The Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench Finds His Voice With Lucky

benmont tench

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One of the people that joined was musician/producer Don Was, who ultimately signed you to Blue Note Records. How does it feel to be signed to such an important label? 

I feel thrilled. The caliber of artists that have been on Blue Note through its history, that speaks for itself. It’s interesting for me to be on Blue Note because there seems to be not a shift in focus, but a broadening of focus out at Blue Note that would make them willing to sign me. I think they’ve got Rosanne Cash as well, and to be on the same label as Rosanne is really special to me as well because of how damn good she is.

There’s not but a hint of jazz in a couple of tracks on my record, so anybody who’s thinking that’s going to fit into that mold, that’s just not my strong suit. I like jazz music a lot, but I’m not good at it. I like three or four minute songs in a structure that goes back to Irving Berlin and carries through to The Beatles and a lot of Bob Dylan and the Everly Brothers and Tom [Petty], John Prine, that’s my fix. But when Don said, “Hey, let me put it out on Blue Note,” I was really thrilled. We didn’t approach Don. Don was the bassist on the record, and we were just shooting the breeze with him and saying, “Hey, how do we put this out in a modern age of the way record labels work now, with the internet and iTunes and file-sharing? How do we get a record out?” And he said, “Let me put it out.” And it knocked me and Glyn over, it was great. 

The songs come from the past few decades. Do you think it played into the diverse nature of album?

I don’t know. There’s the one song – “Blonde Girl, Blue Dress” – I knew Tom [Petty] would enjoy playing on. I enjoy the way he plays bass because he’s the bass player in Mudcrutch. So I thought, “Hey, let’s see if Tom wants to play bass on this,” but because of the way he plays bass, and not because it’s Tom. And the same with everybody that’s on the record. They’re there because I thought they’d be great on the song, not because of their names or anything. They’re all my friends. If there is diversity to the record, some of it is the versatility of the players because it’s the same core band for most of the record. Some of the diversity comes from having Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on a few tracks and shifting focus from Ethan Johns and Blake Mills to Gillian and David. And some of the diversity comes from the fact that the oldest song on the record is from 1978 and the newest song on the record is from probably a month before we started recording the record.

What was the first song you remember writing, in general?

I wrote something when I was about seven years old for a little girl in grade school in first or second grade. I don’t remember how it went. I would write little melodies. Words are slower for me. Words are really fast when they show up, but I don’t often have them knock on the door and say, “I have something to say.” So it took me longer to where I was comfortable, or to the point where the words would flow. But I think I wrote a song for a little girl when I was either six or seven, and that was the first song I wrote. No idea how it went. Probably the best thing I ever wrote. [laughs]

What’s your usual approach to songwriting?

Walking down the street, no instrument and just having my mind open. And if something shows up, then that’s how I write a song. If something shows up and I’m near a piano or guitar, I’ll grab a piano or guitar. Sometimes they show up when I’m at a piano or guitar. I find that if I try to bid them to come, they’re a little stiff and awkward usually, whereas if I leave myself open and see what knocks on the door, the songs tend to be better songs. So my approach is being open.

Sometimes I’ll go writing phrases and see if anything happens, and sometimes that works. Sometimes I’ll sit at the piano or a guitar and start playing and see if something shows up, and sometimes it does. In the period of time that I wrote for Maverick in Nashville and Warner Chappell I wrote some good songs, I co-wrote some good songs, and I co-wrote some really bad songs. The skill of so many good songwriters there is to conjure something out of there at will. It doesn’t come as natural to me. I kind of have to wait. I have to open myself up.

Like Keith Richards says, “You’re an antenna and the songs are in the air.” If I can make myself the antenna and put myself in that frame of mind, then it’s going to be a better song.

Did you notice anything about how your writing’s grown or changed when you looked back at your songs?

It has changed. I think I can simplify a little better now as far the chords and melody. I try to simplify as far as the words and the lyrics because I know I have the tendency to be pretty wordy. But while that works occasionally, like on “Blonde Girl, Blue Dress,”  if the words show up and they seem to go together and they say what I’m trying to say then I still tend to leave them alone. Any growth that I’ve had as a songwriter, I’m sure I have.

But, you know, like I said, the songwriter songwriters are people like John Prine – that’s a songwriter. And I’m a guy who, when I’m lucky, something knocks at the door and I write it down. If I’m really lucky, something good knocks on the door and I write it down. So I’m not conscious if I’ve changed this way as a songwriter. The thing I’m pleased about is that some of the songs that were written when I was 58 or 59 are as good as some of the songs I wrote when I was 28.

