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New Orleans Emerging Musicians: Aaron Benjamin

Aaron Benjamin (Photo: Katie Sikora)

Just about three years ago, I walked out of One Eyed Jacks with the lead singer and saxophonist of Stoop Kids after they headlined a packed show to get some air and smoke a cigarette. That was when Aaron Benjamin rushed me as soon as we stepped outside the front doors. He was energetic, enthusiastic, and confident (and still is) and kept telling me how he couldn’t wait for us to work together.

I remember thinking something along the lines of I’m tired, I’m sweaty, can’t you just text me like everyone else? But Aaron is not like everyone else. He realized early on that if he didn’t love his music, then no one else would either. He invited me to hear his unrecorded songs and demos before we ever shot together. And it worked, leading me to cover him and his band for the better part of a year. Now, a year after recording his debut album, I spoke with him again about his music and his love for the city we all call home.

Aaron Benjamin (Photo: Katie Sikora)

KS: Where did you grow up and how did you end up in New Orleans?

AB: I grew up in Huntington Woods, Mich., 10 minutes north of Detroit. I moved here [to New Orleans] because I immediately connected with the music scene during my first visit, both in terms of the city’s sounds and the culture for musicians.

KS: Describe your method and approach to your music.

AB: The music is indicative of where I come from and where I am now. Before I moved to New Orleans and put a band together, I was an acoustic singer-songwriter, writing alone in my bedroom with an acoustic guitar. Most of my songs still start that way. Even my most instrumentally complex tunes were conceived and refined in an acoustic setting. I think that a great song, no matter how intricate the arrangement, should be able to stand on its own with just one instrument accompanying. I use this process to develop songs at a fundamental level.

That said, throughout the writing process, I’m envisioning the full band playing it. When the band gets together, I’ll show them a new song, give them the general idea of what I’m hearing for each instrument, and then they will begin developing their own take. I’m very lucky to play with some exceptional musicians who add unique, powerful elements to the sound.

At its core, it’s a rock band. Big, over-driven guitars and heavy drums. But, in part to my upbringing, the Motown sound contributes immensely to the vocal melodies. And then there’s a brass band element. Trombone Shorty has been a huge influence since I was very young but I had never heard a real brass band until I moved to New Orleans. When I heard “Casanova” by Rebirth Brass Band for the first time, it was like somebody hit a reset button on my musical mind and created a soulful garage rock sound with hard-hitting New Orleans brass.

Aaron Benjamin (Photo: Katie Sikora)

KS: What has been your favorite performance experience in New Orleans thus far?

AB: Last May we played a sold-out show at Tipitina’s. When you’re on that stage, it feels like you’re actively taking part in the city’s musical history. It’s an honor and a privilege to experience that. Equally memorable, but in a very different sense, was our album release show at Gasa Gasa. That night was the culmination of a journey I had started before moving to New Orleans. It was a celebration not only of the album itself, but the friendships forged along the way to make up a band that felt like family.

KS: Which New Orleans musicians most inspire you?

AB: I am inspired daily by the musicians in this city and I am fortunate enough to have mentors who continue to provide insight and guidance in my career. Jesse McBride – a Tulane professor and leader of the Next Generation – has played a major role in the way I understand what it means to relentlessly hone your craft. He’s pushed me to be a better musician and provided invaluable insight into what it means to be a band leader. I am also grateful for my relationship with Chris Finney. We first met just prior to recording my first album that he went on to produce. Since then, our relationship has grown into a great friendship. His advice grounds me: focus on writing the best songs possible and the rest will come together organically.

I think from an artistic standpoint, my number one New Orleans inspiration has to be Trombone Shorty. I’ve been listening to his music since I was 12 or 13 years old. Before the idea of moving to New Orleans was even on my radar, his sound influenced the way I wrote songs. I’m also a huge fan of Tank and the Bangas and think the whole world should stop what they’re doing and watch their Tiny Desk video. The music is futuristic yet somehow feels like it’s been inside of us all along. And their live shows are electrifying. I’m really excited to see what they do in the coming years.

Dominic Minix, known by his moniker Young Vul, at Preservation Hall might be the best show I’ve seen since moving to New Orleans. He has since made his new home base Los Angeles but I think he’s onto something very, very special.

Much of the inspiration I experience day-to-day comes from my band mates and peers. Everyone in my band has opened me up to new ways of approaching music. And when I see guys like Ari Teitel and Andrew Yanovski at the Maple Leaf, honoring this incredible tradition of New Orleans funk and continuing that legacy for our generation, I feel inspired by the timelessness of the New Orleans sound.

Aaron Benjamin (Photo: Katie Sikora)

KS: Favorite place to catch live music in NOLA?

AB: There’s so many types of shows and places to see them in. The Maple Leaf and Tipitina’s are institutions and the latter is without a doubt my favorite venue to play. If DJ Soul Sister is at One Eyed Jacks on a Friday or Saturday night, I’m there. I think Three Keys at Ace Hotel does a great job of curating interesting, meaningful shows. Definitely the most underrated is a packed room at Gasa Gasa. When you get a small space like that and you pack 200 people inside, the energy is palpable. I love how close the stage is to the floor. It really feels like rock n’ roll.

KS: What is your favorite non-musical activity to do in New Orleans?

AB: Eating.

KS: Favorite food to eat in NOLA?

AB: Breakfast: Camellia Grill’s Chef Special omelet, pressed waffle; Egg, ham, and goat cheese sandwich with a Nola iced coffee at French Truck; Mother’s biscuits; Bloody Mary from Tracy’s.

Lunch: Pork belly tacos from Mint Modern; #14 Bahn mi at Dong Phuong; Chef special roll from Mikimoto; Oysters from Cooter Brown’s.

Dinner: Roasted cauliflower with whipped goat cheese from Domenica; Crawfish alligator cheesecake from Jacques-Imo’s (also get a sazerac while you’re there); Sizzling oysters from GW Fins; Spicy brisket ramen from Kin; Lamb alicha from Cafe Abyssinia; Catfish plate at  Prime Example.

But the single best thing I’ve consumed since moving to New Orleans is Aurelien Barnes – the trumpet player in our band, Cha Wa, and Kings of Brass – mom’s king cake. It’s prepared differently than a traditional king cake – more like an almond croissant kind of deal and it’s totally lights out.

Aaron Benjamin (Photo: Katie Sikora)

KS: Where would you like to see your career as a musician go in the future?

AB: I love the experience of writing a song, bringing it to life with the band, and performing it. I want to do that at the highest level possible, performing for as many people as possible. I want to write songs that stick with people and become part of the soundtrack of their lives, not just my own. Within a few years, I’d like to be touring as much as I’m home. I want music to be the means by which I see the world and connect with new people and places.

KS: When is your next show?

AB: Thursday, Feb. 28 at the House of Blues Foundation Room.

KS: What do you love most about this city?

AB: Every night is a new opportunity. Either you’re playing, or your friends are playing, or one of your heroes is playing down the street.

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