You Sing, I Write: Q&A with Phil Bensen

Monday, February 11, 2008

Q&A with Phil Bensen

Fellow New Jersey native Phil Bensen sat down with me before his performance at The Knitting Factory. Bensen’s music is the perfect blend of soulfulness reminiscent of the Jackson 5 intertwined with pop influences of musicians like John Mayer and Maroon 5. Before warming up for his set, Bensen took some time to discuss his musical influences, hopes for the future and the inspiration behind some of his songs. Be sure to check him out at the Bamboozle Festival this May and visit his MySpace for more tour dates and album tracks.

I read that you started out performing in college.
I always wanted to get into music but I never had the patience to sit down and do it. My college was a real liberal arts school, it was very artsy - people playing music in courtyards and stuff like that. They had these coffee houses and the first night I went to one of those I was like, “I have to do this. This is what I have to do.” And that’s when I started to play. I had played before that, but I really got inspired. I loved it. So then I started playing, never thinking it could be a career. And then just getting better and my voice developing, writing some songs it was a natural progression. Here I am two years later, there you go.

You've been on tour the last two years, right? How has it been touring with bands like Lifehouse and the Jonas Brothers?
Well, technically I guess the last, yeah two years. But not really always on tour. Kind of getting shows here and there and recording and getting all that stuff ready to go. I only played one show with Lifehouse. The Jonas Brothers have been great to me. It’s not like, the best fit for me musically, but it works. For them to be playing sold out House of Blues and stuff like that and to invite me along because they like my music is a really cool thing. And so I’ve done shows with them, toured the west coast with Secondhand Serenade and Powerspace and just shows like this, up and down the east coast with Sparky’s Flaw. Bamboozle. Two years ago I was there, but it was on the small stage and no one knew who I was. Last year I played on the main stage and it was really cool. This year I don’t know yet. I know I’m in the line-up.

What inspires your music?
The great songs with great hooks, songs that are not cheesy, that are real music, you know? Like The Beatles, Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, John Mayer, Maroon 5, Bright Eyes I love. There are so many. I’ve always been a big fan of Elliott Smith. My stuff is . . . I don’t know, I’m kind of breaking away from the acoustic ballady kind of stuff and going more towards funky, cool, more pop-rock sort of stuff. That’s sort of the direction I’m going in. But also having some of the ballads too.

I really like your song, “Paper Airplanes.” What’s the story behind it?
It’s actually a good story behind that song. I was playing an open mic, trying to get anywhere in music, and there was a guy singing a song, “Paper airplanes fly so high” and I’m thinking to myself, “No they don’t. That’s kind of a dopey thing to say. They crash. It’s a piece of paper.” And I thought, “Hey, that might be a cool concept.” You know, with something delicate and beautiful and it gets destroyed. I thought it’d be a cool thing to pair that to life in general. It’s sort of a pessimistic view on the world.

There are all these stories within the song, what inspired those stories?
A lot of times, especially when I was in college, after partying it’ll be like 2 in the morning and it was always cool to look up at the sky and just see planes go by and I don’t know, it was just almost like a somber, sad kind of place. And then, the train story in there was a real thing. You see yourself and you see a guy that’s 20 years older and a guy that’s really old and you’re like, “Wow, that guy was once my age, once this young.” And there was this guy on the train ready to die. I don’t know. That’s my song. It’s almost like a Catcher in the Rye inspired song in a sense where the guy in Catcher in the Rye wants to be protecting all the kids jumping over the cliff and there’s no way he can do that.

Do you have a favorite song to perform?
You know, it changes every night. It’ll be like, “Wow that song felt really great or that song didn’t.” I like to play “Bruised.” I think it has a bit of a dynamic. It’s just a MySpace special, but it will be on my next album. Then there’s this song called “A Little Respect” that I like to play. “Not Good Enough” I like to play. There are more, but I like to play the more upbeat songs because they’re just more fun to play.

Do you have a favorite venue you’ve played at?
I played the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and that was awesome. There’s so much history. The people there were so nice and they kind of carried on the tradition that old-folk, country singers have and they’re so into that tradition of music. They’re like, “Hank Williams was here and he did this and this and it’s so great to have you guys here.” The venue itself is really cool. The balcony wraps around and so you’re almost covered in the audience. That was cool. It was the Jonas Brothers’ show and there were thousands of people there. It was really cool.

What are your hopes for the upcoming year?
I hope to get a big deal like Sparky’s Flawless and I don’t know, write a song like “Who Let the Dogs Out” part two [laughs]. I really want to get a deal and write a record. My record’s gotten out, but something that people listen to and are like, “Wow! I love that!” That’s my goal. And really continue to build a fan base.

How would you explain your music to someone who’s never heard it?
I try and do that all the time. I’m like, “You know Maroon 5? You know John Mayer? Well, it’s kind of like a mix of those two.” That’s like the best way to describe it. Sort of like a soft pop/rock/soul/jazzy. Jackson 5 too.

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