Joelle Bensaid: Poetry in Tune
What first inspired you to get into music?
JB: Probably my mom, she had a really great music taste and she still does.
What artists did she listen to?
JB: She listened to everything. My dad listened to a lot of classical music and jazz. But my mom listens to a lot of R and B, Whitney Huston, Luther Van Draws. Also just Fleetwood Mac and a lot of older artists.
So you named a lot of women artists, was it cool to see growing up female artists achieve a lot in the rock genre which is mainly fronted by men?
JB: Yeah, I tend to naturally gravitate towards female artists, especially in rock and jazz music. I go to the New School for jazz and contemporary music which is very male and jazz dominated. In jazz it's one of those genres where you can have a vocalist but you don’t really need a vocalist. There's a partial imbalance there's and my upbringing helped me navigate my opinions on that.
Did you start off singing or did you play an instrument first?
JB: I sang first. I took guitar lessons in second grade, but gave up on that for a while. When I was 12, I started taking piano lessons. I’ve never really been trained in a lot of things through music. I taught myself most things musically.
Is it different now being predominantly self taught and then going to school for it?
JB: Immensely, but it’s weird because I don’t know if it was my teachers, but I just wasn’t getting it before. Now that I’m here, I’m getting it a lot more and I’m surprised on my grasp.
Do you think it is the way they are teaching or that you have a better foundation?
JB: I have an extremely gifted theory teacher, (Richard Harper) and he’s explained things to me, l understand modes now and I understand how to go in and out of keys based on the circle of fifths and different chord progressions.
Do you think for contemporary music knowing music theory is as important for contemporary music as for jazz?
JB: Well I think it depends on how you define contemporary music. I don’t really have any desire to be in pop music at all, not even a little bit. I’m very detached from what's going on right now. But I'm not one of those people that are like I’ll only listen to vintage music or if it’s from a different time period. There’s some people that are really good today, some people that haven’t been discovered.
What do you not like about pop music now?
JB: I just think it sucks. There’s no honesty in the music and it’s all about exploitation. It’s no longer an art form, it’s purely based on the entertainment aspect of it.
Do you think there’s more originality with music from the past?
JB: Yes, specifically with the 60s going into the 70s. Even now, I mean I haven’t taken a music history class yet, but I went to Berklee College of Music for the 5 week summer program for two summers and I learned a little about music history there and the origins of the blues. Jazz, blues, beatpop and all of the genres, even rock and roll are experimental. In terms of artistically and originality, the 60s and 70s were everything in music. There wasn’t really a theme, there was everything. No one was really like, “Oh, I just like rock music.” There was more variation, there was Billy Joel that was popular at the same time as Queen and Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie. They were all very different artists.
So today there’s just more of a clone cycle.
JB: Absolutely, without a doubt, I don’t even sugar coat it. I don’t like when people tell me I don’t even give it a chance because I do. I can listen to an old recording, Billy Joel live at Carnegie Hall is one of my favorite recordings, it’s so underproduced, raw and there’s so much emotion and beauty from that era that isn’t around today. I think Queen is a better example, it was also about hype and having a good time, but he was also about making music. Bohemian Rhapsody is an extremely complicated song. Today you have people that are just about the outfits and dress up and the stage presence.
When you do your own music is integrity and honesty at the forefront of it? Do you draw upon past experiences?
JB: Yes. I’m really into lyrics. I like poetry a lot, that’s why I’m drawn to folk music a lot.
What’s your process for songwriting?
JB: Sometimes it’ll just come to me. Most of the time I write the lyrics first. I find that writing a song without the lyrics is harder because you have to write the lyrics around the melody. I just find that more restricting, but it works for some people. I go off the emotion of the lyrics and the music. I don’t think I write the same piano versus the guitar.
What makes something a poem versus lyrics for a song?
JB: With some songs, especially today you can kinda just tell that they’re there for shock value or to fit with the music. I think a lot of times that lyrics are an afterthought.
I know with folk music especially, the lyrics are more story based and at the forefront of the song. It makes sense why you gravitate towards that. When did you first start writing?
JB: When I was younger I always kinda wrote. I didn’t know how to really play an instrument or anything, but I would start writing lyrics. I had a book that was full of lyrics but since I didn’t know how to play an instrument I would do whatever sounds good. I didn’t know what I was doing at all, I still kinda don’t, but that’s part of the process. The first time I wrote my first conscious song I was 15.
