Benjamin Booker was beginning to feel anxious and claustrophobic living in New Orleans, trying — without success — to write the follow up to his 2014 breakthrough self-titled debut. So, he boarded a plane, with little more than his guitar, and headed to Mexico City.
“I don’t think I could have written the album if I had stayed in New Orleans,” the bluesy singer/guitarist tells Billboard of his upcoming sophomore release Witness, out June 2. “[I felt] stuck in one place for so long, so I was excited to be in unfamiliar territory.”
For the next month Booker spent his time in museums and old churches, and called a “nice apartment in a rougher part of town” home. He recalls how the walls of the 1920s building — located in the center of Mexico City, on the border of Doctores and Juarez — were covered in art, which he found artistically inspiring, and says though the apartment was situated next to a club, what he really sought was some solitude.
The difference in scene comes through sonically, heard from the first note on lead track “Right On You,” which opens in a flurry of experimental elements, as Booker’s signature fuzzed out guitar licks are slowly introduced until they become the main attraction. Booker says in contrast to his previous LP, this record has more space to breathe, best illustrated on the more melodic “Truth is Heavy” and “Overtime,” but he doesn’t entirely stray from his garage-rock roots — by the final few tracks (“Off The Ground,” “All Was Well”), Booker returns to a more driving tempo filled with familiar distortion.
Of the ten-song tracklist, one stands out among the rest for its impressive featured artist: soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples. On the set’s title track, Staples repeatedly questions in a choral-like tone: “Am I gonna be a witness?” Though it’s never explicitly stated, the answer (no) is all too clear. “We knew we wanted a strong female vocal [on this song], and we thought, ‘Who else would be better than Mavis’?” the artist recalls.
While Booker recorded between Woodstock in upstate New York and Dumbo in Brooklyn, Staples recorded her portion in her hometown of Chicago. “She’s someone who was very strongly involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s,” explains Booker. “So I thought it would be nice to connect the generations, and point people towards someone who has been in [that] place before, and did something about it.”
“Witness” isn’t the only song that raises a compelling question, as Booker finds himself at a crossroads on the string-heavy, self-pick-me-up song “Motivation,” when he asks in his warm rasp, “It’s the same questions that I had before/ Can I run anymore?”
Booker explains how “Motivation” fittingly served as the outline for the whole album, and was one of the first songs he wrote for it. When he left for Mexico, he says he wasn’t sure he would get any work done and mostly wanted to clear his head, but then experienced a moment of clarity while reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise on the plane. “There was a sentence I was reading while flying over the coast that just said: ‘What we are reluctant to touch often seems the very fabric of our salvation,’” he recalls. “Which is basically about how everybody has problems, but if you want to get to a happier place and find some peace, you need to go into those dark corners and address those things if you want to come out on the other side.”
After reading that line, Booker remembers taking out a piece of paper and giving himself a pep talk: “‘All right, Ben. For once in your life just be honest about who you are as a person, about your faults and problems and things you need to work on.’ I wrote them down in a bullet point list and focused each song on those issues, the things I was reluctant to touch.”
Having written such inwardly-focused songs, Booker hoped to challenge himself to be a little more than just an entertainer with this album. “I think I would be sad if the only thing I did was entertain people,” he admits. “With all of the music that I make, it’s important that it’s meaningful to me, and hopefully something others can also relate to.”