A Conversation With Brendan Benson

It’s been almost seven years since Brendan Benson’s last solo album, which makes the release of Dear Life (Third Man) a bit of a milestone. He executed nearly everything himself at his Readymade Studio, working with accomplished engineer Michael Ilbert (Taylor Swift, Supergrass) on the mixing end. A busy snapshot of Benson at his most cautiously optimistic and emotionally direct, Dear Life is also the sound of an acknowledged family man coming to terms with his own fallibility and mortality (he turns 50 in November). The album was mostly finished before Benson’s recent run with the Raconteurs, the Grammy-winning band he founded with Jack White, whose label picked up Dear Life. Still juiced from the group’s international tour, he added two new tracks and put the finishing touches on Dear Life. The results are refreshingly unpredictable, if potentially off-putting to fans expecting more of the same modestly unhinged retro-flavored power pop. Some may be a little taken aback by the programmed beats, abrupt shifts in style and tone and occasional hip-hop vibe.

In lockdown mode at home with his wife and two kids in Nashville, Benson discussed the delayed evolution of Dear Life, the iffy logistics of promoting an album during a pandemic and where he might land once we can all roam freely again.

Nothing like dropping a new album during an international crisis.
Well, yeah, I like to do things a little differently. [Laughs] This record’s been funny like that. I was really excited about it once I completed it—which was maybe three or four years ago—and I couldn’t find a label to put it out. Then the Raconteurs started up … and then, of course, this pandemic. It seems to be against all odds. 

Would you say that this is your most eclectic LP?
I think so. The big thing that happened during the making of this record was that I had to move out of my studio—the building was scheduled to be demolished. I relocated to my basement and set up this little rig. But I couldn’t set up any drums, and I couldn’t play loud because of the neighbors. So I went exploring inside the box, as they say. I had a lot of fun doing that—getting weird with different textures and sounds that I don’t normally do.

And the lyrics are pretty straightforward.
Yeah. I’ve been listening to a lot of rap lately—rappers are so direct. I wasn’t going to break my back to make things super-witty or clever. I’m singing about what my life is now, not some old-fashioned life. I think there’s power in that directness.

Do you worry that Dear Life’s twists and turns might turn off some fans?
I’m conflicted on that. On the one hand, part of me wants to grow as an artist. And an artist doesn’t usually dwell on one body of work for long—you like to move on and try something new. As for the career part, you can’t throw fans a complete curveball or you’re not going to have an audience anymore.

It helps if the songs are strong enough to withstand the experimentation.
If they don’t like them, that’s OK. But this is really me—I’m not trying to pull one over on anyone. 

So Dear Life is essentially you left to your own devices.
It’s me, myself and I. Michael Ilbert mixed the album, so he deserves a lot of credit. I’d send him a few songs at a time, and he’d mix them and send them back. Then I’d get excited and write more. He made the record sound unreal. 

How did “Raconteurs round three” pan out? I really liked (last year’s) Help Us Stranger, but it didn’t seem to get much promotion.
That’s Jack. He works really fast, from the recording process to everything else. We were in the studio a couple of weeks—maybe a little longer—but Jack had it all planned out in his mind. I would’ve liked to spend maybe a little longer making it. It’s a lesson I learn from Jack every time I work with him: Move on—don’t fuck with things too much. 

So what’s the plan for Dear Life?
I feel like it’s a bit of a comeback album. I’ve been a little out of the loop for several years. I was trying to co-write more, produce more and stay home more. But that didn’t really work out for me. We’re rescheduling the tour for the fall. I’m doing a song a day live on Instagram, and I’m kind of digging that. I may even gear up to do some shows from home. 

Now that you’ve been sitting on these songs for a few years, what do you hear now?
I haven’t been this excited about an album since I put out (2002’s) Lapalco. I feel good, I feel confident. I wouldn’t change a thing.

—Hobart Rowland