Within a couple of minutes of sitting down for lunch with Marco Benevento, the Woodstock-residing keyboardist shows exactly why he loves living in upstate New York. “Midwinter Farms! I know those guys!” he proclaims out of the blue while perusing the menu of the farm-to-table Manhattan pizza joint. An old friend of the couple who runs the farm that supplies this and other restaurants in the city, Benevento may have even helped harvest some of the food we order. Just another random connection that the New Jersey-born keyboardist has made in his five years living in the country. Just to name a few, he now counts Amy Helm, John Medeski and New Pornographer A.C. Newman and more as friends and collaborators.
Benevento, who’s used to playing sideman and collaborator over the years in bands like the currently red-hot Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, is now focusing on the release of his newest solo effort, The Story of Fred Short, out April 1 via Benevento’s own Royal Potato Family label. The album finds Benevento finding his voice—literally—in the form of a classic two-side record, with the B-side consisting of the Fred Short story proper, a seven-part opus that came out of one night of improvisation. Here, Benevento discusses how his passion for recording continues to be fueled by living the country life, who Fred Short actually was and why he wrote an album about his story and what future plans there might be for other projects like the legendary Benevento/Russo Duo—plus the story of the time he almost hung out at a horse show with Bruce Springsteen and David Bowie.
This is your second album with vocals. How do you think adding vocals in changes the songwriting process?
I guess, now when I come up with chord progressions—when I’m sitting down, coming up with a song idea, I’ll have a drum machine going and I’ll be sitting at the piano—now I’ll have a microphone set up, and I’ll come up with a progression. I’ll start humming or singing a melody idea, whereas, maybe five years ago, I’d be sitting down at the piano and a drum machine and there wouldn’t be a microphone. I’d just come up with the melody on the piano and find out where it should go. Then the melody would just be done on the piano or the synth or whatever. But now I’m sitting down and I already know that I want to incorporate the voice into the songs.
For the most part, all the songs involve lyrics and vocal melodies now. It’s more involved. Now I have to come up with lyrics and come up with the change in the lyrics to make it so I don’t say the same word again. Now I can see the frustration that singers have with songwriting, because there is a lot going on. There’s more than just melodies and cords. There’s chords and more of an arrangement thing happening now too. But I like the challenge, and I like that we have songs with vocals and that sort of a vibe. We have four records before this that are all instrumental and this is only the second record with vocals, so when we do our shows—realistically, half the show is instrumental, half the show is with vocals. So there is still that balance going on.
Do you still write instrumental stuff?
Yeah. There is a song on Swift called “Coyote Hearing,” and I was trying to come up with words and melody for it, but it just didn’t work. That just became an instrumental song. I’m not avoiding the instrumental stuff, I’m just intuitively drawn towards writing melody lines with the vocals.
Was it a conscious effort to start writing vocal parts?
The way the whole vocal thing started was with Kal [Traver] from Rubblebucket. The song is called “This Is How it Goes,” which is on our record TigerFace. I had that song structure written out, and I had a melody line. Then I started writing lyrics to this melody line, and I thought, “Oh, I should sing this.” It was sort of out of my range, and I kind of imagined a girl—like a thin, high voice—singing it anyway. I had seen Rubblebucket that week at a festival, and they sounded amazing. I immediately wanted to link up with Kal. And linked up with her, showed her the words. I sang a mock version of it, and she killed it. We went into trial studios and she sang everything, the lyrics and the melody. She added some things she was hearing as well. That was the first time I had ever heard any of my music with a vocalist, so that’s really where it started, TigerFace, even though the majority of the record is instrumental. I remember listening to that song in my studio, with her singing the words, and I smiled and thought, “I’ve never heard any of my music with a singer.” I’ve never followed through with that idea. Even some of the old Benevento/Russo Duo recordings have very catchy melodies but no words. We sung some “Oohs,” some syllables for one song, but we never followed through with any words or vocalists. Somehow it finally came out on TigerFace, and I knew that I was going to do it again.
