Singer and guitarist Benjamin Booker's signature "Tent City Rivival" sound is what hipsters play to their children instead of lullabies. Booker's gravelly voice evokes a chipper Tom Waits with the timeless vocal simplicity of Bruce Springsteen (had The Boss been raised on the Bayou, not Long Branch). So you could imagine our surprise when a soft-spoken voice greeted us from New Orleans, prior to our phone interview.
Tampa, Florida, native Booker fell in love with New Orleans while working for Americorps' Hands On New Orleans program. The demo he recorded there on a shoestring budget, intended only for friends, landed in the right hands on the internet. Now Booker is opening for Jack White prior to even releasing a proper studio album.
Before Booker's Monday show at Turf Club, we spoke with the soulful 25-year-old about his red-hot career and the Plan B he'll never have to follow.[jump]
Gimme Noise: Your career seems to be growing exponentially. How long have you been performing?
Benjamin Booker: I started doing shows in New Orleans in 2012 and I did that for a year and then I went back to Florida for a few months and found a drummer, and while we were in Florida, a label approached me. Before I came to New Orleans, I just recorded a few demos and put them online and they got picked up by a blog in Los Angeles and I started getting emails and phone calls. That's just how, I guess, things started moving.
How does it feel to be chosen to open for Jack White?
I was in New York when they told me that we were doing the shows. The first album I bought was the White Stripes' Elephant album when I was 13. It's cool to play with somebody that you looked up to when you were so much younger.
How different does your music sound from your original EP?
The EP was acoustic. I thought I would need to change the songs around a lot once we started playing electric, but they haven't really changed very much. It's just been more energetic. I hated playing acoustic shows. I dunno, it's just nice to have people dancing finally.
Do people expect you to be older based on your sound?
The whole voice thing is so strange. I started playing and writing songs and there's nobody else to sing the songs and that's what people ask about all the time. I guess some people are surprised. I'm getting older now though. I'm 25 now so maybe I'm getting closer to the point where people won't ask about it.
How did you develop such a unique voice?
At the time I was listening to a lot of Robert Johnson, this great blues guy from the 1930s, and he had this really rough voice, but he also went into very voluble quieter, softer voice sometimes. I like the way that he sang and that was a big influence, I guess.
You've played guitar since you were 14, but were you always a songwriter?
No, not really. I didn't have anything to say and I had a few years with a lot of things happening and wrote the first five or so songs [on Benjamin Booker] as a batch, pretty quickly. Half of the songs were written in Gainesville, Florida, and half were written in New Orleans when I was 21 or 22.
How surreal was it to be performing on national television shows, like the Late Show with David Letterman and Conan, for the first time?
It was kinda scary, but it felt great, y'know. You watch a show your whole life and it's so weird to be playing on it. It all happens so fast. We played a song that was three minutes long and we just got rushed on stage and played the song and I left the theater basically immediately after. I didn't really have a chance to think about it while I was there because so much was happening.
How are your friends and family reacting to the attention you've been receiving?
They're happy that I'm paying rent and eating and things like that. I was really struggling, I guess for a while, and they're just happy for that steady income now. That's what parents want, I guess.
What's next for you and the band?
We have about 18 months or so on the road after the record comes out. There probably will [eventually] be some additions to the live shows.
We see a lot of bands at festivals who don't seem like they enjoy it at all and I hope we never get to that point.
Which live acts, would you say, have the best stage presence?
I saw the Black Lips before and that was a wild show. TV On the Radio put on a really good show. I saw Nick Cave recently and that was, like, maybe one of the best concerts I've ever been to. I mean they're all really good performers. It's not just someone standing there with keyboard in front of them and people just sitting around; it's a good time.
Do you think your past affinity with the hardcore punk scene has anything to do with your desire to be an energetic performer?
Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with it. I was a teenager [just] like a bunch of other teenagers and the [local] skate park had a music venue next to it and my parents would drop me off there and it was a time when I could just go crazy and hang out with a bunch of kids my age and have fun at a concert. I think that had a lot to do with it. It was a good escape.
But you never wanted to be one of the performers?
I just didn't think I could do it. It was cool to see people my age were putting out albums and playing shows, but I was a pretty dorky kid and I just didn't think it would go over very well if I just got up and played.
If your career in music didn't pan out as well as it's going, what would you be pursuing?
I would probably be... well, last November I was working at a record store and playing shows on the weekends. That's probably what I'd be doing now.
Benjamin Booker. Sold Out. Monday, September 29, at Turf Club. Info.