Moving on and up: Benjamin Booker on guilt and growth

“I’m not that old but looking back as a black kid going to a punk show, people would hound you just for wearing Converse. It’s such a different world now.”

Benjamin Booker seemed to come crashing in out of nowhere in 2014 – guitar in hand – with songs that landed him on stages, late night television and radio the world over. His self-titled debut album reached grand heights both musically and critically, showing a flair for melding blues and garage influences with astute lyrical prowess.
Last year, the now 28-year-old released his follow up full-length, the wonderfully introspective Witness. In March and April this year, he’s bringing a new band, a new show and a new outlook to Australia for Bluesfest.
With the release of his song ‘Violent Shiver’ and the album that followed, the music world got to know Booker for his particularly startling brand of punk. It’s a genre he’s well-versed in, both as a fan and as a musician. As a teenager, he spent a lot of time going to shows, though he observes that the scene wasn’t nearly as inclusive or accessible as it presented. “I’m not that old but looking back as a black kid going to a punk show, people would hound you just for wearing Converse. It’s such a different world now. I think that people are able to see a different side of the black community. I think it’s changing for the better.”
Change is everywhere for Booker, especially on his new record, Witness. The sound is more expansive and he draws on influences that stretch from gospel to funk and back again. “It’s not all the same stuff,” he says.
Getting away from the same stuff seems to have been integral for Booker over the past 12 months or so. After spending the better part of two years touring his debut, earning high praise for a raucous live show, he packed up his life and moved to Los Angeles. “I was very trapped in New Orleans,” he says. He had his dream job, one he is quick to acknowledge he’s lucky to have, but when it was all said and done, he paused to find that things weren’t sitting quite right. “I wanted to play music and I’ve always done jobs related to music. It’s a cliche at this point. I knew that this was what happens to people.” New Orleans is a great place to get lost in, he explains. In fact, “That’s why people go there,” but after a while, being lost didn’t equate to being free.
The nature of touring matched with the expectation to follow up his debut with something equally as brilliant was enough for him to need to take a big step back. “Music becomes all-consuming,” he says as he details the time he spent between writing his first and sophomore albums. “I think that’s part of the reason why it gets easy to turn to drugs and drinking, because it’s hard to turn that off. You feel so much pressure to keep making stuff.”
A solo visit to Mexico City quickly followed his city-change and Witness began to take shape.  “It was a big deal for me to get away from the activities I was involved in and just be on my own,” he says. Self-imposed isolation, while not necessarily something the musician recommends, brought with it something akin to liberation. It was there that Booker seemed better able to process the world around him – in both the past and present tense.
“You’re never gonna be happy if you just keep carrying shit around from your childhood and your early-20s,” he says when discussing the song ‘Carry’, which from the very outset, explores self-forgiveness, doubt and guilt. Difficult things to process at the best of times, let alone when writing an album. That catharsis continues throughout Witness. “It was killing me,” he says. He laughs, but his voice is heavy as he repeats the words. “It was literally killing me. I was not in a good place. I think that song was me trying to talk myself into not going to that dark side.”
Though Witness isn’t an inherently political album, it’s difficult to separate the political from the personal. For his part, Booker says he prefers to look at what he can do rather than observe what he can’t prevent. When he isn’t touring, he volunteers his time to community projects. “My parents were big on that stuff. They made me start volunteering when I was 12,” he says, adding that while he certainly hated it at the time, it’s something he enjoys now.
Currently, he’s mentoring young people in creative writing. “You watch the news and think, ‘Oh my god the world is full of terrible people,’ and then you volunteer and you realise that there are some good people out there. I think it makes you feel better about the state of things.That’s where you can see change.”
His focus, city and approach to writing aren’t the only things that have changed. In terms of what audiences can expect when he touches down for Bluesfest, things are a lot more fleshed out. “It’s a full band this time,” which he says he finds makes for a more interesting live show. “You not only have the crazy loud bass notes but there are also songs that are basically just whispers. For me, that stuff is more exciting because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I think it’s going to be really fun.”

Benjamin Booker will perform at Byron Bay Bluesfest, taking place from Thursday March 29 until Monday April 2 featuring Lionel Ritchie, Robert Plant & The Sensational Space Shifters, Ms Lauryn Hill, Kesha, and more. He’ll headline the Corner Hotel on Saturday May 31, with support from Jade Imagine and Baby Blue.