There are plenty of great musicians whose earliest work isn’t exactly a slick statement of technical accomplishment. Look at Talking Heads and The Velvet Underground; both bands are responsible for major refurbishments in the field of Western popular music, paving the way for generations of unique artists to come. Their earliest releases – The Velvet Underground & Nico and Talking Heads’ 77 – feature fairly thin production, and signs the musicians were really just giving things a go, but that hasn’t prevented the records from being some of the most popular and cherished entries in the popular music canon.
Benjamin Booker’s music has some strong roots. He’s based in New Orleans, a city with a tremendous music history stretching from early jazz through to rock’n’roll, funk and hip-hop. His voice recalls the hardened defiance of the early bluesmen. Similarly, his guitar work re-states classic blues riffs and soul-indebted chord changes with more than a touch of rock’n’roll firepower.
Perhaps more significantly, Booker’s debut self- titled album (released this August) is catapulted by a bounty of energy and curiosity – undeniable facets of youth. As a result, at first glance Benjamin Booker could be seen as a collection of fairly rudimentary tunes, but a closer looks reveals Booker’s unkempt rock’n’roll to be thrilling all over.
To record the album, Booker plunged in headfirst, sparing any pretension in favour of honest excitement. “There’s a tonne of first takes on the record and I’m fine with that,” he says. “The majority of all the songs were recorded live in the studio. I had six days to record and two days to mix it.
“I recorded it analogue for that reason,” he continues, “because you can’t really mess around as much as when you record digital. I had been in the studio before and recorded digitally and it’s kind of overwhelming – just the possibilities. Like, every word, you miss one note, you can go back and fix things one note at a time. Stuff like that would’ve just driven me crazy. But recording analogue and just having to play the songs [and then] that’s it, it took a lot of the pressure off.”
Booker is still fairly new to this music caper. Not long after his earliest public performances he got swept into a position of focus – earning a deal with ATO Records and promptly entering the studio to record Benjamin Booker.
“I played my first show in May 2012, I think,” he says. “Then I really didn’t start playing [lots of] live shows until last summer. It was very new. I felt pretty comfortable going in [to the studio], but now when I look back on it, I think we’ve improved so much more since then.”
A lot of this improvement stems from the fact that – backed by drummer Max Norton and bass player Alex Spoto – Booker’s spent the majority of 2014 on tour. Touring alongside the likes of Jack White and Courtney Barnett, it’s been a massive learning curve for the young New Orleans native.
“We’ve basically been on the road since February playing shows,” he says, “so it feels like a tight show. We know how it goes down – what everybody’s doing. I’ve definitely gotten more comfortable doing the whole performing thing and hopefully better at playing guitar.
“Every song is a little bit different [live] than it was when it was recorded,” he adds. “It just comes with touring and being on the road every day – you get more experience and you get better at what you do. I think the show overall is way better than it was at the beginning of the year. I wasn’t a natural performer; it was really tough at the beginning to get up on stage and play in front of people. It’s definitely gotten easier. I enjoy it more now than I used to.”
With any artist, as their abilities develop and creative outlook evolves, attempting to re-apply the naivety effective in their career’s nascent period would be a complete sham – artificial scrappiness doesn’t come over so well. When it comes time for Booker’s sophomore release, he’ll inevitably be influenced by the truckload of experience he’s gathered this year, but he’s not looking to overhaul his approach.
“Hopefully the next record I’ll reach farther with the singing and farther with the guitar playing,” he says. “The record probably won’t be similar at all, but the process, I think, will be similar. I don’t think I’ll ever spend more than a couple of weeks
in a studio and it will probably be analogue and probably mostly recorded live again. That works for me, so I think I’ll try it again next time.”
Booker’s whirlwind 12 months continues into the new year, when he’ll head our way for the Laneway Festival tour. This is but one in an ever- expanding list of incidents from the last year that make him somewhat incredulous.
“Everything that’s happened this year is like, way more than I expected to happen,” he says. “I would’ve been happy just playing my record out. If nobody really bought it I would still have my own record on vinyl. That would’ve been awesome for me.”