Nashville, Tennessee; a pair of words that typically conjure up thoughts of steel guitars, cowboy hats and a thriving rock n’ roll community, and with good reason – over the years it’s been home to the likes of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, as well as outfits like The Black Keys. It’s home, too, to industrious solo artist and Raconteurs co-frontman Brendan Benson, and for the grassroots music scene he represents. 2012 has seen the launch of his very own Readymade Records, an independent label run largely by Brendan and his manager, and the release of his fifth studio album, What Kind of World. Catching up with Brendan on the London leg of his visit to the UK, it’s clear just what a personal experience the journey of creating something is to him.
What Kind of World has been the first release for Readymade Records, going out on April 21st – “which is actually my son’s 2nd birthday, funnily enough,” Brendan puts in. “The label is kind of a joint effort effort. I’d tossed around the idea of starting up a label for years and years, and putting out my records myself through it. I wasn’t very confident in my business ability though” he laughs, “so when I met Emily, my manager, she was just the perfect person for just that. She’s a very clever businesswoman, and now I feel very confident about it. She said ‘why don’t we put this record out ourselves?’ and I said ‘Yeah, you know, I’ve always had this dream of having a label where I could put out records that I’ve worked on – or you know, even just stuff I like!’ and it all just came together almost overnight.”
The prominence of Nashville, TN in Brendan’s career is incredibly apparent. “As well as my record, we’ve got Young Hines and Howling Brothers on the label, who are both Nashville-based. It’s quite a lot to keep on top of at times, but we divide the workload. There’s also a Nashville marketing group called Thirty Tigers who help out a lot on the label side of things.” The album itself is, in one sense, very much a solo effort for Brendan. “I recorded it all in analogue” he begins when asked about the process, “and then I put it into Pro Tools so that I could work on it myself. It’s easier to do it like that… You only really need one person.”
“I suppose three or four weeks went into it” Brendan says of time spend on the album. “I mean,” he quickly adds, “we had to do it in two phases really. There’s two bands that play on it – Ken and John from the Posies, and Brad Pemberton on drums were one – and they were only available for ten or so days. I really wanted them to play on it ‘cause we did a co-headline tour prior to making this record, and they backed me up on my set as well. We had a lot of fun together, so yeah, I really wanted to include them. They weren’t available the whole time though, so I had another band made up mostly of Nashville musicians. So, yeah it took a little longer, to, in the middle of it, change over to a completely different band.”
Still, it’d be easy to think that’s a fairy quick turnaround for such a high-profile album – apparently, however, it’s fairly leisurely. “No, it isn’t really a long time to spend on an album,” he agrees, “but compared to a Raconteurs record, for example… the first one took a week or something, and the second was done in two or three – and then it was released a couple of weeks later!”
On the subject of The Raconteurs – the beloved supergroup led by Brendan and fellow Tennessee-based rock legend Jack White – Brendan is clear that although there’s a blank horizon for the time being, there’s potential for more from the band in the future. “Nothing is planned right now, but it’s definitely not out of the question” he assures. “We never broke up or anything – and if the timing’s right, and it feels right, we’ll do another one.”
Brendan’s pairing with Jack White has been hugely rewarding – both albums from The Raconteurs have been massively well-received worldwide, with raw American rock backing Brendan’s smooth vocals against Jack White’s contrastingly gritty ones. It’s been four years since their second album, Consolers of the Lonely, hit, and I ask whether the two still see one another. “Oh yeah I do still see Jack from time to time – our kids sometimes play together actually – because we’re both based in Nashville, so when we aren’t touring we actually live quite close to each other, so yeah we try to, y’know, get dinner sometimes.”
Brendan is, alongside guitar and vocals, a drummer and pianist; as a man with many musical strings to his bow, he talks fondly of the gear he’s built up over the years, and its origins. “At the moment I’m playing a MotorAve guitar, which was made by a friend of mine in North Carolina. I met him when I was living in San Francisco fifteen or twenty years ago… he was just starting to build guitars, and he’s really now come into his own. His guitars just sound, and look, amazing. He made this custom one for me and engraved my son’s name on the headstock – which I guess makes it a Declan MotorAve!”
“I’ve collected a lot of instruments along the way, which I still use”, he continues, “but after years of playing everything myself – sometimes not very well – I’m kinda more interested in other people playing on the record and playing with other people in general. It’s cool though, I’ve got all this gear which I can just invite friends over to play with, which is great.”
The music community of Nashville, famous predominantly for country, seems to be as illustrious it ever was, from the frequent and casual way Brendan refers back to it. However, he seems confident that its rock scene is just as prosperous, if not more so. “Nashville is known for country music, but there’s actually a big population of rock musicians and other types of music, especially now. I think it is becoming better known for a frankly pretty cool rock scene.”
“Tastes develop, of course” he muses. “My taste over the last sixteen years has definitely changed – it’s inevitable, right? Like, there was a time when I was really fascinated with melody and songwriting and chords, and now I tend to listen to a lot of The Pleasure Club, and I just feel it’s more about… like, a mood and a vibe.” Brendan’s five-album solo career started in 1996, with One Mississippi. He’s faintly amused by a question about how his sound has developed. “I don’t really tend to think about my style ‘changing’ as such since the first album. I mean, I haven’t really listened to any of my old records in a long time, but I do like to think I’m… evolving, as an artist.”
So with What Kind of World on the shelves and a bona fide label under his belt, it’s interesting to hear what Brendan plans on doing next. “I’m definitely really excited for the future. I think I’ll go to Brazil and South America and do some shows down there – maybe Asia as well, actually – but I’m also really excited about these Readymade records coming out too.” It’s easy to see just how important this endeavour is to him, and how proud of its success he is, as he continues, “Maybe we’ll do, like, a Readymade tour or festival or something. I think that could be a really great project.” Brendan – hardworking and adventurous as ever – is apparently not a man intending on resting on his laurels in any sense, and it’s heartening hearing just how bright the future looks for him.
What Kind of World is available now through Readymade Records, distributed in the UK and Europe by Lojinx.