Interview by Zach Grossfeld
At the end of 2018, Alec Benjamin released a mixtape titled ‘Narrated For You.’ Before that, he got signed by a major label, made an album, then got dropped. He’s spent time touring with Matisyahu, Jon Bellion, and Hoodie Allen. Over in Europe, he played the guitar and sang for fans in parking lots outside of Troye Sivan and Shawn Mendes concerts. “I handed out a ton of business cards, my Staples bill was insane,” says Alec. From playing parking lot shows to releasing smash hits like ‘Let Me Down Slowly,’ here’s a bit of insight into Alec’s story telling process.
Alec Benjamin tells stories. He witnesses pockets of life and takes time to reflect on the moments that connect the common experience. In the writing process, Alec often waits weeks or months to write about something he has witnessed.
Rather than create in quick bursts of passion, he lets the heat of the moment sink in and transform through reflection. Moments like the falling of a hero or the loss of a loved one cannot be fully processed until the storyteller creates a healthy distance. Alec harnesses this distance to tell parts of the story that we often miss in the moment.
‘Let Me Down Slowly,’ a story about a break-up, holds insights that only surface once time passes. That sick, helpless sensation in the pit of your stomach, the feeling that everyone faces at the end of a relationship, takes time to subside. No easy alternative exists to expedite the fallout of leaving someone behind. But acknowledging that some things are out of your control can bring peace of mind.
In ‘Boy in the Bubble,’ Alec sings about the pain of bullying from the perspective of both the victim and the bully. No excuse exists for tormenting others, but everyone endures pain and reacts in different ways. Alec takes moments where we are at our most irrational and narrates the story from a more level-headed, empathetic perspective. The moral of the story changes when we build the space to look back.
Auxoro: You describe yourself as a narrator. What are some of the biggest struggles of translating the stories you experience in real life into a four-minute song?
Alec Benjamin: I always try to talk about things that actually happen to me, firsthand. Sometimes I talk about something as if it’s happening to another person, like a buffer. It helps me not feel so vulnerable. One of the challenges is that when you have a lot of words, some songs you listen to and some songs you dance to. It’s hard to have both.
When you have to perform these songs live, you have to figure out how to work the dynamic. You want people to listen to the music and move along to it, but you also want them to listen to the words. That’s been a struggle for me.
So there can be a divide on songwriting between communicating the words and the feeling in a live setting?
When you listen to a lot of disco music, the artists aren’t necessarily trying to tell a story. And when you listen to Paul Simon, you aren’t thinking about going to the club. When you’re playing in a club venue and the space is configured so that people can jump around and throw their hands up, and that’s not the kind of music that you’re playing, you have to walk a fine line with how you structure the songs for a live setting. You also have to think about how you write the story so that there is some motion in the song for the live show dynamic.
You’ve spoken about having a reflection period between the experience and writing a song about that experience. What about the more distanced perspective appeals to you as a songwriter, rather than making songs in the heat of the moment?
In the heat of the moment, you don’t always know how you feel about something. You may feel a certain emotion like anger, sadness, or happiness, but you may not understand why you feel that way. When you have three, four, five months, or maybe just even a few weeks to think about where those emotions are coming from, sometimes you can have a better perspective.
You can start songs with a couple words that you’re in love with, and then it can become a game of trying to piece the song together. What’s a recent time where you heard someone say a phrase or read something that inspired a song lyric?
Yesterday, I was hanging out with my friend and he said, “you have to stop and smell the roses.” I’ve heard that phrase a lot of times but it never occurred to me that it could also be a good song title, or maybe a nice lyrical motif.
In the song ‘Death Of A Hero,’ you talk about seeing Superman, someone you look up to, doing drugs in the bathroom and acting differently than the image you previously had of this person. In your eyes, can someone still be a hero after they’ve made a terrible mistake if they prove themselves through heroic action in the future? Like a flawed hero, a Hancock or a Deadpool, rather than the Superman type.
I’ve never really thought about it like that, but it’s an interesting way to look at it. People can do things that are heroic and maybe not necessarily be a hero. Things are never all good or all bad.
I watched Deadpool on TV the other night and thought about the juxtaposition of the pureness of Superman and the more recent depictions of flawed heroes, especially in Marvel. It seems like the flawed hero appeals to people because the audience can see more of themselves in a character like Deadpool or Hancock.
Now, with social media, perspectives are changing. It’s impossible for celebrities who want to have a perfect image to maintain that perfect image. They’re visible all the time. They used to be able to choose the moments when they would be seen. If you could choose every moment where you would be seen, you’d only pick the best ones.
