The Easy Style Of Mr Benjamin Booker
The American singer-songwriter road tests the new Mr P. collection
In Silver Lake, Los Angeles, there is a guitar shop called Old Style. A rickety wooden staircase leads up to a splintering front porch, which, in turn, leads into a comfortable two-room house. Inside, an eclectic assortment of ancient, characterful six-strings, banjos and ukuleles jostle for space on the walls. No two pieces are alike.
It is in this appealingly ramshackle environment that MR PORTER meets Virginia-born singer-songwriter Mr Benjamin Booker. After completing a journalism degree in Florida, Mr Booker moved to New Orleans, where he started performing. He is now based in Los Angeles. As he lifts an old Guild acoustic from the wall and lazily picks out a few phrases, it’s clear he’s in his element here.
“It’s the neighbourhood guitar shop,” says Mr Booker. “I usually pop in here a couple times a week. Reuben Cox, who runs it, has always been good to me and very helpful, and they just have the best stuff.” That’s kind of an understatement. Alongside Mr Booker, Old Style counts “neighbourhood bands” (international stadium-fillers) such as The National among its customers. This is typical of Mr Booker’s laid-back personality. He downplays things. He’s modest, softly spoken and unpretentious. You sense that he leaves a lot unsaid.
This is perhaps a little surprising when you first hear the sonic maelstrom of his music, a heady mish-mash of genres that incorporates elements of blues, soul and garage rock. On Mr Booker’s 2017 album Witness, distorted waves of guitar break against a singing voice that is jarringly different from his gentle everyday tone. Sometimes it’s gravelly, sometimes it’s insistent. At times, it’s a furious, gale-force howl.
Clearly, like the guitars at Old Style, Mr Booker has plenty of stories to tell. We sat down to hear a couple.
What do you like most about what you do?
The best thing about playing music is definitely playing the shows and then meeting people after. It’s weird to sit at home and write stuff in your room and then meet people who are just like, “Wow, I really connected with the song.”
Is there anything you don’t like?
People don’t want to hear you complain about playing music. It’s a pretty sweet job. But it’s hard to be away from home a lot. It can get tough.
How have New Orleans and LA influenced your music?
When I was in New Orleans, there was a radio station there called WWOZ, which is an incredible radio station, probably my favourite in the country. And they used to play a lot of Louisiana music from the 1950s and things like that, and that definitely had an influence on the first record that I made. I ended up just doing kind of an amped-up version of the stuff I was hearing on the radio. And then, since coming out to LA, it’s just a very different vibe. I think the space and the mountains and the desert and all those kinds of things definitely factor into the music that you want to make. If you’re in a tight space, or writing songs in New York, or something like that, you feel that New York energy. Here, the music I’ve been making is more relaxed.
Do you have a daily routine? Are there any rituals that you have to stick to?
It’s very difficult to stick to rituals, but it is something I’ve been trying to do more in 2018. I’ll usually go for a walk in the morning, maybe hit a bookstore or the record stores and stuff, and try to pick up some music. Do some listening to the day, some playing for a few hours, and try to maybe write something at the end of the day.
Does what you’re wearing differ when you’re recording, gigging, practising or just not playing music?
Whatever I’m doing, I spend, not a lot of time, but a little time at the beginning of the day just trying to think about what’s going to make me feel the most comfortable, whatever situation we’re in. I definitely have planned road attire. It definitely matters. The band that I play with are definitely clothes people, so I think on stage I like to be a little bit more dressed up than usual.
Is that about aesthetics or practicality?
I think it’s aesthetics. It’s a thing I didn’t really think about, coming from New Orleans. It’s not really known for fashion. Coming out here was a very different change, I think. You play with people, and they’re like, “What should we wear for the first show?” And I’m like, “What are you talking about, wear? Whatever you want to wear.”
How has LA influenced the way you dress?
LA has definitely been huge because of the vintage stores here. It’s not necessarily big in other cities. New York dabbles, you know, but I almost feel ashamed for buying new clothes here.
Are there any people who have influenced your style, the way you present yourself?
I really love Tom Waits, who’s an LA musician. He’s definitely got great style, just like a classic musician. Along those same lines, Ian Curtis of Joy Division would fit into that. Nick Cave would fit into that.
You’ve talked about how much you love 1970s music. What’s special about it?
The sound. I like the recording in the early 1970s. Listen to Neil Young records or Sly And The Family Stone records. The 1960s, when you listen to those recordings, they’re pretty rough, and then when you start to get into the late 1970s, early 1980s, it’s just way too much. The 1970s was just a nice sweet spot where everything is warm, and sounds beautiful to me. I connect with that. Usually, when I find an album that I love that’s old, I’m like, of course! It’s from 1972. That’s the year.
Does that 1970s warmth influence the way you dress?
I’m keeping it real relaxed over here. So, yeah, I think it definitely has an influence on the way I dress. I don’t like to be uncomfortable. I don’t think you really need to do that with clothes. You can look good and be comfortable at the same time.
Tough question: how do you choose a guitar?
It’s probably similar to clothes. When you find something that’s good, it just feels good. It feels right. The guitars I’ve bought in the store, there was one on the wall that I tried out every time that I would come here. Every time I picked it up, it was just like, I want to take this home. When you get a new guitar, usually there’s always an immediate starting of new things. If I have problems writing, getting a new instrument is always a solution.
How many guitars do you have?
Too many. It’s bad. My apartment is pretty stuck. I had to get a storage space. That’s how bad it is. Yeah, Ruben knows. The store knows. There’s a long period of time where I didn’t feel comfortable spending money on guitars. I just was working at a record store before, and a nice guitar was $500. Eventually, somebody convinced me. They were like, “This is what you do. You should buy instruments.” And it just… I went too far, apparently.