When songwriter and Charlotte native Benji Hughes releases his debut album on New West Records in July, don't expect the standard 10-song new artist introduction. “A Love Extreme” is a rare 25-track debut double album that's meant to move your mind and booty. It's hard to remember the last time, if ever, a label released a double album by a new artist.
“They wanted to make it a triple,” Hughes jokes, sitting in a booth at Snug Harbor on a recent evening, his striped polo shirt shadowed by the long straight strawberry blonde hair and massive beard that make him instantly recognizable.
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“Benji's a rare artist,” says Cameron Strang, president of Hughes' label, which is also home to Kris Kristofferson, Ben Lee, John Hiatt and Steve Earle. “There was a little back and forth, but this was Benji's vision.”
Hughes brings that vision to audiences this week when he opens for friends Rilo Kiley, whose vocalist/indie-rock it-girl Jenny Lewis he befriended while living in Los Angeles. He opens for them Wednesday at The Orange Peel in Asheville and Thursday at The Music Farm in Charleston before stopping Friday at Snug Harbor for a solo show to celebrate the release of the five-song EP “A Little Extreme” that serves as a preview to the album.
“We're all fans of his music,” says Rilo Kiley's bassist, Pierre de Reeder. “He's an unlikely love-song writer. He's got great songs and he's a funny dude.”
Starting at Milestone Club
Knowing Hughes, de Reeder is surprised that he hasn't released an album or toured extensively yet. “You meet him and see him (play) and he seems like one of those guys that's been doing it forever, yet it's all fresh.”
In a way, he has been doing it forever – over half his life. Hughes, who will be 33 this month, began playing music at age 12 while growing up around the Idlewild Road and Harris Boulevard area. At 16 he played his first solo show.
“This kid comes in on a Friday night going, ‘What do you have to do to play your songs here?'” remembers Penny Craver, who booked Hughes' first show while managing The Milestone Club. “Something struck me about him. So I said, ‘Just come back tomorrow and we'll give you 15 minutes before the first band goes on.' He came back the next night with an acoustic guitar and he was just marvelous. He hooked people right away, so we kept booking him. He became a mainstay.”
Still in his teens, Hughes formed Muscadine with Jonathan Wilson in 1995. (Wilson plays on Elvis Costello's recent CD “Momofuku” and is also in Hughes' band.) The group signed with Sire Records, hung out with Joey Ramone, and in 1997 released an album whose title, “The Ballad of Hope Nicholls,” referenced another Charlotte music fixture – the singer for Fetchin' Bones and Sugarsmack (who was also on Sire).
Hughes then moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a songwriter for a music publisher. He wrote and recorded the “Got a little Captain in ya?” jingle for Captain Morgan's Rum and penned the track “Let's Duet” for the 2007 John C. Reilly fictional music biopic “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” He also contributed a track to the 2007 Kate Beckinsale film “Snow Angels.” Los Angeles presented him with opportunities he couldn't find here, but after six years he moved home in February 2007. He divides his time between both cities.
“There are more places to eat in L.A. that I love. There are great people that aren't here, but I love Charlotte most,” he says. "My friends are here. It's a lot more laid-back. I never wanted to leave. I just left to go work.”
Although “A Love Extreme” was written largely with current bandmate and renowned L.A. session musician Keefus Ciancia in sunny California, it has Charlotte connections. The Central Avenue Dairy Queen pops up in one song, while the playful “I Went With Some Friends to See the Flaming Lips” serves as a shout-out to Charlotte friends.
“I definitely wanted to make something you could throw on at a party,” Hughes says. The completed double album is an original collection of Hughes' low, slightly husky singing and detailed, often humorous storytelling. Like Beck and Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt, his style is equal parts electro-funk and folk. His beats and melodies are fun and funky, but his storytelling is anchored in a tangible world. Whether he's praising a girl in a “Tight Tee Shirt” or lamenting the drunken end of a party, it's easy to imagine him in the settings he describes. Even in the historical fantasy world he creates in “Girl in the Tower,” the ultimate, fairy-tale love song that opens the second disc, he paints a vivid picture of a bearded knight rescuing a princess.
“To me he's just a brilliant songwriter,” says Strang. “We (at the label) all love his personality, character, and artistry.”
“A Love Extreme” is set for a July 22 release.