Calling in to talk to American Songwriter about his striking new album (Un)Commentary, singer-songwriter Alec Benjamin’s voice bubbled with excitement over the fact that he was about to tape an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! “It’s a lot all at once,” he admits. “But I’m feeling very good about everything. It’s nice to get to do the thing that I love again.”
Benjamin should be feeling confident, as his new album certainly has the goods. His dazzling wordplay delights in every track. But the songs also deliver profound messages both personal and worldly, as his protagonists strive to make sense of relationship angst and social issues without settling for easy answers.
During the conversation, Benjamin talked about the writing process for the album, the roots of his verbal gymnastics, and the lost art of nuance. Here are the highlights of that chat.
American Songwriter: Did you have a backlog of songs that you dipped into for this record?
Alec Benjamin: There’s only one song on the album that resurfaced that I had written in the past. I have a backlog of songs just because I write a lot of songs. But I didn’t feel like any of those were appropriate for this record. When I was making this record, I didn’t really have in my head that I was writing songs to make an album. At the beginning of the pandemic, I didn’t feel compelled to write any songs. For the first time in three years, I just stopped writing songs because it felt like I had run out of things to say. And also, I was reevaluating my life and figuring out who I was again now that my career and everything had been put on pause.
About six or seven months after the pandemic started, I kind of woke up and was like, “Whoa, I’ve got a lot to say.” I just started writing songs, and I wrote a bunch of songs in a two-month period. When I felt like I was done, I just stopped and that was it. I’ve written a few songs since then. Some of them I think are pretty good, but in the past, I would have been like “I gotta keep writing because I might better one of the songs on the record.” To me, it wasn’t really about that for this album. It was about appropriately articulating the themes that I wanted to discuss on the record. It’s a snapshot of a brief period of time for me.
AS: Where you do think your affinity for nifty wordplay and rhyming originates?
AB: My tendency to appreciate and enjoy listening to rhyme schemes with a lot of internal rhymes and stuff like that, it’s beyond my understanding. It might be biological or something like that. I found out that one of my great grandpas was a poet. I found some of his poetry and I read it and it was very similar to mine. I don’t think that’s an accident.
Because that may be in my blood a little bit, I really loved listening to Eminem growing up because of the way that he rhymed. It just felt like everything fit together so perfectly with the internal rhymes and the external rhymes. When I do it, it might be from listening to him, but it’s not a conscious thing that I do. I’ve either picked it up from my blood or I’ve picked up from the music I’ve been listening to over the years.
I’ve also listened to a lot of heavy metal growing up, but I don’t think that was because of the lyrics, I just think that was because I was angry and in middle school (laughs). But the metal bands that I listened to had great lyrics. I love Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (At this point, Benjamin rips off several lines from the Chili Peppers’ “Californication.”) I love that he put all that together and it all makes sense. Not only does it make sense, he’s articulating a very poignant idea. I love how he came up with that phrase “Californication.” That’s what I tried to do with the title of my album (Un)commentary because it’s like my uncommon commentary.
AS: Do you ever find that you have to rein in the wordplay to stay focused on the meaning of the songs?
AB: One of the reasons why I play acoustic guitar, there’s not many things that you can do with it. When you pick up an electric guitar, there are million different kinds, and there are different kinds of amps and pedals, and it’s difficult for me to be creative when there are so many choices. I try to start out by restricting myself. I want to do the wordplay because that satisfies me artistically, and it’s something like a puzzle that I enjoy linking together. But I also want to make sure that I say what I feel is important to say, and I want to make sure that fits over these chords and into a melody.
I do have to rein myself in and make sure at times that I’m ticking all the boxes. Does that have nice wordplay, and does it use the best words? Sometimes people ask me why I don’t curse in my music. I don’t avoid cursing on purpose. If the F-word or whatever were the actual best word that most accurately describes what I’m trying to say, I would use it. But it often doesn’t. I’m trying to make sure that I use the best words that I can find that accurately describe what I’m trying to say, and also fit them into a rhyme scheme and so on. When I start out with all of those restrictions, the song kind of writes itself. There is only a limited number of ways that a song can go after you define what you want to do.
AS: There are some nice light moments as well on this album. Tell me about “De Niro,” which name-checks the famous actor in a clever way.
AB: In the middle of the pandemic, it kind of felt like for a second that my career was really over. I was like “What if when I come back people don’t want to buy tickets to my shows?” I spent so much time worrying about silly things and I didn’t enjoy the journey and it was all taken away. I thought what if this is it? Well, if I don’t end up being De Niro, getting to where I want to go, and being the lead role, I got to play the hand that I’m dealt and be the De Niro of the zeros in the entourage. Growing up, my dream was I want to play on stage and I want to play arenas. Well, if I don’t get there, I have to be the De Niro of whatever role I’m born to play.
AS: What inspired you to give human form to the intangible quality of ‘Nuance’ in the song of the same name?
AB: Watching how polarized the world became. It was polarized before the pandemic, and the pandemic exacerbated all the issues and put the real polarization on display. I wanted to write a song that highlighted that, but I thought the best way to do that would be to tell a story. When you’re younger, especially when you’re in school, you’re always asking why, why, why. Your teachers or parents would say, “Because.” We’re more comfortable with nuance and exploring things and asking hard questions when we’re little, and it gets beaten out of us when we’re older.
I thought it would be interesting to write a song about a friend that you had when you were younger that you used to talk to that no one really wants to invite around anymore because they maybe speak out of turn or they make people uncomfortable. Everyone has a friend like that. And I have a similar relationship with nuance and society has a similar relationship with nuance, where we were once comfortable with it, and then, as we grow up, it finds its way out of our lives. I saw a parallel between that and the childhood friend that you lose.
AS: One of my personal favorites on this record was ‘Speakers,” which articulates that feeling of trying to make a lasting impact on someone when everything is so fleeting. What inspired that song?
AB: When I started writing, I was making music in my bedroom and I wasn’t in Los Angeles. And I had no rules. I would just start at the beginning of a song and write it all the way through and the chorus would just come 30 minutes into the songwriting session. As I moved to LA, I learned from people and I would start with the chorus and that’s how I wrote “Let Me Down Slowly” (Benjamin’s 2018 breakthrough hit.) So it had been a minute since I just sat down and wrote whatever was on my mind.
“I got a rock inside my sock” is not something I would normally write, because I usually overthink everything. I guess I was thinking about the future and thinking what people would think about in the future, in specific, someone I was seeing at the time. It was like when I write this song, I’m not going to think as hard as I have for the last two years. I’m going to try and revert back to what I used to do. I’m going to start with the verse and try to write a song from A to B, instead of starting at some midway point and trying to put all the pieces together.
AS: This album takes deep looks both inward and outward. Do you use your music as a way to make sense of all of those issues that are hard to grasp in real life?
AB: When I was younger, one of the things that I really enjoyed was being exposed to new ideas, and hearing things from a different perspective. I just like to talk and explore ideas, and the way that I found I could monetize that was through music. That’s what I like to do with my songs, just sort of encapsulate the things I’m thinking about and put them into my music.
AS: And then ideally, the people who listen relate to those same things.
AB: That’s the goal. That’s exactly what I want to do. In my music, it wouldn’t be enough for me to write a pretty melody. It has to also have something in it that is meaningful. And, to me, that’s the art in it, trying to walk that fine line between saying the things that I want to say but also trying to maintain the viability of the product. When someone hits that, it’s the mecca. To me that’s the gold standard for impacting the world and changing it, and satisfying myself and the listener on a deeper level in a melodically pleasing way.
Photo Credit: Connor Gaskey