If you’ve listened to him, you don’t forget his sound. If you’ve watched him, you don’t forget his look. So why has so much of Charlotte never heard of Benji Hughes?
If you’ve been around here the last 10 years, you’ve probably passed him trudging along Thomas Avenue, hair and beard streaming around a favored hoodie. Or you might have nodded at him from across a bar in Plaza Midwood as he sipped a Guinness. You probably didn’t figure he’d just returned from recording jingles in New York, or was flying to L.A. tomorrow to write a song with Alice Cooper.
Hughes’ work has been pronounced “effortless” (Esquire), “Beck-esque” (Pitchfork) and “sublime” (Rolling Stone), and New York magazine has called him “the best songwriter you’ve never heard of.” He’s written hooks that might still be rattling around in your head, for such disparate products as Captain Morgan rum and Cheerios. His songs have shown up in the TV series “How I Met Your Mother” and the Judd Apatow film “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” Jackson Browne pulled him onstage during a Charlotte gig; Jeff Bridges asked him to sing on a record he made with T Bone Burnett (and included him in a video, too).
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Those Charlotteans who do know about him have known for years. He became a fixture on the local music scene as a teenager in the ’90s, with first band Muscadine. Now he plays periodically at tiny Snug Harbor (Christmas night 2015, for one), between shows in Los Angeles (the Times just decided he’s “brilliant and demented”) and playing the occasional island wedding.
It was his 2008 double solo album, “A Love Extreme,” that caught the national media’s ear. Did it sell hundreds of thousands of copies? No. But reviews were enthusiastic, earning it cult-classic status. And though he’s released three albums digitally in the interim, his new two-disc effort, “Songs in the Key of Animals,” is his first national release with label backing since “Love.” Durham’s Grammy-winning Merge Records put it out in late January.
It’s a very different record from “Love,” and may surprise fans who aren’t privy to the trajectory between the two. He’s populated the new tracks with female guest vocalists, and the release highlights his particular brand of humor. That humor was on display – through random commentary dotted with vivid impersonations of Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins and Ernie from “Sesame Street” – in two recent conversations. Hughes, now 40, opened up about songwriting, his history in music, the kind of album he wanted to make, and those not-quite “lost years” between the two albums. The conversation, edited for brevity, offers a look at Hughes’ thought process, and how one thing leads to another with him.
After “A Love Extreme,” I thought I must do something that stands up to that – at least. I can’t top it.
Q: The new album is really its own entity. It doesn’t sound like “A Love Extreme: The Sequel.”
A: After “A Love Extreme,” I thought I must do something that stands up to that – at least. I can’t top it. You should never attempt to top something that is magical, because that’s just bad magic. Keefus (Ciancia, a musician/producer) that I did that record with, and all these great musicians (helped “Love” happen). I was a balladeer, basically. I would write these sad songs – everything you don’t want to run into. You want to go out and have a night on the town, you don’t want to run into a guy with a guitar playing. There was no way to make (“A Love Extreme” again).
Q: Your deep voice is what I expected on the record. Hearing the girls, I was confused at first.A: I really thought about it a lot. There’s so much bummer stuff happening all the time, and everybody is so serious. I would like to bring a little levity into the situation... What is it I love listening to? Sade makes me feel groovy. That makes everybody feel groovy in the world. From the ’80s, if I was going to pick my favorite song, it would be “I Can’t Wait” by Nu Shooz. What do all these things keep having in common? I like to listen to “I Love How You Love Me.” The Paris Sisters (he sings “I love how your eyes close whenever you kiss me”): It sounds different with a chick singing (he repeats the phrase, in falsetto). It’s a Phil Spector production and nobody’s too crazy about that cat. But you have to separate the art from the artist. If everybody started doing that, you’d never be able to listen to a song. It was kind of neat how there was more distance in the past. You couldn’t get on the Internet and be wigging out over how someone eats their laundry or gets their burrito done. You know what I’m saying?
Q: How did you choose the women who sang on the record?
A: I worked with Mary Wood (a “Songs” co-producer, for whose Frisbie music production company Hughes has written commercial jingles). It’s her studio. Sometimes it would be by accident. There’s a girl that worked running the phones. As I’m recording, I’m writing the songs. I’d say, “Hey, come down here. I want to see what it sounds like with a girl singing on it.” And she nailed it. Sometimes you have an idea. You vibe it out and see what happens.
Q: That’s such an old-school kind of ’60s or ’70s story. That girl may be telling this story someday: “That was my big break!” Did you have a certain vision that you were going for?
A: I say it a lot: “vibe.” There are a lot of themes about summer on there, there’s some winter. There’s different seasons, and animals. I noticed that theme happening. It’s a loose thing. I certainly don’t go: “I really need another giraffe song on here” or “I need to squeeze some elephants in on this jam.” It did start appearing to me that this is what was going on. Once I started seeing it happen, I went with it.
