Brendan Benson — You Were Right (Readymade Records)
Sometimes, all you need is a little push. After acclaimed singer-songwriter Brendan Benson released his 2012 album What Kind of World, his manager suggested he launch a monthly singles series. He was a bit hesitant at first, but eventually he came around. And now, just a year after What Kind of World, Benson is back with You Were Right, which collects both the releases from the series as well as reworked versions of songs that didn’t quite fit on his previous albums. You Were Right finds Benson squarely in his jangly power-pop groove, while also finding room for him to explore his more experimental impulses. Benson recorded in his own Readymade Studios, and will release You Were Right through his Readymade Records, which is distributed through Thirty Tigers, and being in charge of both the production and release gave him the peace of mind to make exactly the record he wanted, all on his own terms. From his home in Nashville, Tennessee, here is Benson on being the boss and finding his place in the music industry.
This is your second album that you’ve released through your Readymade label. So what’s it like being the boss?
Well, heavy is the crown. [laughs] You know, it kind of comes with a whole new set of responsibilities and, sometimes, worries. I guess that’s more to do with the other artists on the label. How their records did. Because in the past,
I’ve produced and helped people make their records but beyond that, I think wasn’t really in my control. I don’t know a lot about how to sell records, but luckily I have a great team, I have a great manager who’s very clever in that way. So I can still just be the artist and be on the creative side stuff in the studio and then I defer to others for the business-type things.
And as far as being in charge of when and how the albums come out, how has it affected the actual art you made? Has it affected the way the records sound or the songs you write, that you have complete control over things?
Yes and no. I guess there are moments in the studio when I’m sort of, you know, I’m making music where I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I don’t have to answer to anybody. I can do whatever I want to do and, um, and I’m the boss, I’m in control. I don’t have to answer to anybody. But that’s not very often. I never made music for anyone except for myself, ever. So it’s not a whole...it’s not very different.
Looking through your discography, with the exception of a big gap between One Mississippi and Lapalco, you’ve always had albums out every three to four years or so. But last year you had What Kind of World and this one is coming out right on the heels of that one. It’s your fastest turnaround ever.
That’s kind of an example, I guess, or a...you know, an indication of how things used to be on major labels with me because I think people were always wondering why it took me so long to make a record and in actuality, it didn’t take me long to make the record, it took me longer because I had to find another label to put out the record or something. I don’t think I’d released a record on the same label twice, you know? I’ve always had to search for a new partnership for whatever reason. For various reasons. It’s just mostly been bureaucratic or logistical stuff that’s kept my records in the can for so long.
Because you’ve had Virgin, V2, Startime International, ATO, all kinds of different places.
But now it’s great because I’m set up. The system is kind of in place. I can put out music as it happens. It’s great. That’s a huge bonus for having our own label. As long as I’m not going broke, I’m doing it.
When you were on the bigger labels, did they ever caution you not to release too much music too quickly to not flood the market, or is it solely a product of after the one album came out, you had to pack up and move to a different place?
The latter. I never heard, you know, “hey, slow down.” It was mostly...like I said, it was various reasons but it was more I had to pick up and move on. Or I wasn’t happy where I was or...
I know some of the labels went out of business. Others, it seems like, you just weren’t a priority.
That too. Yeah. So.
When that sort of thing happened, did you ever think, like, “well, screw it man. I’m just going to become a carpenter or something.” When the music industry was being a bastard, what made you want to keep going?
I think there was a point, there was a pivotal moment in my life, right before Lapalco came out, where I was considering not making music professionally, I guess. In fact, Lapalco is a bunch of songs that I did for me and not for anyone else, not for a label, I didn’t think that it would come out. And I was, at the time, thinking about what else I might...I moved back home from California, I moved back to Detroit, and with the money I had left I bought a house and then it was like okay, well, what am I going to do here to possibly get a job? And then Isaac Green came along—he owned Startime International—and he got a hold of me...actually, it’s a funny story. He tells the story that I sent him the record because I had seen the French Kicks play in Detroit and I thought they were great and I talked to them after the show and I asked them about their record label but I didn’t include my address or phone number or anything. So he was trying to get a hold of me for months and finally somehow got ahold of me and said “I love it, I wanna put this stuff out” and I was, of course, thrilled, and that record really restored my belief in myself. I was really down at the time. I had been dropped from Virgin after a long...it was an ugly drop. It was kind of a long, drawn-out deal. So it really did a number on me. And I was really depressed and Isaac came on and saved me and brought me out of this depression and I knew after that, that’s what I was meant to do. That’s what really—that’s what I was going to do, no matter what. And I’ve since been doing it and, of course, I have my moments of doubt and all that. But there’s really no...there’s really nothing else for me. And it’s turned out actually great. It’s going very well. I’ve gotta a wife and a couple kids and we’re all okay. And I have a studio and I can work on the things I love and it’s cool.
Did the experience of working with the industry like this inspire you to start your own label so you can spare other artists from having to go through this?
