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Alec Benjamin On Working With Alessia Cara, Meeting His Idol John Mayer & Chasing Dreams

Alec Benjamin

Photo: Recording Academy

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Alec Benjamin On Working With Alessia Cara, Meeting His Idol John Mayer & Chasing Dreams

"People can't enjoy your art if you don't show it to them," Benjamin, who played more than 150 parking lot shows in 2016, told the Recording Academy in an exclusive interview

GRAMMYs/Jun 14, 2019 - 03:22 am

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.

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.

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GRAMMY SoundChecks With Gavin DeGraw

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

On Aug. 28 Nashville Chapter GRAMMY U members took part in GRAMMY SoundChecks with Gavin DeGraw. Approximately 30 students gathered at music venue City Hall and watched DeGraw play through some of the singles from earlier in his career along with "Cheated On Me" from his latest self-titled album.

In between songs, DeGraw conducted a question-and-answer session and inquired about the talents and goals of the students in attendance. He gave inside tips to the musicians present on how to make it in the industry and made sure that every question was answered before moving onto the next song.

 

Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

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Juan Gabriel named 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person Of The Year

Annual star-studded gala slated for Nov. 4 in Las Vegas during 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Week celebration

GRAMMYs/May 15, 2017 - 01:36 pm

 GRAMMY.com

 Internationally renowned singer/songwriter/performer Juan Gabriel will be celebrated as the 2009 Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year, it was announced today by The Latin Recording Academy. Juan Gabriel, chosen for his professional accomplishments as well as his commitment to philanthropic efforts, will be recognized at a star-studded concert and black tie dinner on Nov. 4 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev. 

The "Celebration with Juan Gabriel" gala will be one of the most prestigious events held during Latin GRAMMY week, a celebration that culminates with the 10th Annual Latin GRAMMY Awards ceremony. The milestone telecast will be held at Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on Nov. 5 and will be broadcast live on the Univision Television Network at 8 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Central. 

"As we celebrate this momentous decade of the Latin GRAMMYs, The Latin Recording Academy and its Board of Trustees take great pride in recognizing Juan Gabriel as an extraordinary entertainer who never has forgotten his roots, while at the same time having a global impact," said Latin Recording Academy President Gabriel Abaroa. "His influence on the music and culture of our era has been tremendous, and we welcome this opportunity to pay a fitting tribute to a voice that strongly resonates within our community.

Over the course of his 30-year career, Juan Gabriel has sold more than 100 million albums and has performed to sold-out audiences throughout the world. He has produced more than 100 albums for more than 50 artists including Paul Anka, Lola Beltran, Rocío Dúrcal, and Lucha Villa among many others. Additionally, Juan Gabriel has written more than 1,500 songs, which have been covered by such artists as Marc Anthony, Raúl Di Blasio, Ana Gabriel, Angelica María, Lucia Mendez, Estela Nuñez, and Son Del Son. In 1986, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Oct. 5 "The Day of Juan Gabriel." The '90s saw his induction into Billboard's Latin Music Hall of Fame and he joined La Opinion's Tributo Nacional Lifetime Achievement Award recipients list. 

At the age of 13, Juan Gabriel was already writing his own songs and in 1971 recorded his first hit, "No Tengo Dinero," which landed him a recording contract with RCA. Over the next 14 years, he established himself as Mexico's leading singer/songwriter, composing in diverse styles such as rancheras, ballads, pop, disco, and mariachi, which resulted in an incredible list of hits ("Hasta Que Te Conocí," "Siempre En Mi Mente," "Querida," "Inocente Pobre Amigo," "Abrázame Muy Fuerte," "Amor Eterno," "El Noa Noa," and "Insensible") not only for himself  but for many leading Latin artists. In 1990, Juan Gabriel became the only non-classical singer/songwriter to perform at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and the album release of that concert, Juan Gabriel En Vivo Desde El Palacio De Bellas Artes, broke sales records and established his iconic status. 

After a hiatus from recording, Juan Gabriel released such albums as Gracias Por Esperar, Juntos Otra Vez, Abrázame Muy Fuerte, Los Gabriel…Para Ti, Juan Gabriel Con La Banda…El Recodo, and El Mexico Que Se Nos Fue, which were all certified gold and/or platinum by the RIAA. In 1996, to commemorate his 25th anniversary in the music industry, BMG released a retrospective set of CDs entitled 25 Aniversario, Solos, Duetos, y Versiones Especiales, comprised appropriately of 25 discs.   

In addition to his numerous accolades and career successes, Juan Gabriel has been a compassionate and generous philanthropist. He has donated all proceeds from approximately 10 performances a year to his favorite children's foster homes, and proceeds from fan photo-ops go to support Mexican orphans. In 1987, he founded Semjase, an orphanage for approximately 120 children, which also serves as a music school with music, recreation and video game rooms. Today, he continues to personally fund the school he opened more than 22 years ago.   

