Golden Notes: An Interview With David Benedict
More and more 2018 is shaping up to be the year where instrumental records overtake my love of the sung word. David Benedict‘s The Golden Angle is another rung in that ever climbing ladder. Beauty, virtuosity, thoughtfulness could also be used to describe the mandolinist’s sophomore record, but sometimes its best to just allow the words to come direct from the source. We were lucky to catch up with David to talk about his process, balancing creativity between projects and his roots.
DB: The community around bluegrass music is one of the main reasons that I got hooked. I remember going to my first bluegrass jam in high school and getting to experience that special connection you can only get from musical interaction. It seems that bluegrass has an especially strong community sense due to the social nature of the annual festival circuit around the country and the corresponding jamming culture. Everyone picks and the scene is small enough to know just about everyone. It’s been really humbling to see the amount of mutual respect, camaraderie, and support between artists too. For example, there was this really amazing moment in the studio while we were working on The Golden Angle. One day Stuart brought in his personal banjo that had signatures on it from Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Bela Fleck and others. He said he was collecting signatures from all of the great banjo players he’s worked with and he wanted Wes to sign it.
These days my main project Mile Twelve has been my primary musical community. Everyone in the band is so motivated, dedicated, and hard working–I always feel more inspired after getting to play music with them. To me, community gives a reason for what I do as musician. Getting to make good music with and for others should always be the purpose behind the sound.
DB: That’s a good question. When I compose a tune I usually think more about the personal enjoyment of the composition rather than trying to elicit a certain feeling or image to the listener. Specifically, as a player I’m always looking for a symmetry between the way the music sounds and the way the music lays out physically on the instrument. In other words, I want to play music that sounds good and feels good as a mandolinist. When I compose something that I like it’s usually a lightbulb moment of “Oh, of course that’s how this song should go!” That was a core theme for this whole album. The term “The Golden Angle” is actually a mathematical principle that is demonstrated beautifully in nature by the whorling pattern of petals on a plant stem. I thought that idea encapsulated the spirit of these tunes well—trying to find that link between tactile complexity and melodic inevitability.
In that sense, I guess composing is a very personal, internal thing for me. So I’m always a little surprised and humbled when someone comes up to me after a show to say that one of my instrumental compositions gave them chills or brought tears to their eyes. I’m so grateful that my personal music can resonate with other people in such a deep and personal way too.
RLR: You say you had two dream team studio bands. That really intrigues me in a few ways. First, how did you manage to create something that is fluid and cohesive with a different slew of artists? I think that is probably a testament to your playing and writing taking center stage, but did you find any difficulties there?
DB: Even with two different bands I had trouble creating music that didn’t sound too similar, haha! Reminds me of that old joke that the only difference from one fiddle tune to the next is just the name. The common vernacular and performance practice of instrumental bluegrass music is such an established form and sound. Even though some of the tunes on this record aren’t necessarily bluegrass, I still found it difficult to diversify my compositions and arrangements. I think having two different bands actually helped add some variety and flavor to the album while the thematic material of the tunes served as the common thread. Also, some of my favorite records like Bryan Sutton’s Almost Live project or the Grammy-winning Fiddler’s Green album by Tim O’Brien all follow that same model of rotating cast members. Even now when I listen back to The Golden Angle the it feels like the tracks fit together in an uncanny way. There’s a natural unfolding order, and I think the different bands really aid in that progression.
RLR: I feel like there is sometimes a difficulty in artists who are in multiple projects to kind of parse their creativity or writing exercises between them. Maybe thats just me, but I have had a hard time in the past saying “ok, this is a song I want for me solo vs. this is a tune I want for the trio that I am in”. I look at like I’m With Her and wonder how they decide whats a song for THAT band vs. solo stuff. Or more locally, like Lula Wiles and how Ellie and Isa have their own solo projects kind of boiling in the background. Did you run into any of that here? Why or why not? Is it a dynamic thing with Mile Twelve and who is doing the main writing, or did you just kind of say “this is the collection of tunes I want for this solo record”?
DB: Definitely a huge consideration when being a part of a full time band. Thankfully I didn’t have to worry too much about that with this side project. Mile Twelve is a band that primarily plays lyric-centered material. My bandmates are all amazing instrumentalists and we incorporate that aspect into our show, but our main goal is to present original material that tells a story and connects with bluegrass and non-bluegrass audiences alike. I’ve written other instrumental pieces for the band to use, but there’s just not enough room in the Mile Twelve catalog for a whole album’s worth of it. I wanted another way to share all of this extra material I’d been composing over the past couple years and this album became the perfect outlet for it.
RLR: When it comes to composing, is there a way that songs typically come to you? Are you kind of like an “ok, THIS is the melody line for the A part” or do you kind of build something around a chord structure, or both? I am really interested in how people from different schools of thought attack a song in that way.
DB: Composing is such a fickle thing! I often suffer from writer’s block, but I find the best thing to do is just to write and to write often. Even if you think the tune is sounding terrible in the moment, you never know what might stick when looking back. Matt Flinner has been a huge inspiration to me on this topic. His trio does this crazy thing called Music Du Jour where each member of the band has to compose and arrange a new tune the day of every show and then they have to perform the piece at that evening’s concert. Pretty mind blowing! I guess the idea is that if you write so prolifically it takes the pressure off of each composition. You know you’re bound to write a bunch of mediocre music, but odds are you might find a few diamonds in the rough every once in a while.
As far as the compositions process goes, I try to write in as many different ways as possible. Sometimes I’ll write it out on paper, other times I’ll work it out by ear or even try improvising the melody. I’ll usually sit down with a few working points in mind like a melodic phrase, a chord progression, a unique time signature or key, etc. Then I’ll set my timer for 30 minutes and go after it until the buzzer sounds. I rarely complete a whole composition in that period of time, but after doing many writing sessions like this a new tune tends to fall into place.
RLR: Speaking of that, let’s end with the beginning, what is your back story? You said you went to your first bluegrass jam in high school, so were you classically trained before that or kind of sticking to yourself and learning songs?
DB: I wish I could say that I had deeper roots in one specific genre, but my experience with music has been centered more around the instrument rather than any particular style. There’s a special community around the mandolin that not many other instruments have. Similar to the bluegrass community, it’s small enough to really get to know folks—amateurs and professionals alike. But the community is also global and diverse. I remember vividly going to the Mandolin Symposium in high school and meeting and hearing folks like Mike Marshall, David Grisman, Marla Fibish, Mike Compton, and others for the first time. It rocked my world to see all the huge musical possibilities that this little instrument was capable of.
I got my first mandolin when I was 13, but I didn’t really get into music until later on in high school. Around that time, I started playing with a local Celtic music band and got thoroughly hooked on the fiddle tune genre and music in general—so much so that I decided I had to keep learning about music in college. While studying there I first started learning about classical music, jazz, and even bluegrass. I was also lucky enough to have been selected to attend The Acoustic Music Seminar for young musicians (that’s where I first met the members of Mile Twelve). But I think my real education started when I moved to Nashville after school. Music City was a very challenging and inspiring place for me. I didn’t know many folks in the scene when I moved there, and it took a while to get my feet on the ground. But I was fortunate to meet Missy Raines and to start playing with her band on the road. There’s no better music university than touring and performing with a group. Now living in Boston and touring with Mile Twelve, I’ve had more learning opportunities than I could ask for. I get inspiration from my bandmates—everyone is incredibly hard working and talented. Also, it’s given me an excuse to dive deeper into the one genre of bluegrass. I’m excited to see where this project takes us all!