We’ve come to expect a certain level of cockiness from our rising young rock stars. It’s one of the great conventions of rock’n’roll – that certain, measured arrogance that suggests they were born to be on stage, and the rest of us, well, we were born to worship them from afar. Which is why it’s refreshing to meet the enormously talented young musician Benjamin Booker. His self-titled debut album smashes together deft, soulful blues charged with raw, garage electricity and a fierce hardcore punk sensibility. It’s so dripping with confidence that it’s hard to believe he almost never made it onto the stage in the first place.
High Hopes: Benjamin Booker
The DIY blues-punker who's the antidote to rock-star arrogance. Jack White likes him - a lot.
“I wasn’t in any bands in the past,” he says. “I was too terrified. I’m not a natural performer. So until a couple of years ago, I guess when things started picking up was when I got the courage to play in front of, like, five people.”
Now 22 and based in New Orleans, Booker spent his formative years in Gainesville, Florida, obsessed with the DIY aesthetic of local punk labels Plan-It-X and No Idea Records. But the lightbulb moment came at the age of 17 when he discovered a Robert Johnson CD in a local record store. His future was sealed.
“I would pull my car into school blasting Robert Johnson, and people would be like, ‘What?’ I don’t know what I liked about it so much. It just wasn’t pretentious and there was no bullshit. From the last 10 years there’s been just so much shitty music out there, and when I was growing up there was a lot of electronic stuff, and it was just refreshing to hear someone who was just playing guitar and singing.”
With its rich musical history, The Big Easy beckoned, and after he moved and built up the courage to actually play in front of people, the big boys started listening. With drummer and collaborator Max Norton in tow, Booker became a hit at SXSW. Now kindred spirit Jack White has invited him as support on tour, and in May he made his television debut, on Late Show With David Letterman. For an audience of around three million people, he gave a pumped performance of his latest single Violent Shiver.
“It was terrifying!” he laughs. “We sat in the dressing room for four hours and then they had us come out a minute before we started playing. I was ecstatic and I was so happy that we did it, but before it was the worst day of my life – it was horrifying!” Given his excellent turn (see below), viewers and Letterman himself would beg to differ. Booker is conquering his nerves one amazing opportunity at a time. Good thing too, as his summer schedule fills up with festivals and bigger shows. But while many are tipping this softly spoken, slightly shy young man for greatness, his own ambitions are modest. “I’m just hoping I can do everything and not vomit backstage at every show!” _ _
Benjamin Booker is released in August on Rough Trade.