In mid-2014, not long after signing with ATO Records, recording what would be his breakout first LP and making his television debut on Letterman, Benjamin Booker found himself in a bad way. "I was smiling in front of people but I was not handling it well," says the blues-and-punk-influenced rocker, who following the release of the acclaimed Benjamin Booker found himself playing major festivals, writing and recording with Mavis Staples, and touring with Jack White and Courtney Barnett. "I was just pulling my hair out the whole time," he told Rolling Stone on a recent afternoon. "It's not a natural thing to have happen."
So, early last year, on a whim, Booker headed to Mexico City for several weeks; he says the getaway not only cleared his head but more importantly jumpstarted the process of writing Witness, his gritty, genre-bending second album. Booker says the at-times haunting and bleak full-length – influenced by everything from hip-hop to Sly and the Family Stone and Seventies- Nigerian funk – was a direct reaction to him coming to terms with racism he felt growing up in the South. A harrowing experience in his then-home of New Orleans also played a part. In December 2015, the musician was randomly shot at while riding his bike in the Bywater neighborhood. "I had to turn around and bolt out of there and these guys were chasing me," Booker recalls. "I've had a few life-or-death experiences but this felt particularly important. To be aware that at any time you can die forces you to live your life differently."
Booker, 27, says his roller-coaster past few years have given him a clearer perspective on both music and life. "I'm wiling to take more risks," he says in a conversation that touches on his newfound anti-YOLO lifestyle, the state of the country and why making music has become about more than just penning a good tune. Says Booker: "I'm so happy this time. I've been able to stabilize myself and can appreciate what's happening."
Coming off such a widely praised debut, did you feel pressure going into this new LP?
You just hope that you're getting better. But I took the pressure off by just saying, "OK, well, I'm not going to do the first one again." Once I decided I wasn't going to do the same thing it took a lot of pressure off. It felt like I was starting a new thing.
I think the sounds we got on this album were closer to the things I had envisioned the music sounding like all along. That was a lot thanks to the producer [Sam Cohen] I was working with. But also I feel farther along as a songwriter and musician. I feel more ready to present this than I was with the last record.
I imagine you were in a different place working on this than when you wrote your first album?
I'm very grateful I got to do the first record. But yeah, it was a very different time. I was still working for minimum wage when I was doing that record and didn't know if it was going to be put out. I'm happy that I was able to do it, but I think with the second one for me it's been more like, "This is something you're pretty good at and you should do your best and make the best record you can." It's just a different feeling. Because I'm not just making it for friends or just writing songs for myself. Other people are going to see it now. I don't see it as being a bad thing, really.
You have to trust yourself. The thing I learned from the first album is I could make a record that is completely personal and do it on my own and not expect people to see it. So when I was doing this record I just had to remember that it's OK to set everybody aside for a little bit and work on the songs myself and see where they are and trust that the people who enjoyed the first album would enjoy this one even if it's a little different.
When did your mind start moving toward what became Witness?
Probably about halfway through the first album cycle which was a couple years. I started thinking about new stuff. I was constantly recording things on my phone and writing lyrics. But because the music I make is so personal and closely linked with where I am at a certain point in my life I think I had a hard time. I hadn't moved up. I needed to make changes to get to the next level of songwriting. I knew I didn't want to do the same thing. I was at a block, I guess. I still felt like I was stuck in the first record because I was still playing those songs every night. You kind of feel trapped there and I couldn't progress. But after I got done with touring and everything was able to take a break I took a trip to Mexico and was by myself for a while. I was able to work on guitar playing and work on songwriting and work on lyrics and start piecing things together. That's really when it started to come together.
It sounds like you really stepped back and looked at yourself and the way you were raised.
What you're talking about, stepping back and looking at yourself and finding your place in the world, that's what the whole album is about. It was important to me to share that experience I was going through with other people and start the conversation of "Where are you guys at right now?" That was a big part of the trip. It was a life-changing experience. I think there's been a lot of points in my life where I've had to stop and take a break and think about things before I could move forward. This was one of those times.
