For Benjamin Booker, A Missed Shot Became A Music Career

Aug 16, 2014
Originally published on January 30, 2015 10:39 am

Benjamin Booker has had a big year. On the strength of a homemade demo that caught on strong, the 25-year-old musician has signed with a big label, toured with Jack White, booked sets at Lollapalooza and the Newport Folk Festival and been a musical guest for David Letterman and Conan O'Brien.

A few years ago, Booker had his eyes on a different prize: working at NPR. He applied for an internship ... and was rejected. But in a conversation with weekends on All Things Considered host Arun Rath, he says missing out on the gig opened the door to many more, setting him on the path to making music professionally.

Booker's self-titled studio debut, an album of what he calls "punk blues" inspired by his experiences with religion, relationships and friends in low places, is out Aug. 19. Hear the interview at the audio link.

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland. And this is the story of a 25-year-old musician who burst onto the scene thanks to a homemade demo that quickly became the talk of the music world. This is Benjamin Booker.


BENJAMIN BOOKER: (Singing) Where I'm going, where I'm going? Where I'm going I'll never know. Into the fire I thought you'll put it girl.

VIGELAND: This song is "Violent Shiver" from Booker's self-titled debut album, which sounds a little better than those bedroom demos. He made those just a few years ago at his boyhood home in Tampa, expecting nothing would come of them.

BOOKER: And then I shared them with some friends and they got picked up by a blog out in LA - Aquarium Drunkard. And then they played them on Sirius Satellite Radio. And then, yeah, after that I just got calls and e-mails from people. That's when things started picking up.

VIGELAND: And by picking up, he means signing with a big label, getting booked to play at the Newport Folk Festival and Lollapalooza and David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. Arun Rath spoke with Benjamin Booker earlier this week.


ARUN RATH, BYLINE: Now, I also heard that NPR played a role in your musical development.

BOOKER: Yeah, I mean I listen to a lot of NPR. I tried to intern there after college. I didn't get it.

RATH: Well, that was what I heard. I heard you applied for an internship and it didn't come through.

BOOKER: Yeah, the guy I play bass with, Alex, actually did intern at NPR. He probably took the internship that I didn't get.


RATH: If you got that internship, do you think you would've struck out in music the way you have?

BOOKER: No, not at all. I would have probably just done that and probably be doing that right now, yeah (laughter).

RATH: So NPR did you a favor in a way - or the musical world favor because I'm sure you would've been a great intern.

BOOKER: Yeah. I mean, I was obsessed with NPR when I was in college, yeah.

RATH: How would you describe the sound? Well, I saw you describe it somewhere as punk blues?

BOOKER: Yeah, I mean, I get you describe it as punk blues. I guess when I was putting it together, I was thinking of just using, like, gospel and like blues melodies - the stuff that I was listening to at the time and putting that with the punk I had grown up with and just, like, the rhythm and blues kind of like '50s rhythm and blues that I was listening to. So just mixing those things together, yeah.


BOOKER: (Singing) Always working, always working. He said God is working. And he said God is working. Always searching, always searching. He said Devil's working. He said Devil's working. Baby don't wait.

These songs are the first songs I've ever written. So it's been about two years I think. And I played my first live show in maybe May or June of 2012. So it hasn't been too long.

RATH: Wow. And everybody wants to be a star, but do you feel like you were ready for that? Because again, it happened so quickly before you know it, you were playing at Lollapalooza and the Newport Folk Festival.

BOOKER: Yeah, I mean, I guess I've learned a lot about myself. I think I happen to be one of those people who, like, does pretty well under pressure. And, of course, I like stress out about all of these things before they happen and, like, I don't know, almost unable to, like, move, like, sometimes before these things. But they always end up working out.


BOOKER: (Singing) Told me that the world is full of sinners and placed that Bible at my feet.

RATH: I noticed that you have some - a few religious themes on this album. Most clearly in the song "Have You Seen My Son?

