Singer-songwriter Benjamin Booker is an artist intimately concerned with the world around him. Fusing the tough as nails garage rock sound of his self-titled debut with the softer sensibilities of classic R&B, gospel and soul, his second album Witness sees him explore the complex and difficult issues facing America and the world today.
Inspired by the simmering racial tension around the numerous police shootings of black men and women, the Black Lives Matter movement and Donald Trump’s presidency, Booker wrote the album while in isolation in Mexico City. Feeling like he had to get away from America, he soon found that he couldn’t escape it just by crossing the border, after getting into an altercation with some locals who saw him — the American — as part of the problem.
Rather than defeat him, though, this incident would prove to be the true catalyst to writing Witness, as it was only then that he realised what he was running from, and that he couldn’t escape it and must turn and face it.
The lead single from the album, ‘Witness’, would come out of this experience and gone on to give the album its name. What Booker understood in that moment outside the Pata Negra in Mexico City was that he had to do more than just watch.
Speaking to him over the phone ahead of the album’s release on Friday, 2nd June, Booker discusses the journey of writing the album and the personal realisations that went along with it.
Music Feeds: So this album was written while you were down in Mexico. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Benjamin Booker: So I’d been in New Orleans trying to write for a while and not really getting anywhere. So I was just feeling kind of overwhelmed I guess and just looking for something. So I just bought a ticket and a few days later got on a plane to Mexico.
I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I brought a guitar and some stuff to record with but I didn’t know what was going to happen or if this was going to be where I wrote the record. But it ended up working out and I think I just needed that solitude and to not be around other people and just focus on the music and my own life and sorting things out. Luckily I have the kind of job where I am able to do that.
MF: One of the things you mentioned in the artist statement that really resonated with me was your description of that sense of weightlessness you can get when you are cut off from familiar surroundings and people.
BB: I think that the way that I look at music and making music, I use it to make sense of what’s going on I guess. And I think to do that, to get to that point and to be able to sort out the things that I’m going to put into the music, you need that alone time, or at least I do. It’s just like everything is bubbling up inside me and it gets to a point where I just have to drain it, and that’s what Mexico was for me, a place where I could just make sense of my life.
MF: I guess if you are taking inspiration from your life, cutting yourself off from it is necessary so you can work through what has happened without being distracted by new experiences and inspirations.
BB: Yeah, also I’m one of those people who will change all the furniture around in my house every couple of months just because I really enjoy being in a new environment and meeting new people and those kind of things.
That’s why I love touring and why I tour so much. So I crave uncomfortable situations, situations like being in a new place, because it helps me to work and learn more. I mean it sounds dorky but I just love learning and writing about life.
MF: The James Baldwin quote that you have at the top of your artists statement — “Once you find yourself in another civilization you are forced to examine your own” — certainly seems to reflect your love of exploring new cultures as well as the effect it may have had on how you see America.
BB: Yeah I think it’s even crazy for Americans to go to another country and just watch the news. You know they’ll have a little 15-minute segment on America and then they’ll go to Syria or to the Congo or something, and you’re like, “What about America?” It makes you realise that there are other things going on around you in other parts of the world, and that the world is a big place and it gives you a new perspective on your life.
I think the biggest problem we have as Americans is that we think its all about us all the time. Then you go to places like Mexico and although the people have their own problems, a lot of them are the same problems we are facing in America, and that kind of thing is important and why it’s important to travel, because it gives you that sense of perspective.
That’s why I’m also a big fan of reading history and history books, because I think it is important for people to be able to put themselves in a historical context. It humbles you and I think that that is important.
MF: Definitely, there are so many aspects of our society that you can’t properly understand — and therefore can’t question — without historical context.
BB: Yeah, like I was reading this book But What If We’re Wrong by Chuck Klosterman which looks back on the present as if it was the past, like looking back on the present from the future. It makes you realise none of this stuff matters, nobody is going to remember any of us.
The most important thing it taught me though was that you have to enjoy the practice of whatever you do and you have to enjoy the small things. If you are going to work every day to a job you don’t enjoy, stop doing it. It’s not about this point that you get to where you are making a certain amount of money or you’re really successful or whatever it’s about the getting there, the journey itself and enjoying that. That was a big thing for me.