Because sometimes you can lose the plot and lose the ability to turn a phrase, or to craft a melody, or to catch a melody out of the air or phrase out of the air. I’m not very prolific, but once they show up, I think I’m blessed enough that I can every now and then catch a good melody and know how to turn a phrase out of the air.

Why did you think You Should Be So Lucky fit as the title?

I thought it was a good phrase. I thought it was relevant to the course of my life. There have been ups and downs. So it’s kind of ironic, sardonic, as far as bits of my life that have been less pleasant, but most of my life has been great. Also, it sounds like you’re being cocky when you say, “You Should Be So Lucky,” and also flowery and grateful. But the [title] song itself is a pretty mean song. It’s basically a murder ballad. It’s one of those songs where the guy feels “whatever” for whatever reason. He’s angry at the girl and he’s taking her down by the river. In murder ballads, you take the girl down by the river. She’s not coming back. I thought all of those things would be interesting to play with. Basically, I thought that it sounded like a cool-sounding phrase. I like the song a lot. It’s one of the newest things on the record. I wrote it about a month before we cut it.

How does the type of songwriters you were into when you were growing up in Florida compare with ones now?

Well, the good ones from when I was little were Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin and that kind of thing. The ones that were contemporary when I was growing up were Lennon and McCartney, and Rod Argent and Chris White, and Jagger and Richards. They were terrific songwriters. It’s a different style now. There are good songwriters. Taylor Swift is a terrific pop songwriter for me. The stuff she writes is heartfelt, and really funny, and really catchy, and it’s very direct, which is top-notch pop songwriting. But the people I would lean towards more now as far as old-school songwriting… I don’t hear many people write songs that are like Irving Berlin or Jagger-Richards. Jason Isbell is a hell of a good songwriter. The current batch of songwriters, I’m not up on a lot of people. Blake Mills writes really interesting songs. Ryan Adams is a really good songwriter. These are the people that are younger than me. And the youngest of that batch is Blake Mills. But then you get Regina Spektor who’s a fantastic songwriter. Fiona Apple is very distinctive. Very personal songwriting. Fiona is terrific. Rosanne Cash is a really good songwriter. Rosanne has something to say. Jason Isbell has something to say. They have something on their minds to say and have something real on their minds to say, and so does Ryan.

I was 17 when I first sat in with Petty and Campbell, so the songwriting caliber I’ve been around since I was a teenager has been Tom Petty, and he’s a hell of a songwriter, so I think my standards are pretty high. I was privileged to play with Bob Dylan for a little while, I’ve played on records on some spectacular songwriters like Johnny Cash, John Prine, so my standards for songs can be pretty high. You certainly don’t get Tom and you certainly don’t get Bob but just once even in a lifetime or several lifetimes. Or Irving Berlin. I don’t know who could fill those shoes.

What are your tips on being a sideman that’s allowed you to comfortably jump between different songwriters?

I learned in the Heartbreakers and it’s what I learned from my favorite bands — The Beatles, The Rolling Stones — you play the song. If it makes you look good, great. But the most important thing is for it to enhance the song, and that’s what you’re supposed to do when you play anything. You’re supposed to play for the song and not yourself.

Who are some younger keyboard players you currently admire?

I don’t know how old anybody is. There’s one guy, Keefus Ciancia, who is really, really good. There are a lot of people who I see who can play rings around me. But I don’t really go out to listen to players. I’m usually more interested in the way the band locks together and the way it sounds as an ensemble and then the songs.

Have you used any lessons from this for the upcoming Heartbreakers album?

Yeah. Everything that you ever do you can learn from, and this was a really good experience. It’s teaching me to shut my mouth and let people get on and do what they do. I’ll take care of my side of the street. If I play what I’m going to play, Campbell’s going to play something great and I don’t have to worry about anybody. Everybody else has their ends covered. We had done a few sessions for the Heartbreakers but my record was recorded a year ago.

People will connect you with the Heartbreakers and being a sideman, but how do you ultimately hope people think of you a songwriter?

I don’t really think about that. What I hope is that people enjoy songs. What they think about me, I don’t know, but I really hope they enjoy the songs and the record that we made. I hope the songs draw them in and mean something to them.

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