About a year ago, I saw Marco Benevento cover Davie Bowie’s Hunky Dory at The Knitting Factory. It was an indelible performance, marked by Benevento’s convivial showmanship and his efforts to invoke Starman’s ethos (he played piano while clad in a bejeweled cape). From “Changes” to “Eight Line Poem,” Benevento led his audience in an 11 – track sing-along, setting aside his instrumental-first MO for an album of Bowie’s most lyrically memorable songs. Over the past couple years, the pianist’s own voice has grown increasingly prominent in his music.
At the end of March, Benevento released a two-part record called The Story of Fred Short. The songwriter lives on Fred Short Street and he named his recording studio after the figure, but he’s never know who he actually was. To satiate his curiosity, Benevento ascribed a mythical history to Fred Short and turned it into the seven-song B Side of his new LP.
The record is just Benevento’s second to feature his own vocals (the first was 2014’s Swift). Naturally a staunch experimentalist and jazz-educated improviser, Benevento is slowly beginning to emerge into the world of more traditional songwriting. His move from New York City to Woodstock has helped him rediscover the importance of extant, lyric-driven American songbooks. We talked about that transition, the new record, and the connective nature of the human voice.
Before we got there, though, we started at the beginning.
So where did it all begin?
M. I guess one of the biggest memories I have of me sitting down and enjoying music as a kid is when I was in my room with some synthesizers that my parents bought for me. I had a four-track recorder and a drum machine and I liked sequencing songs and recording in my room. On the flip side, I played in bands a lot when I was growing up.
I eventually went to Berklee College of Music and studied jazz there. When I got out of school, I was just playing all around the city: rock gigs, jazz gigs. And it took off from there.
What kind of stuff were you listening to when you were first starting to record on your four-track?
M. I liked Led Zeppelin a lot growing up, and The Beatles and The Stones—stuff like that. I got deep into The Meters when I was 17 or 18, and New Orleans music and funk. And then I was transitioning from rock to jazz with electric Miles. But I grew up liking popular music and rock music.
When did you first start to mess with musical toys and circuitry and stuff like that?
M. I met a guy in Chicago back in 2004. His name is Tom Stephenson and he still does circuit bending himself. He has a band called Roth Mobot. He came to one of my gigs and gave me a bunch of these circuit-bent toys and I fell in love with the glitch boxes and these crazy lo-fi sounds—I wound up using them a lot to compose music. I would just record a layer of circuit-bent toys and drum machines and have a whole other way of composing music. I got a laptop in 2004 as well, figured out Pro Tools and was messing around with that while I was on the road.
For the last 14 years I’ve basically been on the road doing over 100 shows a year, so figuring stuff out on the road was sort of essential. I was doing a lot of laptop work and recording little keyboards or circuit-bent toys in the van, or at a venue or hotel room. I was really drawn to the engineering side of music. But I’m very much a performer and I do lots of gigs and I’ve learned a lot about improvisation along the way. Two different worlds for sure, but each complement each other a lot.
Your recording studio is called Fred Short. The new album is called The Life of Fred Short. Could you talk about what Fred Short means to you?
M. I live on Fred Short Road here in Saugerties and I’ve always wondered who Fred Short was. I asked my neighbors about it and nobody seemed to know who he was so I just went ahead and made up a story about Fred Short as a Native American spiritual healer who predicted that the world was going to end because we were polluting it terribly. He made a journey from New Mexico to the Catskills, and his name wasn’t really Fred Short. He was renamed by Henry Hudson when he settled here. He renamed a lot of the Native American people that were here because they had long Indian names like ‘Bear Running Through River Looking For Fish,’ so he decided to change everybody’s name to a very common English name, like Fred Short. And there’s another street called John Joy. And George Karl. Very common names. I went with a story about how Fred was walking with his friend Tyrone and a bunch of people from New Mexico all the way to the Catskills and finally made it. He was predicting that the sun is almost over. That was one of the things he kept saying: ‘The sun is almost over! The sun is almost over!’ People were trying to heed his message.
I basically had a night here in my studio where I improvised music for an hour and a half. And then I took this hour and a half of the improvisation and scaled it down to a little under a half an hour, and I extracted all the song ideas out of it and decided to keep the order of the songs the same and basically have this whole suite of songs that go together—which is the complete Side B of this record. So I had this really inspiring night here in the studio and basically wrote seven songs in an hour and a half, but it took me two years to extract them and rewrite them and perfect them and put them into album form. Extracting the music and having the music be about Fred and his journey to the Catskills and his messages to people…it was fun to conceptualize and dive into something that wasn’t really myself. It was more this story about this guy having a good time and partying and having vision quests on his land.
