Photo: Recording Academy
Alec Benjamin On Working With Alessia Cara, Meeting His Idol John Mayer & Chasing Dreams
Phoenix-born, L.A.-based pop singer/songwriter Alec Benjamin calls himself the "narrator," going so far as to name his 2018 debut mixtape Narrated For You.
Over the last year, he's been actively growing his fan base and living his dreams. He's gone from playing more than 150 shows in parking lots outside of other pop artists' concerts in L.A. in 2016 to bringing out his idol, John Mayer, as a surprise guest during his headline show at the El Rey Theater this past May.
We caught up with the rising star to learn more about how he manifested Mayer into his life and how relocating from Arizona to California has shifted his musical career. We also found out what it was like working with recent collaborator (and GRAMMY winner) Alessia Cara, with whom he collaborated.
So you just performed at Bottle Rock in Napa. How was it?
It was awesome. It's the first time in a long I've performed at a festival and the first festival I've done in the U.S. When I first started making music I had the opportunity to do a couple of festivals abroad. But those are actually tented, so it felt like I was inside. This is the first festival I've played that was open air. I had a great time. I've never been to Napa before, it was beautiful.
I learned a lot from that experience because there's so many new things happening. The crowd was great and overall it was fun, but I was really nervous. It's just going to take some getting used to. I have a few more festivals that I'm going to be playing this summer. I'm happy that that was the first one that I did because the crowd was really welcoming and super friendly and also forgiving because I was really, really nervous.
Do you have any lessons from that experience going into Lollapalooza, and other summer festivals, that you're excited to showcase?
Yeah. I think I have a couple of changes that I want to make to the set. I'm excited about Lollapalooza. I'm excited about all of the festivals. And I'm excited about Lollapalooza because of the history that it has and there's so many people playing there. There's going to be a lot of artists that I'm going to get to see that I have never seen before, so that will be great. I'm just trying to go into with an open mind.
HOUSTON IS ABOUTA BE CRAZY
last time I was here I played for 200 people pic.twitter.com/c48vnssdZh
— Alec Benjamin (@AlecBenjamin) April 4, 2019
That's awesome, it is totally huge. Speaking of touring and live shows, you also wrapped part of your headline tour recently. What was your favorite city that surprised you on the tour?
There's one city that I hadn't spent a lot of time in before I started touring. Not even just for the show, the show was great, but I really like Seattle as a place. I thought it was beautiful and we got there on a really sunny day and we got to go down by the water and really try the food and hang out. People were really friendly.
And then I had a great time in Detroit. I thought Detroit was really, really cool. The crowd there was crazy. But I think overall every city was pretty awesome. I think that was probably the most surprising thing is that how great the crowds were everywhere that we went. Sometimes you don't get to spend as much time in the city exploring as you like. So that was a bit of a bummer, but ultimately I think all the shows were great. That was probably the most surprising thing. Not that I'm surprised the shows were good, but I didn't expect it, you don't expect every crowd to be so amazing and they were.
What do you think was one of the biggest challenges that you maybe didn't expect while touring?
Maybe the biggest challenge is getting adjusted to life on a tour bus. I was in a tour bus accident three years ago. That was a really short tour. This is the longest period I've lived on a tour bus, for almost seven weeks. I didn't realize how much that affected me. That was the first real near-death experience that I had. So getting back on a tour bus and have dreams about it and stuff, that was the hardest part. Just getting adjusted to living life on the road. That was difficult.
You often refer to yourself as a "narrator," and your album is called Narrated For You. Can you speak to how this idea guides the stories behind your music?
I wanted to define myself in that way just because, well, it made it easier in my music videos because then I didn't have to act in them. I could just tell the story. I'm really not great in front of the camera. I also think that sometimes it's nice to take words that you don't necessarily hear in the context of music and repurpose them. I mean, I'm a singer/songwriter, essentially, but that was the thought process behind it.
You released a new version of "Let Me Down Slowly," bringing on GRAMMY winner Alessia Cara, resulting in a great pop duet. How did that collaboration come about?
That came about because one of her fans sent me a message and was like, "She's doing promo right now and she was talking about your song!" So I tweeted her. I'm a huge fan of hers. I was like, "Yo, I love your music. We should work together." And she was down, like, "Oh, that would be great." Which was really exciting for me and I was surprised. We couldn't organize a time to write a new song together because we were both on tour. I was like, "Would you wanna do a verse on this song?" So she sent me a voice note of her verse. I was like, "That is amazing."
She has the best voice I've ever heard, ever. On a voice note with no editing. It's crazy. She sent it to me and I was like we should just put this on the song. It's super easy to work with her. She's just a good person.