Q: There was a lot of love for “A Love Extreme.”A: The people that got the album loved it. A lot of people talk to me about that record. I think it’s awesome. (For “Songs”) I wanted to make the kind of record I wanted to listen to. I love listening to the girls sing. You can hear the party vibe in the studio. It’s coming out of the speakers. There’s something about the spontaneity. These songs feel so fresh.
Q: How did you get into music in the first place?
(Hughes grew up splitting time between Charlotte with his mom and rural Tennessee with his dad. He recalls, at age 13, playing Nintendo games and listening to entire classic catalogs by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix on cassette.)
A: I remember hearing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (by George Jones). I was in the back of a black Ford and it wasn’t quite dark. I was 4 or 5. I just got hit so hard. When John Lennon got shot I remember thinking of that song. It just broke me up, that story. A lot more than other kids, I was just really, really into it. My aunt Maxie had a plastic guitar in her closet and I started playing that, going nuts on it. I went to stay with my dad and he saw how much I was into it, and I put my first guitar on layaway. It was a Kay Starter Series guitar and Gorilla amplifier. It was $144. I got this card and would make little payments on it. I didn’t get an allowance. We lived in a trailer. It was like ‘Here’s your initial down payment, here’s your card and here you go.’ I was hustling as a kid in a country setting. I immediately went into learning (Aerosmith’s) “Dream On.” “Dream On” on guitar ain’t no joke. “Eighteen,” Alice Cooper (he hums the intro): I felt like I was the man. Just playing that riff.
Q: Between these albums, you’ve kept busy with jingle work. I think to outsiders there’s this mystery: How is he living between these records?
A: I believe in mystery and having some of that. I believe that’s what’s going to keep somebody’s relationship alive: “Close the bathroom door and let me know if you need a towel.” The commercial thing: I love it. It’s fun. I wish I could do more of it. I absolutely love any kind of a challenge – musically. I never want to be on “Fear Factor.” I don’t want anything to do with that kind of vibe. But when it comes to a musical challenge, it’s interesting and fun. There’s not like a Hans Zimmer of commercials. Mary is pretty much magical.
Q: Hearing the records in between this and “A Love Extreme” (he released three – titled “XXOXOXX,” “OXOXOXOXOX” and “LILILIL – digitally in 2014) helps connect the dots. “LILILIL” is a totally different record, this outer-space fairy tale. Is that Jeff Bridges doing the voice?
A: I’m not going to say it’s not. It’s a magical, fantastical journey. The person, whether male or female, I decided to give that part (to) seemed to be perfect for it. (He pauses.) It’s Jan-Michael Vincent.
Q: Oh, boy (through laughter). But I’ve read you’re friends with Jeff Bridges.
A: Yeah, it’s Jeff. It’s a really sweet thing he did. As weird as it is to know somebody like Jackson Browne or Jeff Bridges. “Starman” was one of my favorite movies growing up. Jackson Browne took me to see “The Wall” at Staples Center and he picked me up in his vehicle. So Jackson Browne drives. It’s never not going to be weird. I’m always going to be like “That’s Jackson Browne.” There’s no way I can detach from that – one of the greatest songwriters, singers, one of the greatest artists of our times. It’s never going to be not a little far out to be friends with people like those people, the Jackson Brownes and the Jeff Bridges. Those cats are friends. I guess they’re friends because I don’t bug them all the time, but sometimes I am like, “Leave the Starman message on my (phone)” or “Hey, do this part, on this thing.” They’re very cool.
Q: In any of the arts today, people really have to figure out new ways to get paid for their work. You saw some of that wine-me-dine-me thing when you were with Muscadine, didn’t you?
A: I got to see it in a little bit of its heyday. By the time “A Love Extreme” was around, (the music business) had been falling apart for years. You just have to do things different. That’s the exciting thing. My band played a really cool wedding not long ago. I like doing birthday parties and weddings. Some of that stuff is really fun. I like doing club shows, but in the world we live in now, you can throw a party and get a few of your friends to throw some bread in (and) we’ll come play your house. Everything is changing up so much and it’s kind of neat to experience these different modes. I’m not advertising for Uber, but you know how there was taxi service, and now there’s a different service that’s more convenient? There’s different aspects, different zones, and a more personal experience (in music now).
I don’t think people know how accessible artists can be. Obviously there’s a point where you have to operate above that level, but you can still do things. I’m not Madonna-famous and wouldn’t want to be. It’s really about musicians and making music and having fun and other people enjoying it. I think that’s going to be exciting – and good for everybody.