43-year-old singer/songwriter Brendan Benson looks relaxed as he sits on the patio outside his hotel restaurant during SXSW, and who can blame him? After years as a cult-figure road warrior (and, for a brief stint, the co-songwriter foil to Jack White in the much-more-popular-than-cult-figure band The Raconteurs), Benson’s settled into something resembling mid-career maturity.
Instead of using South By to promote his most recent record (2013’s typically excellent “You Were Right”), he’s here instead as a label president; his imprint, Readymade Records, which he co-runs with his manager, Emily White showcased over the weekend, and – other than a brief sit-in with Readymade artist Leah Mason, he’s here overseeing, rather than rocking.
“It’s sort of strange,” he says, in between smokes and sips of water. “It’s nice, though. It’s nice not to have that stress of having to play.”
Benson’s a road-warrior, so it’s hard to imagine him sitting still for too long – but that’s exactly what he says his plans are. After years of picking up and putting down in Detroit, San Francisco, and elsewhere, he’s positioned himself permanently in Nashville, where in addition to the label president stuff, he’s producing bands out of a studio and getting used to family life. “I have kids now, and I don’t want to miss out on their upbringing. I’m kind of older now,” he says. “[Touring] is not comfortable.”
Thankfully, the label-head role seems to suit him: he’s visibly glowing while talking about what he sees the imprint achieving – and what it’s already achieved. His model is the early days of Ian MacKaye’s Dischord Records – playing the part of tastemaker as well as artist, and signing bands (like the bluegrassy Howlin’ Brothers, whose sophomore Readymade release drops this April) that he personally connects to, rather than following the sales. That said, he acknowledges that the business end of it wasn’t something he saw coming – and has become a large part of his responsibilities.
“I thought of [starting a label] as more of the fun of it – but, you know, these people [on the label] are trying to make a go at it. It’s their living. You kind of have to know what you’re doing,” he says. “So [White] is the business side of things. And I do the creative stuff.”
For him, though, that’s not going to include a major promotional push for his own record at any point in the near future. “Since I started the label, I have been going through this transition, and it’s almost like an identity crisis – like leaving my solo career a bit. I’m still going to make records,” he says, “but not at the intensity at which I was doing it. I have been asking myself, “What’s my role in the world?”
“I’m a dad,” he answers. “That’s the best one. And I’m a producer. I’m really enjoying that. I’m good at it, and it’s a lot more fulfilling. I fed my ego enough with my solo career that now it’s cooler to be more behind the scenes and helping other bands. And I like to be around these younger artists. It’s inspiring.”
And of course, that means the Raconteurs are indefinitely on hold, as well. “That’s kind of off the table,” he says, of the supergroup reuniting. “It always felt spontaneous. I liked that about it, too. And I think it remains that way. We never planned anything. We never planned a breakup. All of us but one live in the same town, so [in the future] it could very well happen… or not.”