Keyboardist Marco Benevento may not be a household name, but he is arguably one of the most active and adventurous artists currently on the scene.
His early beginnings can be traced to the Benevento Russo Duo, the group he formed with drummer Joe Russo (Almost Dead, Phil Lesh & Friends) which has recorded four albums to date. In 2006, Benevento and Russo would join Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon for a summer tour while Phish was on hiatus. But make no mistake: Benevento is not just another flash in the jam band pan. Born in Livingston, New Jersey in 1977, and graduating from Ramapo High School in 1996, Benevento went on to attend the Berklee College of Music before settling in his current home base of Woodstock, New York. There, he and his manager Kevin Calabro formed Royal Potato Family, the label which released Benevento’s first proper solo album, Invisible Baby, in 2008.
Over the last several years, Benevento has pushed his art even further, emerging as a vocalist for the first time, adding a new dimension to his already dynamic instrumental work. Currently at work on a forthcoming LP, Benevento took some time to graciously chat with AQ about his splendid craftsmanship and musical outlook.
Marco, I know you’re working on a new record right now. What can you tell us about it?
Well, this is my seventh studio record. It’s sort of along the same lines of the last two records where there is a lot more singing than instrumental music. Also, I had the chance to work with this amazing producer, Leon Michels… I met him because I actually subbed for him in The Arcs.
That’s Dan Auerbach’s (The Black Keys) band, right?
Yeah. Our buddy Richard Swift was in that band. The sad news is that he passed away about 6 months ago.
I had read about that. You two were good friends, right?
Oh, yeah. We made a record together and called it Swift because it was such an awesome experience working with him, and we had a bunch of mutual friends. So, Richard recommended me to Leon for The Arcs for the last week of a tour, so I had the opportunity to live on a tour bus with Dan and Richard, and that’s when I met Leon. Richard was trying to get us together—he was always like, ‘I always thought you guys should do something together.’ So, Richard connected us. Actually, what’s funny is, I live up here in Woodstock, and Leon just moved up to Rhinebeck (NY), so we’re like neighbors—and, his kids are the same age as my kids, so they hang out a lot. So, we became best friends over the last year or two and made this record. I’m super-excited (about the record). It was really fun working with him.
Does the record have a title yet?
Yeah, it’s called Let It Slide.
Cool, is there a release date yet?
Yeah, September… end of September.
That’s awesome, man. I’m really looking forward to it. You know, I read somewhere that you didn’t take your touring bad into the studio for this album. Is that a normal practice when you record, or did you want to try something new this time?
Well, I’ve never worked with a producer. I’ve always produced the records myself, or I’d produce the record with the guys in the band. So, for this record, I was working with a producer who was making decisions, even in the songwriting department. I would play him the demo, and he would say something like, ‘You should repeat that part twice,’ and I would be like, ‘Ok, yeah. Sure!’ So, when Leon said, ‘You know, I usually use Nick Movshon,’ who’s a great bass player and drummer—Nick was also in The Arcs, so I had met Nick on that Arcs tour—I just said ‘Ok!’ I hired Leon to be the producer, and my job was just to say ‘yes’ and let him be the decision maker. None of the guys in my band cared. If anything, they were psyched for me to be able to work with all these great musicians and get another take on how my music could sound. So, now we’re playing the songs live, and everyone is learning Nick’s parts (laughs).
That’s cool, though, especially since you’ve never worked with a producer before. Anytime you try something new, there’s always a feel-out period, but it doesn’t seem like you were taken aback by the direction someone else was giving.
Well, when you’re dealing with someone like Leon or Nick, who you meet through Dan Auerbach and Richard Swift, it’s like the cream of the crop, I think. I never thought like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I was like ‘Oh, my God, these guys are awesome, and I’m so glad to be working with them.’ I never interjected and said, ‘I don’t know, man, I think that’s a bad idea.’ I was like, ‘Yo, bro—yes! I love all of this.’ And Leon has had his hands on a lot of successful records… Charles Bradley, Lee Fields….
He has either a direct or indirect relationship with the Daptone folks, if I’m not mistaken. Right?
Yeah, yeah… he’s friends with those guys. He’s a multi-instrumentalist who plays saxophone, keyboards, bass, guitar…. You know, he’s popping around on all sorts of instruments, and he also redid a lot of the Wu-Tang stuff.
Oh, yeah…. What’s the name of that Wu-Tang record? Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)?
So, he made one called Enter the 37th Chamber.
Yeah, check that out, it’s amazing. He recorded all that music, but he just did the instrumental stuff, and he didn’t rip anything, he just made it all from scratch. It sounds insanely good.
I’m definitely going to check that out…. You know, Marco, you’re a very talented and charismatic keyboardist, but how do you feel you’ve evolved as a vocalist?
Oh, I mean, just after singing for the last three years, I’ve evolved a lot, just because I put myself out there and decided that I was gonna do it. I still listen back to some recordings from two years ago, and I’m like, ‘Yikes!’ I still listen to my voice from a month ago and I’m like, ‘Yikes!’ But I’m getting more confident with it, I’m getting better, getting used to the new instrument that I’m playing, and I’m figuring out how to maintain it on the road. I did a tour once where I lost my voice, and it was so weird, because I’d never lost my voice on tour before because I never really sang. But I lost my voice, and I was like, ‘Ok, that needs to not happen.’ So, I’ve been learning a lot about that.
Did you take any lessons?
I did. I took a couple of vocal lessons here in Woodstock. I’ve sort of learned how to be a singer, but it’s going to take me a long time. I have a lower voice—I can’t sing that high. So, I’m trying to find my sweet spot.
In listening to your actual speaking voice, and then knowing what you sound like as a vocalist, they’re both very similar. Some singers don’t have that.
Yeah, I know what you mean. Like, I don’t have a “singing voice.” I use my same voice, which makes my vocals kind of sound shitty, or just very average.
(Laughter) I don’t know if I’d say that. I think it sounds very unique. Plus, if you think about guys like Tom Waits, for example… when you look at the bigger picture, nobody ever says, ‘That guy sucks’ just because he’s not a traditional vocalist.
Yeah, I mean, it’s just another element to the band. It’s another instrument, another sound coming from another place that’s playing another melody. So, it’s more function. I mean, there’s a lot of great singers up here in Woodstock, like Amy Helm is up here, for example… Levon’s daughter. And then there’s just a lot of great singers around where, when they go up and sing, it’s like, ‘Ok, you’re a singer.’ Granted, they’ve been singing their whole lives, and have a certain way where they know how to do it. But, you know, vice-versa—they see me play piano and they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s a piano player,’ because I’ve done that my entire life. I’m most comfortable behind the piano. But, yeah… I’m learning how to turn my voice into something. I could stand to have some more coaching and learn a little more about stuff, and I have a feeling that I’ll get into that a little more down the line. But, it’s definitely always improving. My drummer, while we were on tour, he said ‘Normally on tour, singers kind of lose steam, and it gets progressively worse and worse. But with you, it’s the opposite—you actually get better as the tour goes on and on.’ I don’t know… I guess I’m just figuring it out. I’m not sick of singing. I really, really am trying to get better at it.
Be sure to catch Marco Benevento at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City on May 3!