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Life was cool for Brendan Benson back in 1996. He had a record deal with Virgin Records. His connections enabled him to write and record with Jason Falkner, bandleader of sweet-pop revivalists Jellyfish. He lived in San Francisco just as the Internet was booming and twentysomethings were fancying themselves as kings of the Bay. He was in a committed long-term relationship. Early reviews of One Mississippicompared his style to that of Big Star and the Beatles. Benson's future, to say the least, looked promising.
By 2000, it was all gone.
"I kind of engineered the whole thing," he says. "I lived with my girlfriend. We didn't get out. I stayed home and sweated about my record deal and how I was going to keep the album out. Sitting in my house worrying about it is not going to make for the best material."
One Mississippi tanked badly. Executive turmoil at Virgin's parent company, EMI – the folks who backed him were ousted and the replacements only talked a good game, Benson says – left him in perpetual turnaround, advances in hand but future uncertain. The girlfriend left after eight years. Depressed, confused, dejected and running out of money, Benson, now 32, retreated to his native Detroit, bought a house and fell back into the rock 'n' roll dreamer's rut of working restaurant jobs, messing around with ideas in the home studio and with musician friends like the White Stripes' Jack White and the Mood Elevator's Chris Plum.
Then, last year, Benson emerged from his self-imposed exile with Lapalco, one of 2002's most endearing rock albums, 43 minutes of jaunty, witty, instantly affecting guitar pop.
"I don't know what the hell I'm doing," Benson says in his characteristic self-deprecating manner. "The older I get, the less confessional the songs are. I'm more and more and more reluctant to confess, or even to know what the hell I'm confessing about. It used to be simple. It used to be just girls. Sometimes it's tough to wrap my head around things."
It took a chance fit of networking to pull Benson out of his career stupor. Thanks to StarTime International, a tiny but increasingly hip Brooklyn label, Benson returned to the album racket last year with Lapalco, a well-received, well-crafted set of 12 bubblegum rock songs Benson never thought would ever find an audience beyond friends and the Motor City barflies for whom he played acoustic shows periodically. Benson says he met the members of New York pop sophisticates and StarTime signees French Kicks at a gig in Detroit. The band put Benson in touch with Isaac Green, the label's young founder. Benson sent a CD of his songs, some left over from his Virgin-era collaboration with Falkner.
"I realized, well, I've got enough material for a record," he says of the process. "Maybe I should just put a record together and try to put it out independently. My compulsion to put records out was creeping back."
Green at first had no plans to release the album – like other executives, he finds himself inundated with submissions from would-be Alex Chiltons.
"This is a great record from a guy who records at his home," Green says he initially thought. That meant Benson, without a real band or anything, wasn't in the most viable of positions. "But then I started listening to it obsessively. I started listening to it all the time."
Benson, while flattered, initially had reservations about Green's plans. He didn't want to tour, nor was he comfortable with a return to national exposure. But Green was eventually able to talk him into another shot at the big time.
"When I was with Virgin, [success] was really hard to comprehend," Benson says. "What am I achieving here? There was no reward. Now there is. We go and play a city a couple of times and our numbers go up. We sell more records. Cool. It's like I'm almost earning a living."
Lapalco gained cult success through the admiration of critics, lots of word-of-mouth buzz, and Benson's touring with the likes of 21-year-old wunderkind Ben Kweller. According to Green, the label has shipped approximately 20,000 copies of the album to stores nationwide to date. Ironically, that respectable figure already eclipses the performance of One Mississippi, which essentially means one-man label Green has managed to outhustle a corporate conglomerate. "It's not like we're top of the pops," Green says. (The Walkmen, another StarTime cult fave, just licensed a song for a car commercial, so Green is making more than a little progress.)
Benson's bandwagon may grow even larger in the coming months. He's scheduled to open gigs across Europe this spring with the Flaming Lips and Beth Orton, and Benson says there's talk of possible dates with fellow Detroiters the White Stripes.
The Stripes are riding a wave of popularity with their brand of dirty garage rock, which could lead to another irony in Benson's life. With the Stripes, Eminem and Kid Rock enjoying so much success out of Detroit, the friendly neighborhood A&R man is bound to coming knocking on his door. In fact, he's already fielded a few lukewarm calls.
Plum, a high school buddy, roommate and now Benson's touring keyboardist, finds that notion a bit strange. "The scene in Detroit is just not that big," he says. "When I hear people talking about the Detroit scene, I'm like, it's really like two clubs and a handful of bands. Everybody knows each other from their bands."
Benson, though, says he's noticing subtle changes. The days of borrowing a homeboy's drummer for a night and picking up shows at random may well be numbered. "People have a lot more faith in what they're doing," he says. "They're more focused, too. Before, it was easy to be discouraged . . . now, people are like, maybe we'll have a go at it."
And maybe, just maybe, Benson will find another wide outlet for his brand of pop. "If I can tell one truth in a song, if I can tell something important to me and say something meaningful, in my mind, I'm happy," Benson says. "The rest is embroidery. It's fluff. But there has to be one true thing."