MF: Another thing you mentioned in the artist statement as a catalyst for you going to Mexico was that while growing up in the south you had always felt like you could avoid or outsmart the racists in society, but with all the tension following the numerous police shootings and controversy around Black Lives Matter you felt for the first time a real fear of racism or being persecuted. Can you tell us about that, about how things changed?
BB: A few years ago I was going to school in Florida about 100 miles away from where Trayvon Martin was murdered. Then over the years every day you turn on the TV you see someone who looks like you being killed by the Government, by the police.
On top of that the election had just happened and I was looking at a president whose campaign was based on the right to discriminate. It was the first time in my life that I really realised, ‘Wow, these people don’t see me as a person, they see me as a kind of animal and they don’t care about me,’ and that’s difficult to comes to terms with.
MF: Understandably, and it’s something we are seeing spreading around the world everywhere from America and Europe to here in Australia, and it’s hard to see a way around it or of dealing with it when so many people, not just Governments seem to share that view.
BB: I think that even seeing the people it was happening to — you know like a little kid just walking down the street, or a guy who served lunch to kids at school and everybody loved him — when you see it happening to people like that you understand that no one is safe.
I mean I’m definitely nowhere near as good of a person as that guy, and if it can happen to him it can happen to me. If those things are happening to good people, you see that we are all on the chopping block. And I think that is something that my parents knew and tried to hide from me, but as you get older you realise there is nothing that they can do or nothing that you can do to change that. There are just people who are out there who will kill you for nothing.
MF: You mentioned too in your artist statement that while you went to Mexico to get away from all this racism, when you were there you ended up being attacked by some local men who saw you as the American oppressor, and that it was this incident that inspired you to really dig in and finish the album and that helped you realise that while there may be no way around this problem, there is a way through it.
BB: I was reading this book called White Noise by Dom Delillo at the time and he wrote in it, “What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.” So yeah I think that it was important to me to start exploring the things I was afraid to talk about.
I was listening to David Simon, the writer of The Wire talk one time and he was saying that the biggest problem with America is not being able to recognise your own problems, your own faults. It’s not even about what is right and wrong, everyone knows the difference between right and wrong it’s about being able to admit that you are doing something wrong. You know it’s not right, but what are you going to do about it.
James Baldwin writes that the hardest thing you can do is forgive yourself and I think that we have a country full of people here that know that the lives that they live and the prosperity they enjoy is based on years and years of racism and oppression, and I think it’s hard for people to deal with and to forgive themselves for that kind of thing, and I think the people aren’t ready to deal with that kind of problem yet.
MF: The album then is very concerned with the idea of being a witness to this problem, and others. You again mention in your artist statement that the album is asking two key questions. Am I going to be a witness? And in this day and age is that enough? I wanted to ask you if you think it is?
BB: Well that’s a question I’m not sure if I can answer. I remember learning in college about this huge debate among the black intellectuals in the mid-20th century about what the role of a black artist is. Can you be a activist and also be somebody who is reporting on what is happening and be a witness to it? And I struggle with that too you know, can I have an accurate view of these issues when I am so close to them, and I don’t know.
I guess I’ve gotten to the point where I write about things that frustrate me, and there are things that I do or that I try to do that other can do on a daily basis to try and move things along. I think it can get overwhelming at times but I think that if people volunteer their time, and donate to organisations that you support and just read and educate yourself about what is going on, I think that those things can really affect you and your community and how you fit into it.
So that is where I am at now, just trying to be honest about the things that are happening around me but also trying to contribute in the little ways that I can.
MF: Yeah exactly, it can be tempting to leave these problems to other people like Governments or charities because they can do a lot more than an individual, but if we all just did a little bit as well we would could achieve so much more.
BB: Yeah, I mean nothing changes overnight, but let’s not go backwards you know.
MF: Yeah it seems to be going that way recently doesn’t it. Hopefully artists like you making albums like this that can start a conversation is a good start.
BB: I hope so too, but it’s difficult. I’m sure you’re aware of the hierarchical needs of humanity, you know that whole first year psychology kind of pyramid of needs where you have food and shelter at the bottom, then above that we need safety and security and things like that and then on top of that you get things like love, self esteem and self actualisation.
So part of what makes it so hard for people to have conversations about things like this is that people are still struggling to eat and to pay rent and deal with all these other things, and people don’t feel safe. So it’s hard to have these conversations about difficult topics when people’s essential needs aren’t being met.
‘Witness’ by Benjamin Booker is out on Friday, 2nd June via Rough Trade/Remote Control