BRENDAN BENSON was born and raised in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of the port city of Detroit. The city is known as the world’s centre of the automobile industry, but it is even more famous for its music.
Detroit is known as Motor City, Motown, and Rock City and has given the world Tamla Motown, Doo-wop, Soul, Metro Detroit Rock, Detroit Techno, and Indie Underground.
Benson’s parents split up when he was quite young and for many years he divided his time between Detroit and New Orleans. His father introduced him to his extensive record collection and Brendan grew up absorbing the diverse influences of Todd Rundgren, David Bowie, The Cars, The Kinks, The Who, ELO, and Elvis Costello.
“I met Bowie once and beforehand I was absolutely terrified,” Benson tells me during our interview. “I suppose I was more terrified of him disappointing me than the fact of actually meeting him. That’s always a consideration, in my mind, when I meet someone who I’ve worshipped for years. Luckily though it was cool and he still remains my hero. I’m still a big fan of the man and his music.”
Cold Hands Warm Heart
Brendan began his recording career in 1996 with the release of his debut album One Mississippi on Virgin Records. The album was co-produced by Ethan Johns (son of Glyn Johns who produced The Clash ) and featured his long-time friend Jason Falkner as guitarist and co-songwriter.
Unfortunately the record failed to sell in significant numbers and Brendan was dropped. He went on a US and Asia tour with a band of friends named The Well Fed Boys and began work on his next album.
Lapalco appeared in 2002 and the album title was a reference to Lapalco Boulevard in Louisiana where he spent part of his youth. It enjoyed a degree of commercial success and Benson played the Reading and Leeds festivals, where he was joined by members of The White Stripes, The Datsuns, and Soledad Brothers.
His third solo album, The Alternative to Love, released in 2005, charted in Britain and produced hit singles such as ‘Spit It Out’, ‘What I’m Looking For’, and ‘Cold Hands Warm Heart’.
‘Cold Hands Warm Heart’ featured on episodes of Bones and Smallville and also received significant airplay in Ireland and Britain.
“With the song ‘Cold Hands Warm Heart’ I’d never really heard that expression before writing it,” Benson says. “Anyway, one night I shook a fan’s hand after a show and she said that phrase to me and it kind of stuck.
“That experience doesn’t have anything to do with the actual song but it was sort of the catalyst for writing it. I think a good song has to have an aesthetic or an image to go with it. I like to be descriptive in my songwriting and conjure up little images and situations.”
Detroit Rock City
Throughout his career, and in his life in general,
Benson has often acknowledged his Anglophile tendencies. A cover version of Paul McCartney’s ‘Let Me Roll It’ featured on his Metarie EP and when his son was born in April he named him Declan after Elvis Costello [who was born Declan MacManus].
“I suppose it just happens to be one of my favourite names,” Benson states. “It’s funny though that it only occurred to me much later that it’s Elvis’ original name. I’ve had opportunities to meet him in the past but it’s one of those things where I just didn’t know what I was going to say to him. I’d just be gushing and I’d blow it! It’d probably be fine but I just wouldn’t want to take that chance of blowing it.”
When he first began listening to and playing music Brendan shared his passion for Mersey Beat, glam rock, punk, pub rock, blues, and country rock with his good friend John Anthony Gillis.
In 1996 Gillis married Meg White and in an unusual move took her last name and became Jack White. Together the couple formed The White Stripes and they alongside other Detroit underground bands/artists including Benson, The Von Bondies, The Dirtbombs, and Kid Rock became the focal point for rock music journalism in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Brendan though had some reservations about the scene.
“In Detroit it sort of wasn’t cool to be successful or to want to be successful,” he says. “I could never really understand that because if music is all you know and you want to make a living from it then you want to be as good at it as you can be. You want to take it as far as it can go.”
Benson decided to leave Motor City and he moved to Guitar Town - Nashville, Tennessee. He was joined there soon after by Jack White and The Greenhornes’ Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler, and this led to the formation of The Raconteurs.
Their full-length debut Broken Boy Soldiers was released in 2006 and spawned the No 1 hit single ‘Steady, As She Goes’. Rolling Stone named it the second best song of 2006 and a year later it was nominated for a Grammy Award.
In March 2008 the band released their second album Consolers Of The Lonely, but since then the individual members have been focused on other things.
“The Raconteurs was always meant to be spontaneous and fun,” Benson says. “There’s a possibility of doing something together again in the future but not at this moment in time. We’ll see how it goes.”
Old Familiar Friend
Brendan is currently promoting his fourth album My Old, Familiar Friend and as part of that promotion he is doing an extensive Irish tour and on Tuesday September 21 he will be stopping in Galway for a much-anticipated show at the Róisín Dubh.
“I got a new manager recently and I mentioned to her that I’ve always wanted to tour Ireland,” Benson says. “I tried it a couple of times before but it never worked out. Anyway she made it her mission to have it work out this time around. I’m glad she put in the effort and I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t been to Galway before but I’ve heard loads about it.”
Part of the reason for Benson wanting to come here is perhaps to connect with his Irish ancestry. His mother’s side of the family is Murphy from Cork.
“I always knew that one side of my family was kind of whacky and the other side was not,” he laughs. “The Irish side being the whacky ones. The ones that would eat weird things like lamb and stew, as opposed to hamburgers and hotdogs. I’ve grown to appreciate that side a lot more these last few years.”
Brendan Benson will give a special acoustic performance at the Róisín Dubh on Tuesday September 21 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.