Yeah, to embody another persona. Very Bowie-esque.
M. Yeah totally [ laughs]. The songs are really easy to get—they’re not fusion, or so conceptual. It’s really just dance music. It’s almost like LCD Soundsystem, you know? Drum machines and dancey basslines and really simple melodic lines over it. It’s a conceptual record, but it’s not like Rush’s 2112 or something like that.
The album you released a couple years ago [Swift] was the first time you ever sang on any of the songs that you wrote, and then obviously you did that again for this record. Does it feel even more comfortable now? Do you feel like you have more freedom in your songwriting because of it?
M. Yeah with Swift I was like ‘I don’t know I don’t write lyrics’ and ‘I don’t know I’m not a singer.’ I had this lack of confidence about it and I didn’t really like my voice so much anyway, but after touring around and playing Swift and recording Swift, I grew out of that and learned that anybody can sing and nobody likes the sound of their own voice anyways. I just had to embrace it.
So this time around, I felt like I wasn’t starting at the beginning. I knew what I wanted to do and I wanted to do it better. I was really excited about it—more so than with Swift. It was almost daunting with Swift. But for this one I was like ‘alright I can do this better—I remember what I did last time and now I can do it better.’ Yeah I feel a lot more confident. I’m still a beginner with it and I’m still learning a hell of a lot about it, but at least I’m not timid.
And you added guitar as well to this album, and that was the first time you’d done that, right?
M. Yeah! Brad and Andrew Barr from the Barr Brothers were passing through and they stopped by for a minute and they played a rough of one of my tunes. Before they knew it they had headphones on and they were recording on Fred Short.
Have these new things—singing and adding guitar—given rise to any other notable things you’ve never done to your songs, that now you’re thinking about doing in the future?
M. Yeah absolutely. I’m surprised that I made four instrumental records [laughs]. I mean now I’m just hooked on writing these lyrics and coming up with melodies and singing. It’s so nice to see the audience singing your words when you’re doing live shows—that’s a new thing for us. We’ve just been rocking instrumentals with some heavy improvisation, and how we’re doing songs with words and people are singing along and dancing. There’s more of a connection to the audience—almost like a marketable band sound that anybody can get, from my mom’s friends to my kids’ friends, to hippies. We’re connecting to lots more people with these songs.
Yeah the human voice—the ultimate uniter.
M. Yeah when you think of a band, you think of singer, guitar player, bass, drums, keyboard—in that order. Granted, I was into Led Zeppelin and pop music growing up, but eventually I got into jazz. And coming from the jazz and improvisational music, it’s like, ‘oh right, duh, forgot about all that part of singing.’ So anyways, it’s really great. I’m working on new music right now that has a lot more lyrical ideas.
You’ve been in the New York scene for a while now. Is there anything in particular you’ve noticed change over the years—like the energy, or the types of music you’re playing around, or the people?
M. Yeah, I mean I lived in Brooklyn for 10 years and I met a handful of musicians along the way—obviously. I played with a ton of people. I was definitely focusing on my own music on the way, but played with a bunch of folks. The scene in New York City is super fun and fast-paced and there are so many different clubs to play. And then I had kids and started collecting lots of pianos and synthesizers and my apartment in New York was slowing getting smaller and smaller and we moved to Woodstock.
Now I’ve been hanging out with a whole other crew of people up here, like singer- songwriters like Amy Helm and Tracy Bonham. I’m still connected with John Medeski. I played with Levon before he passed. And doing gigs up here is a lot different than New York. There’s more singing. Quite honestly there are a lot of band songs that you play. It’s a cool transition for me to be leaving New York and coming up here to the country, where the songs are more traditional Americana versus the experimental things happening down in New York. I love both, and I still do some heavy jamming with friends, and experimenting, but now I’m appreciating the rock roots factor a lot more. I’m a little more aware of how important it is to just sing a song and play it versus being a badass improviser, which I’ve been trained to do over the last 20 years of my life. That’s very important—you have to be able to play your instrument—but now it’s fun to focus on the song elements of music. I feel like the transition from New York to Woodstock has really helped me with that.
…Being at Berklee for four years kicked my ass. I studied with Joanne Brackeen, who was the only woman that ever played with Art Blakey. She got me doing things I never thought I could do, like playing Chick Corea solos and understanding Bill Evans harmonically. And then when you take that knowledge in harmony and take it over to the rock world, you can see how different it is and how much simpler it is, but there’s all these intricacies in vocals and lyric writing and song form approaches with this rock music.
There are so many different parts about music. There’s no wrong way. It’s not hard, it’s not easy—it’s whatever you want it to be. It’s really fun. At this point in my life, it’s just become about art, about making stuff that you feel represents you as a person.