WHO THE HELL IS... GARRIN BENFIELD

Garrin Benfield, where are you from?

I was born and raised in Northern Westchester County, NY. I'm the youngest of nine kids, and for a window of time, we all lived together with three or four dogs, and a million hangers-on and friends of friends. I am the youngest by far, so I had a lot of opportunities to observe my brothers and sisters during their teenage rebellion. By the time I came around, my parents knew all the tricks in the book.

What artist(s) inspired you to start playing music?

First and foremost, the people who inspired me to play were my parents and siblings. We were partiers, and music always played a huge role in us doing our thing. Bands played in our backyard, my brother rehearsed with his group in our living room, my sisters sang beautiful harmony and played piano, my dad would sing old barbershop or Sinatra melodies (late, late night), my mom sang and now still does in a church choir. And then when I was eight or nine I got my first Beatles album for my birthday and I felt like I had awoken to another dream world. Like, how could this music have existed without my knowing about it, for this long? (I thought, at eight years old). Then the Dead, CSNY, Credence, Joni, Dylan, Doors, Neil Young, then a bit later the Cure, Smiths, and a bit later still, the Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, and on and on to Phish, Aimee Mann, Radiohead, and Gillian Welch.

How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard you before?

I like the phrase "acoustic guitar-driven rock" or "freestyle acoustic rock." I've used both. My music includes elements of earthy, song-based folk, psychedelic rock, and '60s pop rock. I like strong melodies and hooks, concise improvisational statements, and a raw punk energy to emerge on stage. As a band or solo, I try to always take risks. When I play solo, I do a lot of looping on stage, both in the songs and also in the sense of creating completely new compositions on the spot. Sometimes I'll play a song of mine straight ahead, as it is on the record, and then the next night I'll hear something in the tune that I hadn't heard before and I'll jump on it and stretch the tune out as far as I can get it to go. Improvising is the reason I keep at it. I love the feeling of knowing that a new idea is just around the corner, that a song is never completely finished.

What have been some of the highlights of your career so far?

I started out playing bass in a band called Maya when I was a student at Hampshire College in Northampton, MA in the mid-90s. We had a pretty solid, local following. Maya was a jam-funk band and a lot of fun, but I wanted to get out and do my thing. Anyway, I really felt like a guitar player more than a bass player (that's what I'd been doing since I was a little kid). I moved out to San Francisco and picked up my acoustic and started doing shows around the city. I put together my first record, Living a Dream, and some folks (who are now great friends) who worked for Boz Scaggs got a hold of it and passed in on to him. He asked me to open for his summer tour. It was during that period that I met the guys from Bonnie Raitt's band and got them to work on my second album, Nowhere is Brighter. Getting to work with those guys (Ricky Fataar on drums, and Hutch Hutchinson on bass) in the studio was really a privilege. They hear a tune once and right away provide you with a lot of options. So the process was gratifying and fast paced. That record was a special thing and it really opened up a lot of doors for me. Acoustic Guitar Magazine and Performing Songwriter Magazine called it a "Top Ten CD of 2002."

We also released a live album earlier this year that I'm really happy with. It's a compilation of songs called August Live that roughly recreates the set we were playing last year while we were opening for Boz. I've always wanted to do a live record but never had the money to get the recordings just the way I wanted them to sound. We got lucky on that tour and were able to utilize the equipment that the headliner was using to record their set for a CD. The result was a great mix of the soundboard mix and several high-end room mics that gives you both the clarity of a multitrack recording and the energy of a show.

Along the way were some other highlights, like getting asked to play the NEMO conference and being a finalist in the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Troubadour Festival. Along that line, getting invited to play three shows at High Sierra and the Blue Ridge Harvest Fest down in Georgia meant a lot to me. Having a song from my record chosen to be added to the Not In Our Name compilation really was something that I was proud of. Not just because of the company I had on the disc but the cause itself made me feel like my music was making a difference. More recently, I've been playing shows with Dan Bern, both opening and sitting in with him. He is a great folk-punk songwriter with a sharp edge. All of the people I've played with have been highlights, really.

What's next for Garrin Benfield?

We just released our brand new studio CD called Where Joy Kills Sorrow. And as I write this letter, I'm in a van heading toward Buffalo on a national tour that'll take us just about everywhere before we're done. I'm touring as a duo now with Adrienne Geren on vocals. We're getting more radio and press attention with this new record, and more folks are coming out to the shows, so things are looking up. Either way, I'm going to stay on the road, keep making music and doing what I do. I also foresee my looping techniques becoming more sophisticated. I see a lot of possibilities with that technology.

JamBase | New York
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[Published on: 11/21/04]

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