Interview: Catching Up With Alec Benjamin After An Action-Packed Year
The last 12 months have been seriously action-packed for Alec Benjamin. Around this time last year, the 24-year-old rolled out “Let Me Down Slowly.” Buoyed by incredible streaming numbers (284 million and counting on Spotify alone) plus a duet version with Alessia Cara, the gut wrenching ballad landed him a breakout hit and a first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100. It also kicked off an era that led to the November release of his Narrated For You mixtape. Comprised of 12 songs, the collection perfectly showcases the rising star’s musicality and narrative lyricism.
Not only that, but he’s spent a good portion of the last year touring. Alec, who used to perform for anyone who would listen outside venues, completed a sold-out North American tour before heading to Europe. He’s currently wrapping up a second leg in North American before playing some festival dates this summer. The crowds are getting bigger, and they’re also getting louder as evidenced by performance footage from his most recent sets. And that’s not all. Earlier this week, he announced his first-ever world tour, kicking off in August.
Along the way, he’s generated a lot of buzz. And a good deal of that comes from fellow musicians. John Mayer hosted him on his Instagram show Current Mood. He also joined Alec onstage to perform “Death Of A Hero” and “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” during a recent show in Los Angeles. Billie Eilish covered the fan-favored “Water Fountain” on social media. Bryson Tiller gave him a shout-out, and that’s not all. These are all impressive co-signs for the hitmaker who has yet to drop a full-length studio album. Clearly, he is One To Watch moving forward.
Back in November, I spoke to Alec the day before Narrated For You arrived. Amongst other things, we discussed his anticipation for the release and his biggest professional goal – to be able to support himself by making music. But clearly a lot has gone down in the following months. So last week we hopped back on the phone to catch up. The crooner filled me in on his response to the slew of artistic co-signs and the breakaway success of “Let Me Down Slowly.” He also offered a slight tease about the imminent arrival of new music and talked about staying grounded as his star continues to shine more brightly. Dive into our interview to learn more about Alec below.
Last time we spoke, it was the day before Narrated For You dropped, and a lot has happened over the last few months. How are you feeling now looking back on it all?
I haven’t really had that much time to think about it so pretty much the same.
And you really don’t have a lot of time moving forward because you’re touring through the rest of the month and have a couple festival performances lined up, right?
Yeah. I’m doing a bunch of festivals this summer, which will be cool. And then we go back to Europe.
You’re never done! Now, one of the first things I wanted to ask about is “Let Me Down Slowly.” When we first spoke back in November the song was already doing really well. And it has only gotten bigger since then. What do you think has made it such a breakout hit?
I’m not really sure. I think, you know, releasing it with an album was definitely helpful. Like putting an album out behind it. Also having the collaboration that I did with Alessia was really helpful as well. Then I think like, you know, sometimes when you’re a new artist it takes so long to break through now because there’s so much music coming out all the time that… Your song will be doing well in the middle of the week. Then Friday rolls around and 8 million new songs get released. It’s like two steps forward and one step back. So I think it takes a long time to break through now.
Working with Alessia – who kind of experienced a similar kind of success with “Here,” which led to the Best New Artist win at the Grammys – did she have any advice for you?
I didn’t really talk to her so much about… I didn’t really ask her for advice. Which in retrospect now I’m thinking I probably should have. So maybe I will. But we kind of just focused on the music. She was really, really cool. Like one of the easiest people to work with ever. It’s awesome. She was really great as a person.
How did the collaboration come together?
Just on Twitter. I just tweeted her and asked her if she wanted to do it. And she was like “yeah, I’d love to.” and that was it. It was very simple.
Really Alessia is just one of a couple artists who have been showing you a lot of support lately. In the last few month you’ve gotten a lot of buzz. John Mayer had you on his Instagram live show, Kevin Abstract wants to work with you and Billie Eilish is covering your music. How does it feel to get that kind of recognition as a rising artist?
Pretty crazy. Especially because John Mayer is like my favorite artist. That’s like, for me it was really cool. Just because that’s something… If you’d told me that was going to happen when I was 14-years-old I wouldn’t have believed it. It feels cool, like I’m on one the right path, you know?
Absolutely. What was it like working with him on the show?
