Benjamin Booker has a serious confession. He wishes that he could rhapsodize about his years studying journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Or the nose for breaking news that he developed while writing for countless publications over that four-year period. But the student had ulterior motives for attending class. “I don’t think I ever wanted to be a journalist—I was more interested in what comes from being a journalist,” he admits, sighing. “I just liked interviewing people, so I did music stuff. But also I would go out and interview, like, funeral home directors or random business owners in this small Florida town. Even when I interviewed bands, it was about asking them about writing songs, so it was more for me than anybody else.”
There was a time, post-college, when the kid actually thought he might have to settle for a permanent reporter gig somewhere. What else could he possibly do to make a living? He secretly wondered. But two brief years ago, he started penning songs instead of articles—brutal, punk-fueled perambulators like “Wicked Waters,” “Violent Shiver,” and “Have You Seen My Son,” combined with the slower, more thoughtful blues dirges “Spoon Out My Eyeballs” and “I Thought I Heard You Screaming,” all sung in an inimitable scratchy warble that might have been lifted straight off some obscure old 10-inch 78. His self-titled debut—recorded in analog in Nashville, with Andrija Tokic producing—just hit shelves, on the hip ATO imprint, whose exec Jon Salter signed Booker after witnessing a single 30-minute adrenaline rush of a concert.
How did this dramatic shift occur? Long story, laughs Booker, who now resides in a city more hospitable to his retro-R&B bent, New Orleans. College played a part. “There are a lot of really good skills you get from doing journalism—it completely changed my world and how I interact with other people,” he believes. His surroundings were crucial, as well. “I went to school in Gainesville because it was a huge punk and folk town,” he adds. “So I went to class twice a week, and then I went to shows and wrote. I did a lot of music writing before I actually started playing music.”
Another element? Musically gifted University of Florida acquaintances, like Hundred Waters vocalist Nicole Miglis. He still remembers the day she dropped by his apartment to play the band’s just-finished debut disc for his roommate, who moonlighted as their photographer. “I was like ‘What the fuck?! This is really good!’ And now I listen to Hundred Waters all the time,” he says. It was an eye-opening discovery—a songwriter could remain isolated in Gainesville, and create something completely original that would resonate, reverberate around the world. Rock writing filled in the blanks on his hazy world view. “I had never really traveled, and I just wanted to know what was happening in the world outside of my small town,” he continues. So he interviewed every musician he could, mostly punk rockers, like his favorite group No Age.
Booker’s day job figured into to the equation, too. He worked at Mojo Books and Records, which doubled as a coffee shop, and spent his eight-hour shifts drinking java, reading books, and listening to whatever albums piqued his curiosity. Bands like Merchandise would frequently play concerts at the shop, too. “So it was the ideal work right before I started playing music—that indie bookstore was just great,” he says. When he first began composing, on acoustic guitar in his bedroom, he thought he’d be punk, as well. He was 22, and still young and angry. “But I found out that a lot of punk bands I listened to as a kid were going back and listening to the blues. So that’s how I found the blues, and I’ve been listening to it ever since,” explains the singer, who just turned 25.
But it was one particular conversation that finally put Booker’s train on adventurous new track. Towards the end of college, he was interviewing author—and fellow rock critic—Chuck Klosterman, and bemoaning his vague future. “And Chuck had the coolest job ever, where he writes about, say, Britney Spears in an essay and gets paid for it,” Booker marvels. “But he said ‘Listen – if you have a job that you don’t like, think about it. You’re either sleeping or working this job that you hate, and you only have a third of your entire life to yourself. And that’s ridiculous—you’ve got to do something that you like, or else everything is just a complete waste.’ And I said ‘Chuck, you’re absolutely right.’ And that was around the time that I started writing music—spending less time working and more time doing the things I enjoyed.”
Initially, the newcomer was only backed by a drummer, Max Norton; Now, he’s added bassist Alex Spoto for extra oomph. His first anthems came out in a cathartic punk/R&B blast, starting with the propulsive, fervent powerhouse “Have You Seen My Son.” And as soon as he’d written it, he knew that he’d nailed it, perfected his unique approach. His sound isn’t easy to dissect, he admits. “But I knew that I wanted classic and punk guitars, with Gospel and blues melodies and really driving drums. And I knew that I didn’t want a lot of solos. I wanted something crisp, something that would get people riled up. I’d been going to Black Lips shows, shows that were terrifying. You’d fear for your life if you were at these shows, but you left them feeling like you’d gone through some religious experience. And that fit perfectly with the kind of stuff I wanted to do. I was combining a lot of everything, you know?”
Booker didn’t suspect it at first. But his journalism studies had left him with a sharp eye for storytelling detail that added an extra authenticity to his material. His songs ring true. Some cut so close to the bone, in fact, that he has difficulty discussing them, like “Violent Shiver,” concerning the real-life murder of a close friend’s father. “Have You Seen My Son” doesn’t have happy origins, either, he adds. It’s rooted in an argument he had with his parents on a hospital visit to his ailing cousin. “He was 12 years old, but he ended up dying a month later, and those kinds of trips—especially when you know the person is probably not going to make it—always make you think about your relationships with other people,” he says. “My parents are very religious people, and I’m kind of the opposite. And on that drive, I realized that my parents were always going to be a little bit disappointed in me. Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a different world.”
Booker’s universe is crazy enough. He’s gotten to be pals with other like-minded outfits like Palma Violets and Parquet Courts, and Jack White personally requested him as an opening act. He hasn’t met the head of his ATO label, Dave Matthews, but he’s got his fingers crossed. “And there are some other things coming up later this year that are just…just ridiculous, but I can’t talk about them yet,” he promises. Bottom line: He’ll most likely be earning a lot more than your average rock journalist in 2014. “That’s another reason I couldn’t be a writer,” he concludes. “I had student loans! I was working at Mojo and thinking ‘I can’t do this much longer.’ So I worked for this nonprofit for a year, working at schools and rebuilding houses, and because of that, I got a few years off to not pay back my student loan.
“And student loans now are the same thing as mortgages. So I knew that in these few years, I really had to try and do the music thing.”