It’s been over a decade since Donald Benjamin first emerged on the Michigan music scene. The multiple award- winning songwriter and former WIOG Mid- Michigan Idol semi- finalist, shattered all expectations, with his 2002 debut, “Destination Unknown.” Its title track reached international radio, garnering him immediate status as an up-and-coming country songwriting talent. After a rigorous solo touring schedule, from 2002-2012, culminating with Sevox Radio naming his song “Used To” their 2012 “Song of the Year,” he has since gone on to further success as the frontman of the award-winning rock group, “Lemon Frog.” The group claimed “Best New Artist” at the 2013 Review Music Awards, to go along with Donald’s individual nods as “Best Blues Songwriter” and “Best Male Blues Vocalist.”
Having parted ways with the group, Donald Benjamin is back with his solo effort, “Reborn.” He is now touring, nationally, with a new, stellar group, known as Less Than Ordinary, featuring award-nominated instrumentalist and childhood friend, Ronnie James, and drummer Blaine Gaunt. In a recent interview Benjamin gave us some insight into his world of music.
- How long have you been in the music business and how did you get started in the first place?
Donald Benjamin: I got my professional start in 2002, so it’s been a good 13 years. I was fortunate to have made it to the semi-finals of a radio station sponsored talent search. That was followed with my first professionally-recorded single, which was blessed to have received a lot of airplay, relatively quickly. From there, I bounced around between solo performances and toying with a few bands, before settling in to where I am now.
- Who were your first musical influences that you can remember?
Donald Benjamin: I grew up listening to a very diverse array of music. From Richard Marx and Hall & Oates to Alice Cooper and Type O Negative, I ran the gamut, as far as musical styles. Marx and Cooper, in particular, always had a draw on my musical aspirations. I wanted to write deep, meaningful songs that connected with the emotions of the listener, like Marx, but still put on a Cooper-esque, entertaining show for the audience.
- Which artists are you currently listening to? And is there anyone of these that you’d like to collaborate with?
Donald Benjamin: Over the years, as my tastes have evolved, I’ve been listening to a wide array of styles. Currently, I’m really into the new soul- and rock-infused country sound, a la Thomas Rhett and Kip Moore. However, I still keep it mixed with acts like Heart, Joe Bonamassa, etc.
As far as collaborations, I would love to work with Marx. He’s got a great pedigree and such a unique, emotional take on songwriting. The way he elicits the raw emotion out of the listener is almost Godlike. His music, above all others, is what drew me to songwriting.
- You have been in various band situations. Do you ultimately prefer the freedom of working solo or rather the collaboration with other members in a band?
Donald Benjamin: Both have their pros and cons. In the solo situation, creative control is far greater. However, being with a group allows for more diverse ideas and feedback. Both, I feel, are beneficial to an emerging artist. The way the industry is, today, you almost need both, in order to make a name with either.
- What are your thoughts on visual media and Youtube in general? Do think that video is an appropriate marketing tool for your music, and what is your latest available video for fans to see?
Donald Benjamin: The social media revolution has, definitely, changed the way artists, and fans, relate to the music industry. For an emerging artist, not only do you have the means to promote yourself, but the platform has also allowed you the opportunity to be discovered, worldwide, which wasn’t always readily-accessible. It has become a tremendous asset to independent artists, as well as to fans looking to discover new music.
Right now, “Last Man Standing,” the first single and video, off my new solo album, “Reborn,” is still making waves. I released it, last year, prior to the album’s launch. It garnered a few awards and caused a bit of a stir, in a few markets around the world. We, as in myself and my group, Less Than Ordinary, will be working on our first single, together, in the coming months. We anticipate a video for that release, as well.
- Which do you ultimately prefer? Entertaining a live audience or creating songs in a studio environment?
Donald Benjamin: Nothing in this world can compare to performing before a live audience. There’s a certain aura about it that you just cannot match. When the crowd is into your music and full of energy, you feed on it and give it right back to them. It’s a remarkable relationship.
- Tell us something about your lyrics and music on your releases. Do you handle both by yourself or do you work with other composers?
Donald Benjamin: I have always had a talent for lyric-writing. It came naturally. Musically, that’s where the issues are. I’ve never fancied myself a great instrumentalist. I play well enough to write songs and perform, but have never had the skill to “shred.” I have made some great friendships with notable musicians, who have helped me along the way. On my latest album, “Reborn,” I enlisted some great support, including Bruce Lafrance, who has performed with many acts, including a stint as bassist for the certified gold album-selling rock band, Tantric.
- If you were forced to choose only one of the songs in your catalogue to represent the artist Donald Benjamin, which song would that be, and why?
Donald Benjamin: The one song that would describe me, would have to be “Destination Unknown,” which was the first single I ever recorded and dropped to radio. It’s about love lost, but its underlying theme has pretty much summed up my life and career direction. “I don’t know where I’m heading but I know I’ll be doing it on my own.”
- On which one of your songs do you feel you personally delivered your best performance so far, both technically and emotionally?
Donald Benjamin: Without question, it would be “Last Man Standing.” It’s a deep, emotional song. Everyone knows the feeling of heartache. I tried to tap into the very core of that, in my vocal delivery. On the album, you can hear it. There were moments where my voice crackled, due to the depths I was tapping into. We chose not to edit those, as the pure rawness of the feeling added to the overall ambience.
- If you were forced to choose only one, which emotion, more than any other drives you to be a part of this tough business?
Donald Benjamin: Fear. Not the fear of failure, or the fear of ridicule, but the fear that, one day, I’d look back and regret not giving it my all to advance this gift of music. I don’t want my children to say, “he could have made it, if only he tried.” Failing to try is the worst form of disrespect a person can direct toward themselves.
- Which aspect of being an independent artist and the music making process excites you most and which aspect discourages you most?
