Alec Benjamin has just returned from a headlining European tour, and as the Arizona-bred singer gets comfortable on a couch at the Billboard offices a few weeks before a sold-out show at New York City’s Irving Plaza, he makes a confession. “Recently, I haven’t been that inspired,” the 24-year-old frowns. “I’m a little burnt out.”
You’d sympathize with Benjamin’s running on fumes if you were familiar with his backstory, which goes something like this: he signed to Columbia Records, attended the University of Southern California, got dropped by Columbia, played in parking lots, signed to Atlantic Records, and made it onto the Billboard Hot 100. It’s a neat summary of what he’s been through, but his trajectory is, in fact, a bit more nuanced than that. And the rising singer knows that sharing such details is the difference between an observer mistaking him for yet another cute singer-songwriter fellow with one radio hit, and for them to recognize him as a truly exceptional artist. So he’s okay with admitting he’s creatively stuck, because it’s another difficulty in a long line of those Benjamin has already overcome in his seven-year career — and one gets the feeling that he’ll work this one out, too.
Music didn’t play a major role in Benjamin’s life until toward the end of high school, when he was around seventeen. His parents “weren’t really big into music” while he was growing up, but when he became interested in a girl in high school, he began to learn guitar to impress her. It didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped, but he ended up genuinely enjoying the learning process. Soon, he was learning guitar because he wanted to sing — but he didn’t want to rely on somebody else to accompany him. “It’s the same with writing songs,” he says, noting that while YouTube covers were big at the time, that wasn’t how he wanted to become known. “I didn’t want to have to sing other people’s music, so I needed to learn how to play guitar and write.”
Living with his parents and sister in Phoenix, Arizona, across the street from his grandparents, he reached out to songwriters by email, slowly making connections. Still a teenager, he traveled to Los Angeles and the U.K. to write songs and physically immerse himself in that community, eventually landing a publishing deal (with Warner/Chappell Music) and a record deal (with Columbia Records). The latter didn’t work out. (“I was like, ‘This fucking sucks,’” he recalls of being dropped.)
Benjamin continued to play music, performing at open mics and in venue parking lots for six months as artists like Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan played inside. He counts 170-odd shows played during this period, including those at meet-and-greet conventions, where social media stars like Cameron Dallas would tour and meet fans. At one point, Benjamin found a connection who produced a small-scale version of a MAGcon, and offered to sing for free. It worked, and he drove to a different U.S. city every weekend to perform for two or three hundred kids in a hotel ballroom. “You just sleep on people’s couches, take the train,” he says.
Benjamin would also log onto YouNow, a pre-Periscope live broadcasting platform, and search the hashtag “music,” where users could gather to watch others perform. If he waited in a queue long enough, someone else would log off, and Benjamin would get their followers, moving up a spot in the system. “I would sit on there, just waiting to get in the first position so I could sing for people,” he says. Sometimes he’d wait all day just for the chance to perform for 10 seconds in front of a few hundred people, in hopes that one of him would take an interest in his music.
You’re very patient.
Benjamin shakes his head. “I wasn’t patient. I had a lot of nights where I cried and was like, ‘This is not fun for me.’ I’m not a patient person, but I wanted it so bad that I just had to be persistent. But I wasn’t patient. I’m still not.”
Benjamin recounts the worst day of his career, which took place shortly after he was dropped from Columbia Records. He had moved back home after dropping out of USC, and while his parents’ fridge was always full, he was determined to make enough of a living through his music to feed himself. He booked a gig at a deli that paid him with a food voucher, only to find out he had to play first, and he wasn’t able to stay after the set. “I intentionally didn’t eat that day, ’cause I was like, ‘I’ll feed myself today.’ I went and sat down across the street at this coffee shop and I just fucking cried,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘I can’t even buy a fucking sandwich with this shit.’”
There were other challenges that accompanied getting his music out into the world while he was in label limbo. Benjamin didn’t own the rights to his songs after leaving Columbia, so he couldn’t share those to Spotify or iTunes, and he couldn’t afford to record new music. Instead, he made demos on his iPhone or at a friend’s house when they had the spare time to record with him, and uploaded the tracks to YouTube.
The singer got another chance in 2017, when a 12-year-old boy named Merrick Hanna appeared on America’s Got Talent, dancing to Benjamin’s “I Built a Friend” during his audition. All of a sudden, the song was on the iTunes charts. Labels noticed (“They were like, ‘Who is this kid, he doesn’t have a record deal?’”) and Atlantic Records signed him on February 1, 2018, changing his life for a second time.
