Photo: Louis Browne

Alec Benjamin

With the release of new album '12 Notes,' Alec Benjamin is content with his preexisting success. He's also hungry for more: "I'm pretty impatient. I want it, and I want it now."

When singer-songwriter Alec Benjamin was broached with the idea of him as this generations Paul Simon, he took a long, serious pause to consider this. The first, and only, quiet moment of the 30-minute interview that took place less than 12 hours before the release of his latest album, 12 Notes.

Such a claim, to those who idol worship Simon, the legendary musician arguably as equally known for his work with Art Garfunkel as he is for own material, might seem blasphemous, but there is merit to it.

During Benjamin’s come up in 2017-2018, the music industry was dominated by artists such as Drake, Cardi B, and Post Malone enjoying career-defining strings of hits. So where did a quiet, gawkily endearing singer-songwriter with an alto-leaning range fit into what was essentially a blitz of braggadocious, chin-up hip-hop? Truthfully, he didn’t. Looking back, Simon & Garfunkel’s breakthrough came just past the midway point of the 60’s, easily the most musically competitive and quantitative decade in modern music history.

A mix of virality, timing, and a bit of mystique allowed Benjamin to bulldoze his way onto the scene with storyteller-based pop tunes such as “Water Fountain,” “Boy in The Bubble,” and “Let Me Down Slowly,” each with understated yet respectful hip-hop elements. The music established him as a tangible human being creating characters and building worlds that listeners begun to desperately cling onto, not a “celebrity” puffing out his chest. Just like Simon.

His new record 12 Notes, out now, sees him continue to find new ways, lyrically, sonically, and vocally, to explore versions and facets of himself that he is still coming to terms with. It’s almost like Paul Simon did that, too.

An Unclaimed Spot 

Following the release of “Different Kind Of Beautiful,” the lead-ish single of this record this past October, Benjamin began to ease his way back into promo mode by virtue of podcasts. He often spoke of his inability to feel secure in the music industry… of feeling like, despite his success, he has not yet claimed his spot.

“I feel like I’ve always had this fear… I think it’s rational, or maybe it’s not, of feeling like it’s going to be my last time to do something,” he said, expanding on those prior interview anecdotes. “To have the opportunity to perform and make music for people… it felt like a pipe dream for a long time. Getting to do it almost doesn’t feel real. When I get to perform, sing my songs, and put out records, it’s like, ‘What if I never get to do this again?’ I just don’t feel like I’ve made it yet.”

“The horizon is always moving,” he continued. “You want to do THIS thing, then… the NEXT thing. In the shadow of having a big song like ‘Let Me Down Slowly,’ and having that pressure of, ‘Will I ever do it again?’ It’s like… I don’t know if I need to, but I’d like to, and it’s hard.”

When approached with the idea of “Devil Doesn’t Bargain,” a semi-surprise hit from his 2022 record (Un)Commentary, acting as a stepping stone towards hitting that peak once again, Benjamin perked up, shifting from laying on his side, propped on his elbow, to a sitting position.

“Here’s the thing… like, IT GOT, it… it HAD, I think now, like, okay,” he said excitedly, his quirkiness on full display. “When I put out ‘Let Me Down Slowly,’ Spotify was the only act in town in terms of how people were discovering music,” he said. “It was easier to propel that song through the ranks. Then with ‘Devil…,’ it was ALL in the fate of TikTok. Now that song is having another moment. I think, over time, things even out. I also think everything is so fickle because I’m pretty impatient. I want it, and I want it now. That leads me to do a lot of things I’m not necessarily proud of. I’m kind of just stepping back now. I’m not going to be so thirsty to try and have another hit. Ultimately, I can’t control those things.”

12 Notes 

“12 Notes,” the title track of the record, appears to be somewhat of a musical summary of the project. It is a well-orchestrated, well-sung, and skillfully-layered track in which Benjamin sings about struggling to create a work of art with only the basics at his fingertips. He, however, wasn’t sure if could give the song that distinction.

“I feel like it is in a way,” he said, expressing that the theme of music, in a literal sense, surrounding it may be a more critical aspect of the song than the message. “But I feel like the song that most summarizes the record would be the song I did with Khalid, ‘Ways To Go.’ It summarizes the feeling of, ‘I still have a long way to go before I feel secure… before I have my moment again.”

On “Ways To Go,” Benjamin lent himself completely to the R&B stars cadences and inflections. It was an engrossing approach by Benjamin who often fills up his space with dense wordplay rather than melismatic singing.

He allows himself to be molded by the R&B-trap influence of a Kid LAROI or a Trevor Daniel on “In Your Arms.” “Sacrifice Tomorrow” leans into electronic dance pop. “By Now,” a favorite among a close-knit subset of fans, contains his most impressive vocals on the project. “Lead Me To Water,” with one of the records most regimented yet memorable melodic lines, hinges on a similar kind of minimalist religious imagery he has touched on in sparse doses throughout his catalog.

Musically, the highlight of the project is unquestionably “I Sent My Therapist To Therapy,” though “The Arsonist,” a song of apology to his mother written after a quarrel, is a close second. The latter could have landed on any of Benjamin’s prior records, whereas “Therapist…” acts as the fully realized venture into twisted, skittering trap darkness that “Match In The Rain,” off These Two Windows, and “Shadow Of Mine,” off (Un)Commentary, intentionally land just shy of.

Maximizing Space 

The musical ground these new songs break, considering he has not, outside of Narrated For You track “Death Of A Hero,” gone to such musical extremes, lend themselves to more of a stage show…  a performance. Nevertheless, when it comes to his upcoming tour, Benjamin doesn’t want to overthink it.

“I went way too produced on my last tour, and I learned that that is not what works for me,” he said. “The most important thing are my lyrics and my voice, so I’m going to strip my band back and do a three-piece. I want to not worry so much about the presentation and worry more about the content I’m performing.”

Over time, he has worried about maximizing his use of the space, and questioned whether he could do so. “I watched so many hip-hop artists and people in big bands, and, because a lot of my music is mid-tempo, as the venues got bigger, I was like, ‘How am I going to entertain all these people? I need to change the arrangement… it needs to be louder.’ Then, when I did it, I realized that if people are at the show, chances are they are not a casual fan, and I just need to show them who I am. Who I am is my voice and my guitar.”

Photo: Louis Browne

Homeward Bound

Just him and his guitar, playing songs, new and old, that have struck a chord with those who see themselves in the heart and honesty of Benjamin’s earnestness, insecurities, and desire to tell conventional stories in unconventional ways. Benjamin, for a time, was consumed with returning to the success level of his early work. Now, he is learning to appreciate what he can still accomplish with the music he has the leverage and tenure to create.

Like Paul Simon, a respected figurehead of his era but never the defining star, Benjamin can rest easy knowing that he, in fact, does have a spot reserved for him in this industry. One he has earned, and one he will keep.

Stream 12 Notes: