About a minute after a car drops us off in the heart of one of the older, scenic neighborhoods in Lisbon, Benjamin Booker sees a church across the street and says we should go inside. It’s one of those sudden, accidental moments of beauty you come across randomly on old European streets, a building that looks ancient just hanging out alongside everything else. Part of Booker’s origin story almost comes from another era: Raised religious in Florida, he strayed from all that and discovered the power of pop music, of rock ‘n’ roll, only this time it was the local DIY punk scene in Tampa.
“Why do you still like going into churches?” I ask.
“Maybe it’s a residual childhood thing,” he semi-jokingly deflects at first. Then: “I like the vibe. It’s the same reason I love gospel music. When it’s people singing to what they see as their god — you can’t get that emotion anywhere else.” There’s a pause, and then with a sly grin he turns it back around again: “Also, it’s hot outside, and churches are always pretty chilly inside.”
The whiplash of the statement is representative of a general paradox with Booker: His music often grapples with the heaviest of topics, and he’ll talk about it matter-of-factly, but he also has a genial, jocular quality to him that’s far away from the more tortured soul you might expect from his songs and performances. Of course, it wasn’t always quite that way.
Booker and I cross paths in Portugal because we’re both over here for a festival, NOS Alive. It’s one stop among many for him this year, as he tours behind his new album, Witness. Last year, he relocated to LA. He’s in a good relationship. He managed to avoid the sophomore slump and make an album that comes with a different gravity than his debut. Things, seemingly, have come together pretty well.
It turns out the church is actually functional, and having a mass. Instead of sticking around, we walk up through Lisbon’s steep, cobble-stoned paths, eventually finding our way to a park on a plateau looking out over much of the city. We sit down amidst all the other tourists taking in the view, and start to trace how we arrived here.
A few years ago, Booker first started garnering attention for his debut’s swampy mix of blues-rock and punk. And to hear him speak about it now, it was all a bit of a whirlwind. Having played guitar since he was 14, he hadn’t really started writing songs up until the tail end of college. He wrote about half of his first album in Gainesville, Florida, and the other half once he’d relocated to New Orleans. Then, in about a six- or seven-month span, he signed a record deal, recorded the album, and was playing Letterman already.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Booker recalls. “I didn’t handle it very well. I was just not taking care of myself.”
At the same time, he wouldn’t do things differently if given the opportunity — “When a chance comes, you’ve gotta take it,” he says — but the experience, and then touring the same album for two years after that, also seemingly left him in a rut when he was settled back in New Orleans last year.
“I just wasn’t in a good place, my head was cloudy,” he says. “I was trying to figure out what kind of things I was going to write about on this album. I didn’t want to do the same thing again.”
If the debut had been a sort of runaway experience, now Booker had to reckon with many things at once: his new life, but also what he was actually going to say and stand behind as an artist. He was bored of the two- or three-chord punk thing. He wanted to challenge himself. Looking back at the debut, he understandably locates it at a specific point in his life — that weird liminal zone immediately after college where you’re not really sure about any one path or another.
“You don’t really have to make decisions,” he says of those years. “I was just going out and partying and stuff but not contributing to society at all.”
That yielded moments of self-reflection when he was trying to write music for a second album. Moments where he considered that question of whether he’d be happy with his life looking back on it years later.
“I want to progress musically, but in order for me to progress musically I need to progress as a person,” Booker says. “I needed to learn more about the world. For me, I don’t wanna just write songs about breezy summer days and girls. I just needed experiences to put it together.”
All of that was simmering when Booker got back to New Orleans early last year. But the songs wouldn’t come. There was static or something. So he got on a plane and went to Mexico City for a month. Booker had never been outside of America before touring his first album, and the very sudden, total realization of how much world there is out there is, naturally, the kind of thing that could impact an artist, make them think about doing something bigger with their work. One of the places that had left a mark was Mexico City. But the revelations started en route, when he read Don DeLillo’s White Noise and stumbled on the quote that served as the catalyst for Witness:
“What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation.”
“I don’t even remember the context in the story. It was just like, you know what you should be writing about, you just don’t want to talk about it,” he recalls, laughing a bit. “That’s what being an artist is. Talking about the painful stuff.”