BOOKER: Yeah, I mean I grew up in a very, very religious family. And I don't know, I was struggling I guess around the time that I was writing the songs because - I don't know - I guess my family had certain expectations of where I should go with my life and the kind of person that I should be. And I just had a different idea.

RATH: What were their expectations for you?

BOOKER: My dad was in the military. And my mom went to school for, like, theology and stuff and like they - I mean, they just want me to, like, get married and have kids and join the military and that kind of thing. And I was like I want to play rock 'n roll music.


BOOKER: And yeah - I don't know - there's, like, always going to be, like, a little part of them that's, like, disappointed. But it's OK. I don't know, things have gotten - our relationship is definitely stronger now.

RATH: Well, I have to think they're a bit more convinced about this being a pretty good career path.

BOOKER: I mean, they would still like me to do something else (laughter).


BOOKER: (Singing) All the way from Florida all the way down to New Orleans. I said God must love everyone even the ones he just loves the least. They say that when a mother loves a child she will do most anything. I know that I can never make it right but it's hard to hear you say have you seen my son? He's lost in the world somewhere. I help him.

RATH: I'm speaking with Benjamin Booker about his self-titled debut album. It comes out on Tuesday. How old are you? You're 25?

BOOKER: Yeah, 25.

RATH: Because these songs sound like they come from an old place.

BOOKER: I mean, there's a lot happening. I guess I get a lot of experience in a very short period of time. I mean, Florida's really a rough, rough place to live sometimes. So...

RATH: Well, talk about that. How - rough way in what ways?

BOOKER: At the time, I guess I was a pretty self-destructive person. And I was in a relationship with somebody who was the same way. And it was just, like, a bad combination. I was also living with somebody who was, like, addicted to drugs and there was, like, people shooting up in my living room and stuff. And...

RATH: You know, it's kind of a cliche question, but is the music therapeutic for you in that way?

BOOKER: It was mostly - I mean, I was writing the songs before I knew that they were going to be released. And it was mostly a way to, like, start conversations with friends. Like the girl that I mentioned earlier - my friend who's, like, addicted to drugs - I remember writing one of the songs, I thought of her just screaming this thing that happened and just, like, sharing that song with her and, like, that started, I guess, like, a dialogue between us. It was just, like, a way for us to start talking about something that was hard for me to talk about or get started, you know.


BOOKER: (Singing) Set yourself on fire so high, so high. I could feel your heart was beating. did you love me or was it drugs?

It was just hard to come out at the beginning and say those things. But I think writing the songs and sharing them made them easier.


BOOKER: (Singing) And our love we're living now will surely bury me.

RATH: At Lollapalooza this year, you joined the pantheon of rock greats who have smashed their guitars at the end of the show. Are you, like, a young Pete Townshend? Are you an angry young man?

BOOKER: No, I'm not an angry guy.

RATH: You don't sound angry.

BOOKER: No, that was just like - we were - I was having, like, a rough show with the guitar. I was tuning the guitars that - that day. And I guess...

RATH: So that guitar was asking for it, huh?

BOOKER: (Laughter) Yeah. It was kind of - I was really bummed out about it at the end. That was the first guitar I ever had so, yeah.

RATH: So that was kind of a singular thing, Benjamin Booker smashing the guitar.

BOOKER: Yeah no, I don't regularly do that. If you come to the live shows, don't expect me to smash guitars. I can't afford to do that.


RATH: That's Benjamin Booker. His self-titled debut album comes out on Tuesday. But until then, you can sample every track at our exclusive First Listen. That's at And hey, that means you're finally at NPR Music.


RATH: Congratulations.

BOOKER: Thank you so much.


BOOKER: (Singing) I've been thinking about love. Right now I'm still thinking about her. Does a mother know her daughter's gone? Is she down on her knees now crying.

VIGELAND: And for Saturday, that is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Tess Vigeland.


BOOKER: (Singing) I've been thinking about love. Right now I'm still thinking about her. I can see her lonely face. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.