Dudley Benson’s debut album, The Awakening, “could prove the beginning of a ridiculously talented maverick,” reckons BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM. He talks more with the charming chamber-pop musician, whose most recent tour completed a circuit of historic New Zealand churches.

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Dudley Benson: The Awakening

DUDLEY BENSONS’s charming, off-beat music is stealthily stirring an audience in New Zealand, winning people over with its sheer force of personality and unconventionality. His debut album The Awakening, is so different to the usual run-of-the-mill New Zealand album that it deserves to be heard on a wider basis. Full of breathtaking snatches of melody, complex textures and instrumentation, and a kooky, yet thoughtful sense of lyrics (the latter may be the hardest to get used to for some listeners, and probably don’t gel as well as they could on the album), the album could prove the beginning of a ridiculously talented maverick.

Benson grew up in Christchurch, but moved up to Auckland to further study music. He comes from a classical background, but found himself attracted to pop music. However it must have been difficult to escape from this background, especially when his instrumentation includes recorders and string quartets. “To be honest I feel much more of a pop musician than a classical musician. It’s actually been harder to bring classical music into my more pop sensibilities. It really is like having a cake and the icing, to me, the heart of it is all pop, and then you use whatever you’re currently interested in or obsessed with to create the icing.”

The instrumentation is unique, string quartets, recorder quartets, harpsichords and celestes for example swirl together. “I start out with an idea or what I call a message, or a symbol. A song has to take that idea and pass it on to someone else, the choices of instrumentation are usually based around how best to do that, and how best to support that idea. The stories of The Awakening are based on history and the past and on nostalgia. I didn’t feel at all strongly about using experimental production, I felt very inclined to use instruments that are a part of history.” These include recorders, a suppressed memory from many children’s musical education, and ironically, Benson had to use younger players who were still at school. “I had never written for recorders before the recording, I was researching them and how they were used in the past. Interestingly, if there is a recorder in the piece, it was to show a shepherd boy, and that kind of lone hill-wandering life-stock herder, so that seemed really appropriate too.” Benson admits that “there’s this kind of naivety to the sound, even though it’s polished.”

It’s easy to forget how fun Benson’s music is, especially when seen live. That’s not to say that it’s lightweight, far from it, but there’s a clear sense of enjoyment that comes through. “I hadn’t thought about it, but to me it is really fun, and I really do love the people I’m playing with. It feels right for me to be dancing around and making jokes with them. There was a bit of confusion about the tour, now that I can step back, I think some people seemed to have thought it was going to be some kind of classical recital. That’s cool but obviously that’s not what it was, that’s not what I’m about. It’s important to inject the expression of what it ultimately is all about, and that really is a love of music. I don’t want to say pleasure, it’s not that simple, but that is one of the stronger emotions I get from the music.”

However the themes and imagery are frequently dark. Lyrics about sacrifice, death, time and memory are thrown in among songs about phone calls from his dad or a childhood hedgehog. They don’t coalesce as well as they could, but Benson’s intention right from the start was to mix them, even when he was releasing eps. “The ultimate plan always was for the songs that appeared on the EP to appear on the final record. They’ve always been together – the older and newer songs. They’ve always been together as a family.” He can also be seen as celebrating the everyday, something which takes him a bit by surprise. “I’ve never really consciously said to myself that I’ve wanted to celebrate the mundane or ordinary, but I do think that it is worth it. To me, the hedgehog or the goat or whatever, they’re equally important as in ‘Willow’, the image of Etienne Francois travelling on the boat with willow taken from Napoleon’s grave. But I’ve never really made the distinction between that and having the phone call from ‘I Don’t Mind’. It is pop music, it really is about appealing to as many people as possible.”

“To be honest I feel much more of a pop musician than a classical musician. It’s actually been harder to bring classical music into my more pop sensibilities. It really is like having a cake and the icing, to me, the heart of it is all pop, and then you use whatever you’re currently interested in or obsessed with to create the icing.”

That said, he does step back into New Zealand’s past, and argues that some of these stories need to be told. “I think that New Zealand history is really rich with those bits of colour which often isn’t explored in art, and I’ve quite enjoyed being the torchbearer for stories such as Minnie Dean, and Rapaki. I felt like I’ve been trusted to push those stories onto the radio. I mean that in a metaphorical sense.” Minnie Dean was an interesting choice, the Southlander executed for killing babies, and the only female executed in this country’s history (though her guilt has been argued over). “The fact that she killed babies is fascinating enough for me.” His mother’s book of “One Hundred New Zealand Women” was also piqued his interest, which “sort of mushroomed I went to visit her unmarked grave. I’ve stalked people in Winton. I do feel that I have sympathy for her. I felt like she deserves a song.” There’s a strong sense of the landscape too, invoking the Canterbury surroundings in his music right from the outset of the album. However his love of Canterbury wasn’t immediate. “When I moved to the North Island, then it all became extremely sentimental. Only once I’d left.” However for someone whose music is so mired in New Zealand and Canterbury, “I still feel like I’m at a point where I can’t describe how New Zealand and Canterbury particularly has affected me musically.”

He also brings in Richard Nunns, the world expert on karanga manu (Maori instrumentation), and renowned Waikato academic to play on the album. “I was working on ‘Asthma’, and I felt very much that the piece needed to open the piece with that fanfare, as a mascot for breathing, the air, and for the lungs. I actually approached Richard from a research point of view, from an advice level. He’s very experienced using karanga manu. I didn’t go to him with the idea of collaborating, and asking him to play, but he interpreted it as an invitation to record.” Which Benson was “blown away” with, and says that it was one of the most enjoyable recording sessions he had.

However he’s not out there to say much from the Maori angle, rather he cast his net wider, and he’s a bit conscious of doing the token Maori thing. He wasn’t particularly impressed by the Ruby Suns’ Tane Mahuta, a rare example of a New Zealand indie band taking on te reo, which he confesses that “I don’t feel that it was done that respectfully, that didn’t sit with me that well”, comparing the piece to the authenticity of a plastic tiki. He instead writes about other things such as two boys getting lost in the Rapaki valley, or his forefather coming over from France to help found Akaroa. “I feel that Maori history is really encouraged in New Zealand art, and it’s almost like European history in art isn’t really explored, it’s almost taboo. I was kind of aware of that when I was doing The Awakening. We’re all here like it or lump it, I wanted to celebrate that there is a rich history here.

The new album has been released to considerable acclaim, yet has kind of crept up for people who have been following Benson’s progress over the last few years. “I think that with a project like The Awakening and my project in general, any kind of conventional marketing isn’t going to work. In the way that albums are promoted in New Zealand in the New Zealand music industry is often, if you throw shit at a wall enough, eventually it’s going to stick. Obviously that wouldn’t work with the album, firstly it’s not shit, but it’s not the kind of album you have to scream at people with, it’s more about sliding it gently under the door for people.”

Benson has been stewing over this album for a while with some of the songs being around for a number of years. He admits he’s spends a considerable amount of time constructing his songs. “I get envious of artists who are really prolific, like Coco Solid, whose new album, it’s a double album which she wrote in a week. I get extremely in awe of artists like that. I want to understand each song so well, it makes for a month or two, or some songs took a year and a half to write, I’m so fastidious about detail.” The end result however, has been an album full of texture, colour, and drama. As enjoyable and brilliant as this album is, you get the feeling that Benson is on the verge of doing something even better, and we’re going to be pushed even further along his wonderful idiosyncratic musical odyssey.