Then when we were making that record Swift, the one before this one, I had the phone in my hand and was about to call Kal, “Hey, so I want you to sing again.” And I had this thought: “Dude. You should figure out how to just do it yourself. You’re not going to be able to take her on the road. You’re gonna have the vocal part on the record, but when you play it live, it’s gonna be missing. So, I thought I should finally do it, bite the bullet and sing it myself. That’s where the whole vocal thing started on Swift. For this record, I sort of took my time a little bit more figuring out where my vocal sweet spot is, where my range is. I really changed the songs a lot on this record so my voice would fit better. I think I’m just learning more about adding the vocal into the mix and how I can do it better.
Did you sing before you started writing songs with vocals?
Yeah. In high school I sang. I sang “Magic Carpet Ride” in my sweet 16 band, and I sang “Love Her Madly” too. I was in the men’s choir in high school, but then I got into jazz and stuff in college. I got into the Meters, funky stuff, and like Miles stuff and traditional jazz stuff. I just got into the playing side of things, so I didn’t do any singing in college. Then I graduated from college and had a lot of instrumental bands—played with Joe a lot—and didn’t need to sing. And lately people have been like, “Oh man, we want you to do the James Booker thing for Jazz Fest. I’m like, “Well I have to sing that.” So I sing it. Or, “We want you to do ‘Such A Night,’” The Dr. John thing from The Last Waltz. So I sing that.
So I guess I just felt a little bit more confident to do it [on this record]. The songs kind of lend themselves to having those vocal melodies and stuff. I just felt like I should go for it. I’m glad I did. Although, you know, I hung out with Charlie Hunter like two years ago at Jazz Fest, and he said, “You know how it took you like 30 years to play the piano? It’s going to take you 30 years to learn how to sing.” And I was like, “I know that, but I have to start somewhere.” He wasn’t trying to be discouraging, he just wanted to let me know that it’s another new instrument that you need to learn. I actually took my first vocal lesson the other week. I had a vocal lesson with this guy up in Woodstock, sort of just showing me how to use my body and how to use it right. I’m excited to practice that instrument and get better at it and feel more confident with it—say to people, and even to my-self, that I’m a singer. Sometimes when you’re singing you’re like, “Well I’m not a singer. I’m singing like I’m not a singer.” You have to sing like you’re a singer. I’m learning how to be more confident with it and not be self-conscious about it. Once you get over that, then things seem to be a little easier.
The record is kind of a two-part thing, with the second part being the story of Fred Short. Are the first four songs also a part of that idea?
No, they’re sort of separate. They’re singles. Although “Dropkick” was actually in that original improvisation, it came out sounding such like a different song that I just extracted it and put it on side A. Side B is more the improvisation of Fred Short that started out as me in the studio. I recorded and hour and a half worth of music and then went back and extracted the song ideas but kept everything in order. It shrunk down to 30 minutes. I would turn the drum machine up a little to start segueing into the next song, then again to the next song. It sort of happened in one magical night with Fred Short in the studio, and I thought, “What if I can actually follow through on this and come up with all these songs that go into each oth-er?” The first thought was to keep that improvisation in a row, but rerecord the song ideas and put them back together again without all the fat, the wandering that happens around the improvisations.
So where did the idea for Fred Short come about? Was that before the improvisation?
It was sort of around that same time. I live on Fred Short Road, and every time I give my address to someone, they’re like, “Who’s Fred Short?” There’s also John Joy Road right next to me. When a lot of the English settlers came, like Henry Hudson, they renamed all the Native American people, because they couldn’t pronounce their names. So they were given very obvious names like Fred Short and John Joy. It turns out, he owned a lot of the land that I live on. He was like a shaman, a vision quest guy that had ceremonies and people over for dancing and things like that. He was a musician.
I collect pianos off Craigslist, and I went to go pick up a piano, put it in my van, and this old guy was like, “Where do you live?” I’m like, “On Fred Short Road,” and he’s like, “This piano was in their family.” This old piano. It was from 1880 or something. I remember having the piano in the van and driving home being like, “This is so weird.” Then I did that improvisation that night, and I just had that on my mind. He had premonitions that the world was going to end and we were going to destroy it with all that trash and garbage. You know, like a spiritual Native American leader being like, “Stupid fucking white man” kind of thing. That’s why in one of the songs it’s like, “The sun is almost over.” He had visions that the Earth is going to be over before we know it, and the suns going to die out. We’re going to be darkness, and we’re all going to die. Happy stuff.
Did that piano make it onto the record at all?
No, actually. I wanted it to so bad, but it was so janky.
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