Now, people can pick the best things on Instagram, but people are way more exposed in their daily lives - vulnerable in these moments that have never been open to the public eye. Characters like Deadpool and Hancock may be popular because people don’t necessarily want to see that perfect superhero anymore.
You’ve spoken a bit about social anxiety and how you can get hyper-aware of what your body is doing during interviews or shows. What are some ways you combat these feelings to bring yourself back to the moment?
I’m still working on that. I always try to stay positive. Sometimes when I’m thinking negatively or about how nervous I am, I can catch it and say “yeah I should be more present, come back to the moment.” I look at the crowd, focus on the crowd and think of the positive things that are happening around me and not worry about how I look to those watching.
I’m sure it’s difficult to not over-analyze how you look when you’re often in pictures, videos, and performing for hundreds of people.
It doesn’t even take that many people to take me out of the moment. It can just be one other person. When you don’t know somebody, the most natural state is to be uncomfortable because you don’t know anything about that human being. And they don’t know anything about you. I admire people who are automatically comfortable in front of strangers, even if it’s just one person.
You’ve said that one of your favorite artists is Eminem, and you’ve covered ‘Stan’ many times. I consider him one of the ultimate narrators or story tellers. What elements from Eminem’s storytelling or artistry have you been able to incorporate into your own music?
I like the meter of his rhymes, and I like the way he bends words to make them rhyme even when they don’t necessarily fit together perfectly. Also, the subject matter that he talks about is interesting to me. And I love how honest he is through his music. He talks a lot about his family life. We have such different family lives, of course, but I talk about my family a lot in my music. Eminem always talks about his daughter. It’s cool how open he is about stories so personal.
‘Stan’ is such a cool song, and for him, that song was very timely because it was when he was becoming super popular. For him to talk about how he felt about fame and put it into a story was cool to hear. The things he chooses to speak about are interesting. Not a lot of people are willing to talk about the topics that he does.
For those who pay close attention to Eminem, he often explores his darker side in the music beyond just his mainstream hits. Have you ever thought about channeling some of those darker thoughts and using them in your own songs?
No, because I don’t really have those same thoughts to be perfectly honest. We’re very different human beings.
Earlier in your career, you cold called the rapper Matisyahu and asked if you could tour with him. What was that conversation like?
I found his information online through one of his contacts, and then I just called him. It wasn’t necessarily a brave thing for me at the time. It was either get the gig or fail. Failure to me was scarier than cold calling somebody. It’s scarier to think about not being able to support yourself through your art or the music. It was a pretty easy choice to make.
I’m from Long Island and one of my favorite artists from this area is Jon Bellion. You were featured on the song ‘New York Soul - Pt.ii’ by Jon and have toured with him as well. What’s the dynamic like between you and Jon in the studio, and what are the most important things you’ve been able to learn from him?
I’m not a producer, but I’ve learned a lot about production from Jon. It also depends on what we’re working on. If it’s a song for him, like ‘New York Soul - Pt.ii,’ I let him take the lead. If it’s a song for me, lyrically I’ll take charge. We’re good friends so the dynamic is always fun and open. We’re similar in a lot of ways as far as how we write and what our process is like.
I’ve learned a lot from him, not just about songwriting, but about being an artist, touring, and being in a band. He told me that the most important thing is to focus on the music. There are a lot of things that happen outside of the music, like social media, and it’s easy to get distracted. As long as you focus on the music that’s most important. It seems obvious, but sometimes it’s not so obvious when those distractions come into play.
How has your live show evolved now that you’re headlining? And what are some of the most insightful things that you’ve learned about yourself as a performer since you’ve started playing shows?
I’m still figuring out my live show since I’m new to headlining. But the one thing people can always expect from me is that it’s going to be raw and it’s not super produced, it’s not a major production. That’s not something I aspire to have. It’s just me. I’m honest with the crowd and I like to interact. And I don’t script myself. Every night I say something different. It’s like a look into my records. There isn’t that much production in my music anyway. The show is just me, my guitar, and my friend on the piano.
What are the biggest things that people outside of the industry don’t understand about your job?
Regardless of what you do for a living or what field you’re in, most people are working hard. The hustle isn’t limited to the music industry. People, for the most part, understand what I do. I write songs and I tour. Everyone has their own anxieties and frustrations, so I wouldn't say people don’t understand what I do. I’d say that I’m fortunate to have travelled to a lot of places and have done a lot of things that others haven’t had the opportunity to do.
What is a negative experience, something that you never want to repeat, but has changed you for the better?
Something that I wouldn’t want to go through again is getting dropped from my previous record label. A lot of good things came out of that situation which most people would consider a negative experience.