Interview: ERIC BENET

“It’s 8pm and I’ve been talking ALL day. But you know what; I love my job so I’m grateful everyone wants to talk to me…” Eric Benét says, laughing warmly from New York. I’ve just rushed home myself from a late night showcase in London, which makes it a haggard 1am call for me.

Though exhausted by interviews, the singer sounds in good spirits – and he has good reason to be. This year he found himself nominated for two Grammy Awards for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “You’re the Only One” and Best R&B Album for his fourth studio album, Love & Life.

The album, considerably cheerier than his previous melancholic offering (Hurricane), is the result of Benét returning to the studio with his long time collaborators Demonté and George Nash Jnr, who were behind many of the tracks on Eric’s 1996 debut album, True To Myself.

“It’s really something that I’ve been trying to do since I’ve been in the game – from the beginning I’ve been trying to convince the record label to just leave me alone and give me a budget and let me make my record – and go to my crew, which would be Demonté and my cousin George. Then we’ll turn the record in three months later…” he says. “But it hasn’t been that easy to convince them to allow me to do that.”

eb_08-shot08_0437_f1

Referring to a previously recorded but unreleased album, he describes the catchy and upbeat song “Better And Better” that floated around the airwaves a couple of years ago, [but was eventually covered by Lalah Hathaway] as a “casualty of the industry.”

“I turned in a record before the Hurricane CD and after A Day In The Life, which I thought was the bomb… and Warner Bros. actually rejected it, they refused to put it out. There were a couple of songs on that record where I defiantly said ‘you guys are wrong, if I get an opportunity to make another couple albums down the road I’m gonna slip these songs into some albums’. And I did that. “

Now releasing on a subsidiary label of Warner Bros, Friday Records, Benét seems at home with a more creative freedom than he previously had. “The owner of Friday Records is a big supporter of me and he was on the same page that I am; he basically just gave me that budget. I have such an amazing chemistry with my boys,” he enthuses. “I’ve written songs with a lot of people, I’ve worked with a lot of producers, but nothing feels as authentic and natural as making music with my crew.

“I’m overjoyed! It’s taken me this long to make a CD on my terms the way I wanted to make it, where and how and all that stuff. To have complete autonomy and to be able to turn that record in to my label – and have their response be “This is the best thing that you’ve ever done” – it means so much. As you can imagine, it feels like victory on top of victory.

eric-benet-wb041

“I’m at this place in my life right now where I’m just feeling good. I feel good about how I’ve grown as a person, as a man, as a mate, as a father, and I think with all that maturity for me it translates to happiness. I’m feeling good about where I am in my life and I wanted to be able to infuse all that positivity and good-feeling in the tracks… and it kinda feels like it’s happened.”

Do people actually want soul artists to be happy, and their music to feel good? Mary J Blige spoke last year about her fans not wanting her to be happy, as she told Vibe magazine; “When I took the chance to show people I can be happy, I lost a million of my fans.”

He muses, “For me I think it’s a bit like acting. A very good actor can go into a scene where they’re playing a clinically depressed individual and pull it off because although they may be very happy in real life, they can get on the set and when they hear ‘Action!’ they’re a basket case and a mess – because they can go back in their minds and in their hearts and just pull on experiences they’ve been through and very convincingly give off a performance.”

That being said, the sincerely woeful tone of Benet’s Hurricane album – released after his much-publicised divorce from actress Halle Berry – disappointed many previous fans, despite spawning several R&B chart hits.

Four years later, it sounds like he’s moved on. “Writing ‘You’re The Only One’ [on Love & Life] I’m not the least bit longing or… “ He trails off, pausing. “The song isn’t really about anyone in particular, but you just flip through your memories in your mind sometimes and as a songwriter those memories they automatically have a little soundtrack that just pops up. I think there will be songs that I write that I’ve already written in the past month that have that ‘my world is so lonely without you and I miss you’ – and it’s not because there’s somebody who my world needs right now, it’s just because I was in a musical moment and I had a little musical emotional flashback. That’s always gonna be there, but this particular project I really wanted it to reflect the me where I’m at now.”

Playfully describing himself as “an egotistical bastard,” we explore the reasons Eric usually keeps the duets to a minimum on his albums. Laughing, he says, “I think the way it works for me is usually when I’m writing a song I just hear me singing it…I think that’s partly why I like to do all my backgrounds as well. It’s like, yeah we could get some background singers in to do this but I hear the backgrounds a certain way and if they’re not recorded the way I hear them in my brain it kinda drives me crazy a little bit. That’s just how most songs come to me. Maybe in that batch of 12-15 songs there may be a couple of those where I hear like a beautiful female voice and it’s like, ‘oh that’s the duet’.”

“I‘m not the best salesman in the world,” he admits. “So I’ve never been the one to try to convince somebody to let me write a song for them. So the way the industry is, if you have a hit then people will come to you.” With the success of his recent singles and album, he may well start writing with other people in mind; “already it’s like three different A&R guys have called my management company asking me to write songs for artists so I think I might get into that.”

With his daughter, India, in high school but pursuing her own career as a singer Eric has “quite a bit!” to advise her against in the industry. “Possibly by the time she’s ready to do this I may encourage her not to sign a record deal because the industry is shrinking and changing. The way people are downloading songs and record companies are gonna be on their ass in about another five years, so it’s almost gonna be like a drastically different route. She’s a writer and producer. It may be time to do something independent by then where we own it all.

“She won’t have to sell a publishing deal like I did back in the day when I sold half my publishing because I was broke as hell. There’s a lot of things that I did that she won’t have to do.”

Love & Life is out now on Warner Bros. Records

Eric Benet performs at London’s Jazz Café on March 5th, 6th and 7th as part of his European tour.
For tickets and information, visit www.jazzcafe.co.uk

www.ericbenet.net

MARSHA GOSHO OAKES