Donald Benjamin: I love the creative side. Being able to start with nothing and, at the end, hold something beautiful… that’s what drives all musicians, at the most basic of levels.
As for discouraging; the negativity within the industry, amongst peers is reaching an all-time high. Where support and compassion for a music scene once held, is now replaced with brutality, underhandedness and a general lack of respect for artists – both others and themselves.
- How do you market and manage your music career? Do you have a management team to assist you or do you control everything by yourself?
Donald Benjamin: I take a VERY hands-on approach to the business side. I’m a bit of a control freak, especially when it comes to my musical career. I handle all the day-to-day phone calls, contracts, emails, etc. You name it. I do it. When I do need help, I enlist my wife, who knows me, my personality and how I like things to be done.
The marketing side has been trying, but fun. Working with radio, television and print media is always tricky, but you find ways to get things accomplished. Eventually, you build a relationship with each individual media contact. You learn what they like, what they prefer, as far as marketing strategy. From there, things tend to settle into place.
- How do you achieve your sound? Do you work from a private recording environment or do you use a commercial sound studio?
Donald Benjamin: I’ve done both. The new album was recorded at Maple Hill Studios in Midland, Michigan. It was, really, the first time I’ve worked with the professional side of the studio world. My previous music was recorded in a very do-it-yourself way, as was the technology of the time. We’ve advanced so rapidly, as far as technology, in such a short time, that almost anyone can put out a good-quality recording from their own home. Though I’ve done that, the quality and experience of being in a studio setting is invaluable.
- The best piece of advice in this business you actually followed so far, and one you didn’t follow, but now know for sure that you should have?
Donald Benjamin: Although recent, I was preparing for my album release party. A friend of a friend, Brian Kelly (Florida-Georgia Line), sent me a Tweet of encouragement, a couple days before. He told me to “be confident and rock the Hell out!” To receive encouragement like that, as an independent artist, from someone of that caliber, really gave me a boost in confidence. Since then, every day, I remember that and try to do just that, in each and everything I do. Be confident and rock the Hell out.
I can’t really say I have any advice I regret not taking. I try to weigh everything, pro and con, and make the best judgment I can. While I have received advice from a lot of people who know the industry, or think they do, the best course of action has always been, for me, to weigh it and plan accordingly. Sometime you hit. Sometimes you miss. As long as you stay true to yourself and your goals, there’s no real way you can go wrong.
- What are your personal thoughts on talent shows like American Idol, The Voice and the X-Factor etc.?
Donald Benjamin: In American idol’s first season, 102.5 WIOG, a Saginaw, Michigan radio station, held their first “Mid-Michigan Idol” competition. That was where I made my debut, reaching the semi-finals. It was a great experience and I have no regrets about doing it. However, the last decade of shows like “Idol,” “the Voice” or “Nashville Star” has made a mockery of those trying to reach their dreams. I think many of those who compete would be better off working on their craft, putting in the time and effort, rather than hoping for a easy “break” from a television show. There is so much to learn in the industry. Much of it, you can only learn from experiencing the trials, successes and failures of “life on the road.”
- Do you consider Internet and all the social media websites, as fundamental to your career, and indie music in general, or do you think it has only produced a mass of mediocre “copy-and-paste” artists, who flood the web, making it difficult for real talent to emerge?
Donald Benjamin: I think it’s a bit of both. Yes, there are those “copy-and-paste” artists. There always have been and always will be. It’s how the media market makes a profit. However, for every 100 of them, 4 or 5 true artists break through, thanks to the social media outlets. Those are the ones who break the molds and rise to the top. One way or another, social media is here to stay. We, as artists, need to adapt and find a way to be one of those who break through. It’s not all dependent on social media, but the medium can help.
- To someone has never heard Donald Benjamin, which keywords would you personally use to describe your overall sound and style?
Donald Benjamin: I consider my music more alternative country. There are too many blues and rock influences to stay in line with traditional country music. I’ve heard people compare me to Bon Jovi, Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) and Huey Lewis. While that flatters me, to no end, I don’t think the comparisons are fitting. My voice is not hard, like a rocker. But I’m not pop, either. Nor do I have the country “twang” most would expect. I’m an emotional singer with a fair bit of “rasp” and “growl” to my voice, but not overly so. I think that’s what makes my music unique, in the country genre.
- Could you tell fans what your latest single and/or album release is and where to find it?
Donald Benjamin: “Last Man Standing” is the latest single, which has been picked up for airplay. However, we are now pushing “Used To” to all major formats and media outlets.
All of my music can be found on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and other digital media platforms. There are convenient link from my website and that of Straight Edge Entertainment, my management and marketing company.
- As you work your way through your career, which more than any other fires-up your imagination – A Grammy award, Platinum music sales or any other tangible milestone?
Donald Benjamin: Having a sold-out arena sing back to me, a song that came from my soul. That’s where it’s at, for me. That’s the experience I want to feel. To know that, in my own way, I wrote something that touched so many. There could be no greater feeling than that.
- What is the ONE thing you are NOT willing or prepared to do EVER, in your quest to achieve or consolidate a successful musical career?
Donald Benjamin: In this business, you find out, really quickly, that everyone has their own idea about what you need to do to be a success. They want you to change your clothes… your sound… your entire package. Everything is pre-packaged and, rarely, does true individualism take precedence.
I’ve learned that, to be, truly, successful, you have to be true to yourself, and your art, first. I know who, and what, I am. At no point, am I willing to sell my soul to the industry devil, just to get ahead. I know I’m a bit brash. I know I’m a bit edgy. I don’t sugarcoat things and I’m not about to start. I play my music, my way. That’s the all of it. Some will love it. Others won’t. You just have to be you and let the chips fall where they may.