When he read the quote, he immediately took out a piece of paper and decided, “Be honest with yourself for the first time in your life.” He wrote down a list of the things he thought were wrong with him. It was something like 12 bullet points, which essentially became the songs on the album. It shook the writer’s block, and then he basically wrote all of Witness in the month he spent in Mexico City.
There’s a push and pull to how Booker describes the Mexico City stint. On one hand, even post-revelation on the plane, there was a sense he was running from things back home — tuning out the increasing flood of bad news Stateside, living a sort of idyllic artist life abroad temporarily. Literature heavily influenced him leading up to Witness — not just DeLillo, but Sartre and James Baldwin. He lived a kind of old-school bohemian life in Mexico City, eating and going out cheaply with young artists, then secluding himself for days, reading and writing.
When Witness was announced, it was accompanied by an essay Booker wrote about this period of time. As much as the brief escape allowed him to counter things within himself and start writing again, he also had to look back out at America from another place. He tried to tune out the headlines, but then he had one night in Mexico where he got into an altercation with some young guys outside a bar. His friend apologized, saying it was, essentially, because Booker was a black man. In the essay, he reflects on this and goes all the way back to his reaction to Trayvon Martin’s murder. Then he ends the essay with two lines:
“Witness asks two questions I think every person in America needs to ask.
‘Am I going to be a Witness?’ and in today’s world, ‘Is that enough?'”
Though he characterizes “Motivation” as the blueprint for Witness, its title track, logically enough, feels like the song out of which the rest of the album emanates. Booker called Mavis Staples to lend her voice to it, and she immediately agreed to do it. (Booker had recently contributed a song to Staples’ album Livin’ On A High Note.) The result is stunning, likely the best song Booker has yet written. It’s the song with the heaviest moral search on the album, but true to its gospel influence, its music is more salve than scar.
Despite the hook of the song, Booker is quick to stress that Witness is not really a political album overall. “I think of it as a personal record,” he says. “I don’t care about politics.” Much of the album is more about personal demons, but “Witness” is inextricable from the fabric of all of that. The album meshes those arcs — it might be personal for Booker, but it’s the sort of personal record that’s written for the times, that feels larger than one artist’s experiences.
It feels way larger than the snarling blues-punk of the debut, too. Booker was listening to a lot of African music, which he borrows to add some sinuous funk into the mix on Witness. He soaked up the sounds around him in Mexico, resulting in an album that is more diverse and sophisticated rhythmically. Of course, all of this would still be a moot point if it weren’t for the personal elements to it all. It’s a more expansive album with more expansive concerns. And, compared to the tumbling-forward experience of his first album, it led Booker to more of an actual self-discovery. Considering Booker has written music while living in Florida and New Orleans, then had to transplant himself to Mexico City, and has since moved to LA, I ask him if place is important to his writing process.
“I think it’s hard for me to write when I’m comfortable,” he responds. “If I’m happy, I’ll go months without playing guitar. I don’t want to write songs! I’m having a good time.”
“Do you ever worry about that?” I ask. “That trope of artists having to constantly keep their lives in upheaval to have inspiration, or material … the idea that you can sort of keep yourself situated in darker places?”
“I don’t have to worry about that because I’m naturally a self-destructive person,” he says with a laugh. “I go through periods of being very happy, but I know it’s coming around the corner.”
Booker might joke about cycles, but he does seem like a different guy than the one he describes from years past. He’s taken up volunteering again. He talks about community a lot, both in music and more broadly in his life. As a rock musician, he was somewhat of an outsider in New Orleans; in comparison, he relates a story of being in Australia with Angel Olsen, Courtney Barnett, and Mac DeMarco, and how he felt a sort of connection with all of them despite their stylistic differences. The idea that they all think about music similarly and have this abstract bond. At the same time, he leaves the book open regarding whether he sees himself as a musician for his whole life or whether he sees himself doing something else. He talks about a dream of opening a bakery in Mexico City. He talks about not needing, or wanting, fame.
It all sounds in line with the reflections that anchor Witness. Booker sounds like a man who’s now more comfortable with who he is as an artist — both on the album and in conversation. In the end, that’s what makes the album feel bigger and more powerful.
“The album is about taking care of each other and pushing yourself to be a better person,” Booker says.
To get there, Booker had a winding and difficult search. But in the end, he found some good answers.
Benjamin Booker is touring America this fall. Check out the dates here.