Juan Gabriel will have the distinction of becoming the 10th Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year honoree, and joins a list of artists such as Gloria Estefan, Gilberto Gil, Juan Luis Guerra, Julio Iglesias, Ricky Martin, and Carlos Santana among others who have been recognized. 

For information on purchasing tickets or tables to The Latin Recording Academy Person of the Year tribute to Juan Gabriel, please contact The Latin Recording Academy ticketing office at 310.314.8281 or ticketing@grammy.com.

Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013
Grizzled Mighty perform at Bumbershoot on Sept. 1

Photo: The Recording Academy

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Set List Bonus: Bumbershoot 2013

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Alexa Zaske
Seattle

This past Labor Day weekend meant one thing for many folks in Seattle: Bumbershoot, a three-decade-old music and arts event that consumed the area surrounding the Space Needle from Aug. 31–Sept. 2. Amid attendees wandering around dressed as zombies and participating in festival-planned flash mobs to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," this year the focus was on music from the Pacific Northwest region — from the soulful sounds of Allen Stone and legendary female rockers Heart, to the highly-awaited return of Death Cab For Cutie performing their 2003 hit album Transatlanticism in its entirety.

The festival started off on day one with performances by synth-pop group the Flavr Blue, hip-hop artist Grynch, rapper Nacho Picasso, psychedelic pop group Beat Connection, lively rapper/writer George Watsky, hip-hop group the Physics, and (my personal favorite), punk/dance band !!! (Chk Chk Chk). Also performing on day one was Seattle folk singer/songwriter Kris Orlowski, who was accompanied by the Passenger String Quartet. As always, Orlowski's songs were catchy and endearing yet brilliant and honest.

Day one came to a scorching finale with a full set from GRAMMY-nominated rock group Heart. Kicking off with their Top 20 hit "Barracuda," the set spanned three decades of songs, including "Heartless," "Magic Man" and "What About Love?" It became a gathering of Seattle rock greats when, during Heart's final song, Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready joined for 1976's "Crazy On You."

Day two got off to an early start with performances from eccentric Seattle group Kithkin and Seattle ladies Mary Lambert and Shelby Earl, who were accompanied by the band Le Wrens. My highlight of the day was the Grizzled Mighty — a duo with a bigger sound than most family sized bands. Drummer Whitney Petty, whose stage presence and skills make for an exciting performance, was balanced out by the easy listening of guitarist and lead singer Ryan Granger.

Then the long-awaited moment finally fell upon Seattle when, after wrapping a long-awaited tour with the Postal Service, singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard returned to Seattle to represent another great success of the Pacific Northwest — Death Cab For Cutie. The band celebrated the 10-year anniversary of their album Transatlanticism by performing it from front to back. While a majority of attendees opted to watch the set from an air-conditioned arena, some of us recognized the uniqueness of this experience and enjoyed the entire set lying in the grass where the entire performance was streamed. 

Monday was the day for soul and folk. Local blues/R&B group Hot Bodies In Motion have been making their way through the Seattle scene with songs such as "Old Habits," "That Darkness" and "The Pulse." Their set was lively and enticing to people who have seen them multiple times or never at all.

My other highlights of the festival included the Maldives, who delivered a fun performance with the perfect amount of satirical humor and folk. They represent the increasing number of Pacific Northwest bands who consist of many members playing different sounds while still managing to stay cohesive and simple. I embraced the return of folk/pop duo Ivan & Alyosha with open arms and later closed my festival experience with local favorite Stone.

For music fans in Seattle and beyond, the annual Bumbershoot festival is a must-attend.

(Alexa Zaske is the Chapter Assistant for The Recording Academy Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a music enthusiast and obsessed with the local Seattle scene.)

Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Neil Portnow and Jimmy Jam

Photo: Michael Kovac/Getty Images

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Neil Portnow Addresses Diversity & Inclusion, Looks Ahead During Speech At 2019 GRAMMYs

Jimmy Jam helps celebrate the outgoing President/CEO of the Recording Academy on the 61st GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Feb 11, 2019 - 10:58 am

As Neil Portnow's tenure as Recording Academy President/CEO draws to its end, five-time GRAMMY winner Jimmy Jam paid tribute to his friend and walked us through a brief overview of some of the Academy's major recent achievements, including the invaluable work of MusiCares, the GRAMMY Museum, Advocacy and more.

Portnow delivered a brief speech, acknowledging the need to continue to focus on issues of diversity and inclusion in the music industry. He also seized the golden opportunity to say the words he's always wanted to say on the GRAMMY stage, saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy," showing his gratitude and respect for the staff, elected leaders and music community he's worked with during his career at the Recording Academy. "We can be so proud of what we’ve all accomplished together," Portnow added.

"As I finish out my term leading this great organization, my heart and soul are filled with gratitude, pride, for the opportunity and unequal experience," he continued. "Please know that my commitment to all the good that we do will carry on as we turn the page on the next chapter of the storied history of this phenomenal institution."

Full Winners List: 61st GRAMMY Awards