You've mentioned how the Mexico City trip allowed you to let go of the belief that you could "outsmart" the racism that surrounded you growing up in the South.
There is repression that goes on. You don't want to live in fear so you push it off to the side and do whatever you can to get rid of that feeling and focus on other things in your life. If I was in a different position and worried about my life on a constant basis or getting in trouble in different ways than I don't think I'd be able to play music. I think a big part of it was being able to push those things to the side and keep trudging forward. That's the only way that I was able to do it. Eventually that stuff catches up with you.
When you're a college student, it's easy to think, "I have a plan. I know what I'm doing and I can forget about those things." But you can't.
How did the song "Witness," which features Mavis Staples, come together?
This album is more thematically tied together than the last one. So everything is fitting together to put together that journey to Mexico City and that experience. One of the first songs I wrote was "Right on You" and that was important for me. Because I was getting off tour, going back to New Orleans. It's a city with a lot of distractions and a lot of trouble you can get into. I was living a very selfish life and not taking care of myself. The album and that song in particular are about how it's important for people to live with death constantly. To be aware that at any time you can die because it forces you to live your life differently.
My friends recently told me that I'm a bigger risk taker than a lot of people. But I think it's because I'm constantly thinking about dying. I don't know, just the fact that none of this really matters ... I'm wiling to take more risks. What I was trying to say with that song is that there was this whole YOLO thing a couple years ago. Like, you only live once so you should party because you could die at any moment. I was doing this the other way: You could die at any moment so don't be selfish and contribute something to the world. Leave the hedonistic lifestyle and actually do something. It's an anti-YOLO song.
Why did you decide to leave New Orleans? Your near-death experience there must have played a role.
Yeah, one of the big reasons I left was because I didn't feel safe there anymore. A similar thing had happened to my friend Tony a few months before. He ditched his bike and hid under a car. New Orleans has a bullshit education system. A lot of the stuff you hear happening only seems like it could come from people with nowhere to go and no way out. We live in a fucked country. I want to talk about it more but it's hard to talk about, you know.
The first week I started AmeriCorps another AmeriCorps member was shot in the head. 18 years old. That same week someone shot up a six-year-old's birthday party. There was a shooting in Bunny Friend Park a mile away from my house where 17 people were shot. It's heartbreaking. People go there to party and completely miss what is happening. The police there are notorious for being a joke. I used to sit in police meetings in Central City, the roughest neighborhood there. They tell kids they have more of a chance dying there than in Iraq. There's a wealthier neighborhood across the street. The difference in life expectancy for one side of St. Charles to the other is 22 years, I think. Meanwhile I'm sitting in a police meeting watching them text each other jokes.
"We live in a fucked country."
How was working with Mavis? You'd previously written "Take Us Back" for her album Livin' on a High Note.
Honestly, I think she connects with everybody. I'm happy that we got along pretty immediately. We had a phone call the first time but she's one of those people that feels like you've known them for a long time. She's almost like a grandmother. She just has such a positive vibe and outlook on life that it's hard to ignore. Honestly that had a big influence on the album also. When I was writing the song for her last album it was the first time I wrote a song that wasn't really a sad song. We talked about where she was at in her life and career and she was stressing the importance to me of family and taking the time to appreciate your life and the people around you. It ended up being a really important experience for me – realizing that I was able to write about different things than I thought I was able to.
How do you look back now on your initial breakout fame?
I got signed in October 2013, recorded an album in December and we played Letterman the next April. It was too much. I'm so happy this time to get out there because I feel like I have been able to stabilize myself and can appreciate what's happening with every show and that people are coming out. But at that time I was more focused on every day and every week and how there was something crazy that was happening that was causing me an insane amount of anxiety.
Now you seem far more engaged with your craft.
Definitely. I think I had to decide the person I wanted to be and the kind of musician I wanted to be. I just thought about getting to the end of my life and thinking about what I was doing with music. If I was just an entertainer, am I going to be happy? I don't think I would be. It's important for me to do something more with music than just entertain people.