Benjamin Booker never set out to be a rock star. Watching his recent, high-energy performances on The Late Show with David Letterman or Conan, you might think otherwise. He seems like a natural on stage, his nimble fingers effortlessly gliding across his fretboard as he plucks out bluesy riffs and belts out a raw, raspy croon. And his recent performance at Lollapalooza earned the young singer / songwriter a flood of accolades from reviewers, including the Chicago Tribune's Bob Gendron, who said of Booker's set, "Now that's how you make a name for yourself."
Just a couple years ago, however, Booker had no illusions of appearing before a swarm of 100,000 people or sharing a stage with Jack White. In 2012, he moved from Gainesville, Florida, to New Orleans—for reasons he's "not legally allowed to talk about," according to a questionnaire on the blog Music Radar. But before he left the Sunshine State, he tells CityBeat, he picked up his guitar and tried his hand at recording some home demos.
"I had finished college, and I was living in Gainesville, Florida, and I was having a rough time. I had some time before I moved to New Orleans, and I was bored and recorded a handful of songs and put them online," he says. "All the songs were really just songs to share with friends and start conversations with them. I don't think that I was thinking about an overall idea [for an album], but just what was going on at the time, and what was on my mind."
After Booker's demos made their way online, they took on a life of their own. The music blog Aquarium Drunkard shared the tracks, and blog proprietor Justin Gage then played Booker's music on his Sirius XM radio show—all without Booker even knowing any of this was happening.
The almost-viral spread of those recordings led to his eventual signing with ATO Records—home to My Morning Jacket and Okkervil River, among other notable acts— which will release Booker's self-titled debut album this week. The album is considerably louder than those early demos. It's been compared to the likes of punk legends The Gun Club and blues icon Howlin' Wolf alike, though Booker cites some less easily detectable influences, including punk band This Bike is a Pipe Bomb—who are also from Gainesville—and blues singer Ted Hawkins, whose style provided a template for Booker's songwriting: "That's something I wanted to do—nothing too complicated, just three- and four-chord songs."
But there's a classic, soulful sensibility that made its way into the sound of the album—even at its loudest and rowdiest. Some of that, Booker says, can be attributed to the local culture of his newly adopted home.
"There's a radio station [in New Orleans] called WWOZ that plays a lot of rhythm-and-blues and early rock 'n' roll and pre-war stuff," he says. "I had it on all the time when I was writing, and I think that all made its way in."
Most of Benjamin Booker's debut builds off of a pretty simple three- or four-chord template, just as he described. But it's within that straightforward approach that he's able to yield a diverse array of sounds. The album's first single, "Violent Shiver," is a hard-rocking standout that finds common ground between X and Chuck Berry, while "Have You Seen My Son?" finds Booker bashing away at his guitar to create a sound that's alternately intense and infectious. Though, some of the strongest material lies in the record's deep cuts, like the organ-fueled rockabilly groove of "Chippewa."
Benjamin Booker plays Aug. 22 at the Soda Bar
Booker's sound isn't fussy or ornate, and it doesn't sound like the result of hours spent trying to get every note just perfect. And there's a good reason for that: It isn't.
"I really struggle to sit down and work on a song," Booker says. "I've done it a few times before, and it doesn't work out—it ends up really shitty. So, I usually just pick up the guitar and play for a minute or two and it's, like, if nothing's happening, I'll put it down. So, everything on the album is one of those instances where I'd pick it up and whatever came was the beginning of the song."
Booker's spent the last two years sharpening his sound and his live show, and the proof is in his recent festival and TV appearances. But while he's logged more mileage and has more resources at his disposal, he's not planning to put on a bigger stage production or take on a more elaborate setup anytime soon.
"I don't really think about the live show, because that's how you end up one of those festival bands that's just—the whole set is just songwriting gimmicks to win over the crowd. The songs I wrote for this album were raw on acoustic guitar when I thought nobody would see them," he says. "But I didn't really change anything.
"It's really just those acoustic songs played with an electric guitar."