Yes. I would see my friends going through kind of the same thing and just the overall kind of complaint from my friends and from people about the business and just how fucked up it was. I would work on records, just producing records, things for other labels that never saw the light of day that would just get canned and it was so frustrating to put your whole heart and soul into something and, of course, it was even worse for the artists. So yeah, that’s when I decided, like, screw it! I love this stuff that I do, that I work on. I want it out. So maybe I’ll put it out.
So now that you have your own label, a lot of this new album was first released as part of a singles series, right?
Where did the idea of the singles series come from?
That came directly from my manager, Emily, actually. I was actually not too keen on the idea at first. I felt like, why can’t we just put out a record nowadays? Why does it have to be a big production and gimmicks and trickery and you have to come out with a new way of presenting your music. But I think it worked out really well for both of us, for my manager and myself, because she got what she wanted, which was an interesting way of presenting the music, and I got what I wanted, which was kind of a challenge. Just the challenge of it, to write a song a month was different from any way I’ve ever worked before. And it was fun. The pressure was on and I guess I kind of liked that.
Did you think the pressure informed the way you approached the songs? Did it make any tangible result in the final product?
Maybe. Probably. Of course, I can’t really say for sure. A lot of times, too, the longer I work on something, the worse it becomes. I have a tendency to...I mean I love to sort of experiment and try different things and sometimes it goes a little too far and I get sort of lost.
Overthinking. Exactly. Yes.
So the deadline made you stick to the first idea and go with that.
And how do you think that approach, overall, formed You Were Right? Did you keep that same approach or did you also mix in aspects of the longer, experimental processes?
Yeah, it was kind of a mix. It became a mixture thing. It didn’t really—I couldn’t really—put out a record. Logistically, it wasn’t possible to do a song every month and have an album at the end of the year. So what I ended up doing was working on a few songs at the same time that happened to be older ideas that I really liked and never, for whatever reason, never finished. So there were some of those songs that were revisitng the past, and that was kind of fun, too. That was kind of a study, in a way, for me, because there was some old demos I had that I really liked. I liked the performance, the mood of them and the feel and the vibe, so I kind of want to retain that as much as I could. So sometimes it was scientific, to figure out what makes this...why is this so cool? Why does this sound so good to me? Maybe I sound kind of hoarse or maybe I had a cold that day or, the groove is a little off. Just all these nuances that made up the whole feel. It’s kind of interesting to dissect the songs. To recreate it.
So part of You Were Right was you didn’t just want these singles series out there alone, and part of it is you kind of wanted to reclaim these songs that never made it on an album for whatever reason.
And approaching it that way, how do you make sure the album works cohesively as a whole?
Well, that was my concern from the very beginning when I was doing a song a month. Chronologically, it worked. In time, it might make sense. It might make sense because of this time of my life. But to answer the question, I don’t know. I don’t know and I kind of abandoned that idea in the process. I just thought “I don’t know how cohesive this is going to sound, but if it sounds a little jumbled or pieced together or something like that, I kind of don’t care.”
Basically if it works on a song-by-song basis, you’re fine.
Exactly. And actually, in the end, to my surprise and my delight, it did have a cohesion. It does, to me, in my mind. I couldn’t describe it to you and tell you why. Maybe it’s because I worked on it.
Ultimately, it is your voice and your style of songwriting, so even if the songs do sound different from each other, it won’t sound too crazy. It’s not like you made a dubstep song or something. But anyway, you recorded this all in your Readymade studios, right?
Yeah, pretty much. Yeah.
What was that process like, having complete control, not only how it came out but in the studio? How did that affect the final product?
Well, in good ways and bad ways. The studio is still new and especially on some of the songs, very new. Also, the mixing—I mixed the record, too, so—I didn’t quite know the room very well; it’s still a little weird and I was just getting to know my studio at the same time. But the good ways were that I could work whenever I wanted to, I didn’t need to sort of work around anybody’s schedule, and it makes for a cool vibe when you can call up a friend and say “if you feel like playing drums on a song today or tomorrow” that’s fun too, you know? Readymade’s like a clubhouse where I get together and play with people.
So tell me about the song “I Don’t Want to See You Anymore.” Where did that come from?
I wrote that, actually, with my friend Ashley Monroe. She’s in that band, Pistol Annies. She’s got a solo career of her own and she’s amazing. We hit it off and wrote a ton of music. For a while, we hung out every day and wrote music every day and came up with all these songs. I ended up releasing one or two on What Kind of World and that was another one, actually from the same session, the What Kind of World session, that I didn’t think worked on that record for some reason. But I loved it and I thought it worked out well on this record.
So where did the album title come from?
I don’t know. And I knew I’d have to answer that question. It came to me and I have no idea why...I had a list of titles, I was kind of racking my brain trying to figure out what this album is called and I had these titles and nothing was really clicking and I have no idea why those three words came to my mind and I thought “I like the way that sounds. That sounds right, that sounds right for this record” and I’m not sure what it means.
Do you think it’s partly about your manager pushing for the singles series and that working out for you?
[Laughing] I bet she’d like to think so. I kind of want to leave it as more of an ambiguous thing.
For more information, please contact Joe Cohen, Krista Williams or Carla Sacks at