Boys)Metarie EP StarTime International, 2003.
- The Alternative to Love V2, 2005.
- Billboard, January 17, 2004, p. 31.
- The Boston Phoenix, April 8, 2005.
- Creative Loafing (Atlanta, GA), May 8, 2002.
- Interview, March 2005, p. 134.
- Metro Times (Detroit, MI), March 16, 2005.
- Now (Toronto, ON), May 29, 2003.
- Brendan Benson Official Website, http://www.brendanbenson.com (April 15, 2005).
- Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com (April 15, 2005).