That's so cool. Have you guys met in person yet?
Yeah. The first time we met was when we made the music video together. It was her and her friend that she travels with, and then I bought them both dinner. I was like, "This is the least I can do." The crazy thing is that we went to Downtown L.A. to get food. And we walked past the GRAMMY Museum, where they have all the people that have won GRAMMYs and one of them is for Best New Artist, which she had won [at the 60th GRAMMY Awards]. We took a picture next to her thing on the sidewalk, which was really cool.
Are there any other artists that you have your eye on working with?
I like it when it's a surprise who you collaborate with. When I thought about it after the collaboration had taken place [with Cara] I was like, oh, that makes sense. But I haven't really been thinking about it that much. I just want to improve my own music and then if the right collaboration comes along that would be great.
You've talked about how John Mayer is one of your biggest inspirations. Do you have any other musical inspirations who made you want to pursue music?
I really love Eminem. I love his storytelling. I'm a big fan of Paul Simon. I love Leonard Cohen. I like Citizen Cope a lot. I listen to a lot of different types of music, I also really like System of a Down. I listen to a lot of rock music and stuff. [Pauses.] Oh, I love Coldplay too.
Can you tell us a little bit about the backstory behind your song "Death of a Hero" and getting to perform it with John Mayer?
Yeah. It was really cool. I was just sitting in my van at that time, we were on tour. One of my friends was like, "Yo, wake up, man. You gotta check Instagram. John Mayer is posting about your music." It came out of nowhere. It was crazy. I had sent him a message in 2017 or 2016 just being like, "I love you. You don't understand. Thank you for everything." And then he saw it and responded to it. That was so cool. So he invited me over to his house to do "Current Mood," the show that he does on his Instagram. We just kept in touch since then and hung out. He came out at my show at the El Rey and performed with me; it was awesome.
You grew up in Phoenix and live in L.A. now. What was the moment that made you want to move out here? And what was the biggest shift you felt once you then were in L.A.?
I moved from Phoenix to L.A. because there's such a great creative community out here in California for songwriting, and there's a lot of labels and studios and things. When I decided to move my parents were like, "Well, if you want to go to California you have to go to college." So I went to school for a year and then I dropped out because I got a record deal. I was signed for two years and then I got dropped. So I moved back home, but luckily my parents had actually moved to California. Not because of me, it just worked out that way. My parents moved to California for work. So I moved back home and I started playing parking lot shows on the street in front of other artist's concerts to get fans. The last six months of 2016 I played 170 different shows. So I printed out tens of thousands of cards at Staples and handed them out anywhere I went.
It took a long time before I really felt a shift, like oh, this is the right decision. I think sometimes I often even now that I've been on tour and I'm not playing in parking lots anymore. Even though I still would. I'd do whatever I had to do. But even now sometimes I have doubts. I'm like, was this the right choice? But I think when I got to meet John Mayer, the person I looked up to and who he's the guy who inspired me to make music. So when he was like, "You done good," I was like okay, cool. That's dope. Because I was like, "I want to be you." And then he said, when I was doing his "Current Mood" Instagram show, "You're kind of like a version of me." I was like, "Dope." That's what I'm trying for. That moment I was like, okay cool. This was not a terrible decision.
I feel like that's part of being a human, no matter what we do.
Especially in this industry. It can be very fickle. You never know. I don't necessarily always feel like I'm on firm footing. This could all go away tomorrow. But that's the same with anything, you never know what's going to happen in life.
"People can't enjoy your art if you don't show it to them."
What's the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone at the start of their career?
One thing that I can say that was very hard for me to do, which I wish I would have understood sooner, is when you're writing songs and it kind of feels weird to show off your music. You don't want to be like, "Oh, check me out." You don't want to be that person, but at the same time, people can't enjoy your art if you don't show it to them. They're not just going to find it magically. It took me four years to get that. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, show people your music. Post it, even if it's not perfect. Because it's never going to be perfect. Even the music I put out now, even my favorite songs that I put out I'm like, "They're not ready. Wait." I'm happy that I have people behind me being like "No, it's time."
Even if it takes you finding someone in your life to motivate you to just get your music out, just get it out there because even after it's out and it's solidified even if people like it or whatever, you're still going to be like, "Oh, but I could have... if I was only." It's never going to be perfect so you just have to go and show people and sing for people. If people at a party hand you a guitar, sing. You never know who's going to hear your stuff. Even if it's hard. Just do it.
— Alec Benjamin (@AlecBenjamin) May 10, 2019