Benny Sings is the coolest musician you’ve never heard of. Back with a star-studded new album, his mellow brand of cosmic schmaltz is the perfect soundtrack to the California dream.
Tim van Berkestijn’s alter ego has had a slow and satisfying rise to the top. From skating in his hometown of Dorldrecht to playing warehouses in Amsterdam, Benny Sings' knack for sweet, nostalgic melodies has seen him collaborate with luminaries such as Rex Orange County and Mayer Hawthorne. He also has a number of song writing credits on Netflix and HBO, and has recorded a lo-fi version of Drake’s “Passionfruit” which is so good it sounds as if Drake covered Sings first.
For his eighth album, Music, Sings aficionados are treated to a highly bop-able collection of treasures with guest spots from Tom Misch, Cautious Clay and Mac DeMarco, all poised and ready to earn him the recognition he deserves. Despite these famous associations, and with relatively modest commercial success, it’s fair to say Sings is a musician’s musician. Is that a label he feels comfortable with? “Yeah, I’m not that extroverted, communicative star you know? It’s so awesome to have the recognition from the people that you want, and for the rest, you’re just a guy. No one’s impressed by you, it’s never awkward. It’s the best of both worlds”.
Sings’ music wears its West Coast hip-hop influences well. It’s lo-fi, chilled, nonchalant. It’s exactly what you want to hear as you float around a pool, sipping questionable liquids through a flamingo straw. This off-kilter, slightly old-timey vibe has seen him compared with California “Dad” rockers such as Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers. I wondered how consciously he works to formulate that sound. “I was born in the 70s so I guess it’s sort of nostalgic, wanting to go back to my childhood where everything was perfect before my parents got divorced,” he tells me. “In my parents’ house we were playing a lot of Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder and later in my career I was compared to yacht rock, so that became an influence. Not a specific thing, I just love that 70s vibe”.
Somewhat conversely, considering nightclubs are closed, danceable pop has reigned supreme in the UK with Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga and even ABBA all included in the 20 biggest records of last year. It feels as though, in times of crisis, it is important to listen to happy and joyful music, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed with Benny Sings. “There was a period from let’s say 2008 to 2017 where everything was dark, it was like the new wave; everything was Depeche Mode-y. That was so hard for me because I never liked the dark stuff, you know? And then suddenly it changed: Anderson .Paak came back with that D’Angelo sound, Chance The Rapper came with his joyful, musical kind of thing and suddenly, Benny Sings was back in vogue.”
The impact of social media on mental health – a perceived notion that there is always a better life happening somewhere else – could also be a catalyst for listeners choosing merriment over despair. “Tensions have been rising like crazy in the last five years because of Instagram and the whole internet making us unhappy. There’s something going on for sure. Maybe it is that we’re darker inside so the outside should be lighter. It sure is the case for me myself,” Sings reveals. “I’m a difficult person. I have a lot of anxiety and I’m just not very talented for happiness. It was the case for me that I always needed light in art. Dark art was, for me, just too obvious, just a bit boring.”
Never one to dive too deep into his personal life, Benny draws attention to 50s trumpeter Chet Baker and the famous “My Funny Valentine” – (“Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable”) – which makes light of Baker’s own face, and the fact his front teeth were knocked out after a drug deal in ‘68 went wrong. “I’ve always liked the combination of dark and light. I like that more than the guy who sings “death, death, kill” and then after that drinks a Pepsi or something. It’s just not my thing”.
It’s interesting that despite the above, and being a self-confessed introvert, Sings has collaborated with so many artists. He tells me that it is a great way of making music grow. “It makes me think of having a band”, he says. “People used to be in bands, they probably still are, but not in my bubble let’s say. With a band, you have four great people with four great ideas so the product becomes this super thing that is packed full of stuff. It’s so different when you’re just on your own and you notice it when you’re writing with someone, that the art grows”.
In a press release for the new record, Sings calls Mac DeMarco a “dream to work with”, and the fruitful partnership resulted in the refreshingly horizontal single, “Rolled Up”. A song title born from a conversation about a cigarette that DeMarco overheard on a coffee break. The writing process here was simple, “He put down the basic groove and then the chords we did together…it was quite effortless”.
On the wistful “Nobody’s Fault” featuring Tom Misch, Sings first crafted beats himself on the piano and bass in his canal-side studio, then “just added gibberish to find out if a sentence sparked something”. He goes further into his light/dark analogy from earlier and cites his interest in the duality of the song’s name: “It seems rational but when somebody says “it’s nobody’s fault”, you know there’s something awful going on.”
Sings names the titular track “Music” as his favourite on the album because “it’s a new thing for me in terms of tempo, chords and melody. It just pushes the envelope a bit more”. It also makes for a tongue-in-cheek moniker which ties in with the way Sings likes to subvert the obvious; his preferred name included. You probably don’t call your song or your album Music without a sense of irony, and I have to ask why he did it. “Well, because of that song. It was the first song that I wrote for this album”. He gets a twinkle in his eye before adding: “Also, it’s kind of not done to call your album Music so that’s what I liked about it. It’s funny, it’s corny and I like to play with that stuff, so why not!’
The name itself might be corny but with Music, Sings has created a superior strain of soul that is far from it. It’s disco for the new era, and there’s not a Bee Gees brother in sight.