It was awesome. I actually had a chance to meet him the day of my last LA show, which was like two days before I went on the Instagram Live thing. So it wasn’t the first time that I had met him. That made it a little bit easier. It was really exciting and obviously he was like… He knew how to play the songs in like two seconds. Working with him, especially on the guitar, is pretty crazy. It was awesome. Very nerve-wracking but very fun.
Did you broach the topic of maybe working together on music in the future?
Yeah. But I think for me, I’m just kind of like… I was more focused. I’ve been listening to his music since I was 12-years-old so I feel like, I’ve already learned a lot from him on the music side. I’ve already gotten so much out of it that I don’t want to be pushy or anything like that. If I get to work with him on music in the future that would be great. And if not he’s done enough for me.
Absolutely. It’s such a great experience just to get to meet and talk to an idol. Actually, speaking of idols and people you’re really interested in, another person you talked about in our last interview was Elon Musk. You had mentioned that you might have been interested in working together?
Oh yeah, that was dope that he tweeted me back!
Yeah! I saw it in your most recent press release and was like “we talked about that.” You didn’t have an idea, but you said it would be cool to collaborate with him on something musically. And I feel like what you came up with was really cool. What made you think about it and how did it feel for him to reply to you?
It was more of… It wasn’t a serious thing because I know there isn’t a huge market in making touring vehicles. And he’s probably focused on… he has bigger fish to fry. But I thought it would be funny just to tweet him and see what he would say. Or if he would respond at all. Because somebody had asked me “what are you doing to take care of the environment.” I do care about the environment, but I feel bad walking onto a tour bus every day and burning so much gas. But I don’t have a choice because I have to have a mode of transportation to get around the country so that I can play shows. So, I was like it would be dope if I could work with you on a a tour bus. After that interview I just tweeted him to see what he’d say, and he just responded.
What would you say has been the most surprising support to see from fellow artists or people who are really inspiring to you?
I’d say Bryson Tiller. I wasn’t expecting him to listen to my music. That was pretty cool.
Switching gears a bit. Like you said, you have so much stuff going on right now. How are you staying grounded?
Right now I live at home with my parents, so that helps. Nothing has really changed for me in the grand scheme of things. I feel like the people I spend my time with outside of music are mostly just my mom, dad and sister. Pretty much it. My dad is downstairs right now, and I just made myself a pizza. Everything is pretty much exactly the same.
You’re living the best life. At home with mom and dad is so easy.
Talking about touring, performing live has always seemed super important to you. It’s something you’ve been doing in parking lots before you were performing on stage. Now you’re selling out everywhere and booking bigger and bigger venues and events. How does taking that next step feel?
The coolest thing is just to walk on stage and have a crowd of people know the words to your songs. That’s something I always wanted. So it feels amazing. For a long time, like I told you before, I was just performing outside venues and hoping to get an opportunity like the one I have now. It’s really awesome to see a line of people outside the show waiting to get in. I wish I had something more original to say, but it’s awesome.
I mean, it’s what you’ve been working towards and to see it coming true must be so great.
It really feels like I made the right choice.
And the audiences aren’t just getting bigger. They’re also, like you said, getting louder. I was just watching footage of you performing “Let Me Down Slowly” live, and it’s really incredible to see how into it your fans are. What would you say other than “Let Me Down Slowly” is a favorite song for you to play and see them singing back to you now?
The loudest song at every single show is called “Steve.” It’s the song that I least expected to be the most popular at live shows. But it’s so loud every night. People scream the words to that song, which is funny since it’s such a peculiar song. So to have people really excited about it was shocking to me but also very cool. “Let Me Down Slowly” is not the loudest song that people sing at the shows by any means. I think it’s probably “Steve” and “Boy In The Bubble” or maybe “Outrunning Karma.” Maybe “Water Fountain.” It’s pretty loud, too.
“Water Fountain” was a song that people were really excited to hear off Narrated For You before it dropped. Would you say that it is interesting to see what fans are responding to versus what the general public is responding to now that you really have that window directly into fans when you’re touring.