Miles Beard, vp of A&R at Artist Publishing Group who signed Benjamin to Atlantic, also saw the music video for “I Built a Friend” — which Benjamin made himself with no budget — and was blown away by his resourcefulness and creativity. “Alec told me two goals of his,” Beard remembers of their early time together. “One: ‘I want kids in high school to write my lyrics on their binders.’ And two is that he wants to have his songs be part of a summer camp fire pit circle, like a ‘Cat’s in the Cradle,’ ‘Fire and Rain’-type song.”
Benjamin began songwriting sessions with Beard and APG, and wrote nearly half an album. “As a songwriter, he’s always saying things in a new way,” Beard says. “His voice is innocent and pure and sweet, but he’s singing about intense [subjects]. That dichotomy pulls you out of your seat.” Beard then helped bring in manager Justin Lubliner (who signed Billie Eilish to his Interscope imprint Darkroom Records), and together, APG, Darkroom and Atlantic have been working to break Benjamin. Beard cites Eilish as a template, explaining that the group is currently focused on building Benjamin as a real touring act as his shows become “exponentially crazier.”
When he joined Atlantic, Benjamin took that arsenal of songs he’d written, and was able to start putting music out again within a few months (Atlantic/APG obtained ownership of his masters about six months ago). He opened for Camila Cabello the third leg of her 2018 Never Be the Same Tour and made music videos. He sold out his own headlining US tour, then another. His debut Atlantic single, “Let Me Down Slowly,” was later re-released as a remix with Alessia Cara (“I just sent her a message on Twitter and then she was down”), which became his first Billboard Hot 100 entry, peaking at No. 79. The original was recently certified as gold, and is nearing platinum certification.
You won’t catch him bragging with each success, though. “I never view myself at the top of something, [but] always at the bottom, looking up,” Benjamin admits. “I’m always like, ‘By this age, this person had this.’ I’m very grateful, but I’m always trying to work harder.”
Benjamin is a singer and a songwriter, which would normally inspire a very obvious descriptor, but he prefers the word narrator. He counts Jason Mraz and John Mayer (“John and I met through Instagram, I talk to him like every two weeks”) among his favorite artists, and acknowledges that while they are in a similar lane, he wants to change listeners’ views of what it means to be a singer-songwriter right now. So Benjamin, who is also a proficient guitar player, re-purposed the term: “I just thought, I tell stories, so I’ll find another word for it,” he explains.
Benjamin’s prowess as an illustrative lyricist comes across on songs like “If We Have Each Other,” a touching song that was partially inspired by his sister (“I know she’d never leave me and I hate to see her cry/ So I wrote this verse to tell her that I’m always by her side”), while his knack for nostalgia-inducing melodies shines on “Let Me Down Slowly” and “Paper Crown.” And while Benjamin also tells tales that aren’t necessarily his own — “Steve” recounts the story of Adam and Eve, with a cheeky twist — he insists, “There’s a part of me in [every] song that I think is true.”
This honesty tends to resonate. Most Alec Benjamin shows are full-on singalongs, with much of the audience knowing every lyric by heart — even those aforementioned demos and songs that only live on YouTube. “I think they find something in the lyrics that’s happened in their life,” he muses. “We’re all different, but we go through a lot of the same things as humans.”
Not only is his music being heard — with over 17 million monthly listeners, Spotify currently names him as their 118th most-streamed artist in the world — but Benjamin has experienced explosive growth on social media (with 791,000 Instagram followers and counting) over the past few years, gaining another type of audience, too. The impact of Benjamin’s music still boggles his mind; part of him can’t believe there are people listening, because he felt he was playing to no one for so long. “I’d go to dinner with friends and everyone would be talking about their work,” he says, “and then someone at the table would feel obligated to compliment me so I didn’t feel left out, even though they maybe didn’t really feel that way about my music. Now that some of the compliments are real, it takes some getting used to.”
Benjamin understands he must make himself and his music available to fans online, but remains dedicated to the more difficult act of connecting with other human beings in person, which he says is the reason why he got into music. He meets fans after shows when he can, sometimes spending hours near the merch table chatting and posing for hundreds of photos. But as Benjamin graduates to larger venues — in the past year, he went from NYC’s Mercury Lounge, which holds about 250 people, to selling out Irving Plaza, with a capacity of 1,200 — he accepts that it’s not always feasible. The tradeoff, he knows, will be worth it. “I need to be able to be happy in between, because it’s pretty special to get to play Irving Plaza and I had a great time,” he says firmly. “But [Madison Square Garden] is the goal. That’s where I want to end up.”
And in the meantime?
“I want to just make better music,” he shrugs. “That’s pretty much my only goal.”