Benjamin Booker is far more quietly spoken on the line from his adopted home of New Orleans than he is on record. The 27-year-old punk-singer-songwriter-with-a-heart-of-blues made waves in 2014 with the release of his self-titled LP. It channels equal parts Bad Brains and Muddy Waters, all topped off by a voice that is almost too rough to believe. The kid sounds like he’s been through the wars. It caught the attention of Laneway’s Danny Rogers, who picked him for the 2015 line-up back when he only had two singles to his name.
What startled critics was Booker’s near-encyclopedic knowledge and assimilation of American blues and swamp music. “I was a nerdy kid and I was really obsessed with music. From the time I got home from school to when I went to bed I would just be listening to records and reading interviews with bands that I liked and trying to find out what they were into,” Booker says. “I’ve always been interested in the history of everything and how it’s connected.”
This much is evident in Booker’s debut album, which joins the dots from the 1920s cotton fields to the skate parks of ‘90s DC. But it’s also something that comes through in his live shows, which are earning a reputation for being wild and dangerous. You know, how rock shows used to be. Booker laughs when told he’s becoming famous for fiery gigs, saying it varies from city to city. “There are some that are wild, with people jumping on the stage and screaming and shit. It is really difficult, though. I don’t know if it has to do with what else is popular. I don’t know why people get into it as much as they used to.”
“Shows just feel different in general now,” he says. “People are just online all the time and not around each other as much. So if they’re suddenly in a big group, they’re not as comfortable letting loose. I’m sure there’s plenty of videos of them dancing on YouTube, but when they go to shows, they don’t wanna dance … ”
It’s a wonder that with all the howling and running around that Booker hasn’t done any damage to his most vital instrument. “I’ve never had any problems [with my voice]. My manager and booking agents are sometimes like, ‘Wow, you should take it easy man’, but so far, nothing,” he laughs. “Yeah, they want me to do all of these things, of course; drink lemon tea, stop smoking …’”
Though Booker has never been to Australia, he’s accustomed to how we roll, thanks to a lengthy US tour with fellow Laneway performer, Courtney Barnett. “We all had a good time,” he says. “It’s probably the most time we’ve spent with another band on tour.” Barnett, for her part, described the pair’s mutual love of Jameson whiskey before and after shows, something Booker won’t deny.
At the very least, he can expect that Aussie fans will be singing his words back to him correctly, having recently reversed his decision not to publish his lyrics. “I started to feel like I was holding something back,” he explains. “I didn’t think that people would want to hear them when I wrote them; I couldn’t imagine someone actually singing the lyrics. Besides, they [fans] give me something. They keep me employed. It’s the least I could do.”
Benjamin Booker will play at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival in Sydney on February 1, and in Melbourne on February 7.