I think no. Definitely I always thought that “Let Me Down Slowly” would be the song. It was the catchiest song to draw people in. But I didn’t think it would be the song that would make people become a fan of my music. There’s a lot of people that casually listen to that song but don’t listen to the full album or aren’t necessarily as familiar with me as an artist. But I definitely think the songs that are going to make people fans are not that one.
Are you working on more new music while you’re traveling and performing?
Yeah. I have new music coming out in like a month.
How would you say the music you’re working on now differs from what you were doing on Narrated For You?
I think the subject matter of the songs is a little bit more mature. It’s pretty much the same except maybe the production is a step up. A little bit different. It’s just a more mature version of what I was doing on the last project.
Some of the music on Narrated For You was older, right? It was stuff you’d been holding onto for a while.
So that makes a lot of sense. Do you see yourself pulling from a lot of your experiences now while you’re writing?
Definitely. A lot of stuff. The first two songs that are coming out are more about things that I am going through right now. One of them is about how I felt when I moved out to California. Another song is about some of the things I’ve been going through like mentally that I wasn’t going through on the last album. I like to talk about things that I’m going through personally, and I’m obviously going through things now that I wasn’t then.
In the past you referred to yourself really as a narrator. Do you think that is still your main goal musically?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. But I’ll always have story-telling themes. I do think my writing style has changed a little bit.
Then you mentioned that you really like writing about your personal experiences. Would you be interested in writing for other people now or are you happier keeping your music for yourself?
I’m definitely open to writing for other people. But I think it would be a situation where I have a song and someone hears it and is like “oh my god, I love that song. Can I use it?” And I’m like “sure, I’m not using it for myself.” I haven’t really been put in that situation yet. There’s a few artists that I’d love to write with for their music, but it hasn’t happened yet. Then a few people have reached out like “oh there’s a song that I heard. Are you using it because if not I’d like to have it.” That I’m definitely open to. I have a lot of songs that I’ve written that will probably never see the light of day because they’re just not right for me, but they’d work for somebody else.
Who are some people you would really want to write for? Like dream projects.
I’d be down to write with whoever wants me. Some hip hop artists would be cool. I’m not really sure… It would be cool to write a song with Kevin Abstract. Maybe some pop artists. I’d write a song for Demi Lovato if she wanted. That would be dope.
Some of that makes a lot of sense. Last time we talked you said Eminem’s “Stan” was your favorite song to cover. And you covered that for Spotify. Should we expect more hip hop inspired music from you in the future?
I think I’m kind of done with that cover. But I covered “Blue” by Eiffel 65 the other day, which was pretty dope. Anything like that…
I think the unexpected-ness of that is so cool. A lot of what you’re doing on Narrated For You is so singer/songwriter. So to hear you in a different genre, putting your own spin on it is interesting. But looking back now to a year ago, did you expect this? Are you surprised by how everything has come forward for you?
In a sense yes, and in a sense no. Really a lot of the things that happened to me I was not expecting. But at the same time I feel like I wouldn’t have risked so much and dropped out of school and done this if I didn’t think that I could do it. I don’t think I ever expected this to happen or for it to happen like this or this fast. At the same time I wouldn’t have gone for it if I didn’t think I could do it. Not in an arrogant way, but in that I believe in myself.
Would you say that sort self confidence is something that has been very important to being successful?
I don’t know. A lot of times I doubt myself. I can’t really say because I’m still so early in my career. A lot of the stuff that’s happened has been really exciting and awesome, but at the same time I understand that this could go away at any second. So I don’t really feel like I’m in a position where i can be like “you have to have this to be successful.” Because I don’t really look at myself and be like “wow I’m successful.” I have a long way to go. The artists that I look up to have had careers of five, sometimes even 10 albums. You know, I’m not even past my first mixtape so I’m not sure.
Speaking about that, last time we talked you said one of your biggest professional goals was to be able to support yourself by making music, which is probably becoming more and more of a possibility for you. What would you say are some of your other goals moving forward?
I think it’s still just that. I want my first album to be successful. But when I start releasing songs in the next month-and-a-half my goal will be to have them do well so I can keep doing this. That people will keep coming to shows, and I can keep performing.
Awesome! I can’t wait to hear everything you’ve been working on. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me! I’m really glad we got a chance to catch up.
Thank you so much! Have a great day.