“Brad Bensko” is the sound of one man exploring pop music
Even if every music scene doesn’t absolutely need its own Todd Rundgren or Paul McCartney — one of those gifted folks who can write songs, play any instrument, arrange and overdub every voice on a Queen album’s worth of harmonies, and/or produce the entire session with technical, empathetic and aesthetic aplomb — it’s nonetheless comforting to have one nearby. You never know what they’re capable of or what they might do.
Brad Bensko is one of those wizards. The Gales Ferry native, a longtime presence in the region’s clubs and studios, is at last releasing his self-titled debut CD and celebrates tonight with a performance in Westerly at the Knickerbocker Music Center. For the show, he’ll be joined by the Boston band Twisted Pine as well as musical pals Kathleen Parks, Matt Hamilton, Nick Cancelmo, Tyler Bensko, Bryan Briggs, Annie Raines, Nicholas Johns, and more.
For purposes of the album, though, Bensko, 29, pretty much played and sang every note in his own home studio, though he’s quick to credit Jason Banta, who helped mix the record, and Chris Rival, who mastered it.
“I have those perfectionist tendencies,” Bensko laughs, speaking by phone last week. “Making a solo album is something I’ve always wanted to do. The reality, though, was even once I decided to do it, it took about three years to get everything to happen because there were a lot of life’s distractions along the way.”
“Brad Bensko” is a happily ambitious album of 12 concise, smart, pop-rock tunes, composed with heart and exuberance, oozing melody, and produced with a vibrant sonic gloss like warm autumn sunshine. With a lovely tenor voice a bit reminiscent of Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook, Bensko’s songs will always be instantly identifiable and are rife with riverine verse and chorus melodies.
Listening to the album, it’s fun to pick out and identify Bensko’s influences. “Alexandra,” for example, could be an early Kinks gem just as “Long Gone” might have been discovered in a forgotten Buddy Holly steamer trunk. But “Brad Bensko” is anything but a recycling effort. Bensko has his own style as a writer, and tunes like “Tipping Point,” “Hindsight of Your Gaze” and “Winter Solstice Suite” are competitive with any artist making pop music anywhere.
“It’s been an interesting process,” Bensko says, “and (coming up with a set of songs for an album) was much different than what I envisioned.” He found himself writing in batches and, chronologically, various themes emerged in accordance with what was happening in his life. His grandmother, with whom he was very close, passed away; the reality of student loans kicked in; he was getting over a romantic relationship.
“I ended up writing 80 songs,” Bensko says. The tone of his voice suggests he sort of can’t believe it — not because it’s an impressive number (though it is), but because he was sufficiently moved and inspired to do so.
“It was a sad and tough period,” he says. “But I was processing everything and at least half of those songs came from that period. They were never going to end up on the record — but then some of them did. They forced me to change the record — and that’s OK. One of the things I love about music is that we all have these experiences — they can be great or tragic — and music is so cathartic. To play and write music is so cathartic and helps soften the blow a bit.”
In addition to being able to play virtually any instrument he picks up, Bensko graduated from the Berklee School of Music, where he majored in music production and engineering and minored in acoustics and electronics. After a short stint in Boston, fine-tuning his goals and testing various music-related possibilities, he returned to southeastern Connecticut. By day, he manages Vault Coffee Roaster in Mystic and gives music lessons. At night, he gigs whenever possible; sometimes solo, sometimes with a band and often in support of other artists. He also produces albums for other acts, including local acts such as Pocket Vinyl and White Veins.
It’s all part of a process and, looking back, Bensko supposes it was inevitable or even predestined.
“I can’t remember a time when music wasn’t something I took very seriously. I remember the first day of kindergarten, and my most vivid impression is of walking into the music room and hearing classical music playing. To this day, fall sounds to me like Bach or Chopin. I think that had a big influence on me, and to this day I associate months and seasons with certain songs or albums or artists.”
Bensko’s parents were very supportive of the kiddo’s desire to pursue music. His dad found a beat-up piano and hauled it into their home so Bensko could take lessons and practice. “I can’t thank my folks enough for how much they were behind me, and that piano sits in their house to this day.”
In addition to piano, Bensko eventually started learning just about any instrument he could get his hands on and, with those skills evolving, it also occurred to him to start writing his own music.
“I told a friend I wanted to write songs, and he just said to me, ‘The Beatles,‘” Bensko remembers. “I asked my dad about them and he handed me a copy of ‘Abbey Road.’ The classical music went out the window at that point and I became obsessed not just with the songs on ‘Abbey Road’ but also the production and the sound of the record. And that was immediately followed up with (The Beach Boys’) ‘Pet Sounds.’”
Because the sound and production of those records was such a huge part of the overall work, Bensko’s curiosity grew in the context of the equipment and gear of the time. He began to analyze not just the structure of classic pop songs but also the way they were recorded and arranged. “I wanted to write and make songs that had that depth and those textures,” he says.
He was able to find empathetic instruction at Berklee from Susan Rogers, a professor and sound engineer who worked with Prince, David Byrne and Barenaked Ladies. He also just immersed himself in the studio of analog studio technology, reel-to-reel machines, and performing sonic autopsies on the albums that epitomized the sound he’s after.
Slowly, this has come to fruition. He has acquired the vintage gear and instruments, and knows how to use them — and “Brad Bensko” is only the first of numerous other projects. He plans to tour behind the album, of course, and push it diligently through social media and the download/streaming culture. But he’s already recording a full-length album with his girlfriend, musician Kathleen Parks, and has plans to start his second solo album next year.
“I’ve poured a lot of heart and soul and time into this,” Bensko says. “It’s true I look to the past for a lot of influences and sonic possibilities, but I also know it’s a different world. As much as I might be a Luddite about some things, I think the Internet is a wonderful thing that levels the playing field for artists in so many ways. If I can create art that reaches people who still love music like this, there are so many possibilities.”
Brad Bensko lists and remarks on five of his favorite “one-man band” moments:
1. “Every Night” by Paul McCartney — “One of my favorite tracks off of his debut LP, I love the simplicity and space in the arrangement, and how he uses the drums sparingly until the chorus. I also love how the chorus is mostly word-less. The sentiment of the song is something I also find very relatable: Feeling restless, whether you’re busy or idle, and finding comfort in being near a loved one.”
2. “Mind Mischief” by Tame Impala — “This song demonstrates (Tame Impala’s) Kevin Parker’s genius at arrangement, with his riffs, the unconventional drumming, the interplay between the rhythms on all of the instruments — and the sound he got was PHENOMENAL.”
3. “It Takes Two To Tango” by Todd Rundgren — “This song broadened my idea of how to arrange and record a song, in particular his choices in percussion and his idea of speeding up his backing vocals on tape to sound like female backing singers.”
4. “Climb A Ladder” by Of Montreal — “I found this early in high school and was blown away that Kevin Barnes (leader) did this by himself: The complex arrangements, chord changes, harmonies, counterpoint in the instrumentation — and that bass line just dances between and glues together all of those chords so well.”
5. “How High The Moon” by Les Paul and Mary Ford — “Okay, this one isn’t completely a one person band, but close, and they recorded it all on their own. This is one of my favorite recordings of all time and such a great interpretation of a classic song. The sound is so smoky and fuzzy, but somehow still timeless despite being recorded over fifty years ago.”