You mentioned that your parents had a huge influence on you. Do they play anything?
JB: My grandmother on my dad's side, I never met her unfortunately, my dad had a strict upbringing he had to study all the time. I would say he was a renaissance man, he loved music and art, but he was a chemist and a mathematician. When he was younger he grew up in Marseille, France and his mom would play Chopin on piano, so she played. My mom was a punk rock singer for a little bit before she turned to R and B. She gave up on music because she didn’t believe in herself. That’s why she’s so supportive, she doesn't want what happened to her to happen to me.
So you said that you grew up in New York, do you think being exposed to so many cultures has influenced you?
JB: Without a doubt. My grandmother used to live with us when I was younger and she would always put on Audrey Hepburn, who was a big influence on me stylistically. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Moon River was such an important moment for me as a child. Growing up here and seeing people busking on the streets and going to jazz performances. Jazz has always been a part of my life.
Do you think it’s the familiarity that you have with jazz from growing up that makes you appreciate it so much or you personally?
JB: It’s a mixture, I used to enjoy jazz because it was the soundtrack of New York. But now I appreciate it for the theory aspect of it. It is very complex and I think it’s the foundation of all other music because improvisation is what jazz is built on. I like how there’s not that many rules you can be as experimental as you want.
Do you like learning standards or is it just something you need to know?
JB: My only qualm about it is that I wish I could learn a standard and then whatever song I want. I want to become a better folk singer as well. It’s hard for me to sing and talk, it may just be the quality of my voice. But I love jazz. A lot of standards were in broadway musicals or came from them. It’s just another way to show how versatile jazz is. Even seven chords are just jazz, throw a couple of seventh chords and it’s jazz. A good person who utilizes that is Rex Orange County, he’s like a walking seventh chord.
So you mentioned musicals, are they something that interests you?
JB: I did musicals in high school. My first musical was the 25th annual Clemming County spelling bee and I was the lead, it was really interesting. Like I said I’m not really trained and there were so many people that we had to double cast and the girl I was paired with was a professionally trained opera singer. They really instilled a high soprano in me. I think the higher register in me is stronger because of that part of my life.
How has having stage fright played a role in your music career?
JB: It has really held me back, like a lot.
Was it something that developed or you just had it from the get go?
J:B When I was younger I was extremely outgoing. I was bullied in elementary school, so I think that’s affected it a lot. It’s a part of life. I have always loved singing and performing and I constantly feel like I’m not good enough, but a lot of people have that. I always doubt my skill and as a woman it's true. A lot of people hate that, but it's true you have to prove yourself just a little bit more. Even in jazz youth skills are constantly being questioned, especially as a vocalist.
Have you felt that double standard at school?
JB: Yeah, but I don’t think it's a problem within the school, it's more just an industry. More of a social problem than a school one because it happens everywhere. I have a friend that goes to Belmont University and its rock and roll, same idea. A lot of rock and roll songs are about woman, sex and doing drugs.
Sex in music has always been there, but they way it was articulated in the 60s or 70s was much more romantic and nuanced.
JB: Now to be even worse, it's like I’m the side piece. What is this teaching people and I hate when people say it’s not the obligation to teach people how to be a good person. But they should want to teach people how to be a good person, they have a fan base who loves them, they should want to not be hypocritical.
So what is your experience with busking?
JB: This happened two days ago, there was this little old man singing. I think Sam Cook and I had a guitar on my back because I was going to my voice lesson. He was like I guess you have time to sing a song with me. I only had three minutes, but he invited me back to the same spot to sing with him. But I’m afraid to do it.
Is it the stage fright?
JB: Yeah, but it’s also the setting. I want to sing in a little smokey cafe because that’s me, I don’t want to sing in a big stadium. I like intimate concerts and I feel like people are more likely to listen to what I’m saying. When I'm singing my songs they mean a lot to me so I want people to be able to hear them.
You don’t want the distractions of the city or any other noise competing with what you’re saying.
JB: I had a performance at my dorm and the only people that were talking were the boys in jazz. That is my biggest pet peeve because it takes a lot for someone to get up there to perform and you should listen.
So knowing that you have stage fright is there a plan to get over it or how do you prepare yourself to perform.
JB: Recently I was actually at a jazz club called Jewels in St. Marks and I told the woman who was singing that I thought she was good and that I’m studying to be a jazz performer and she asked me to sing a song with her. I was like oh shit.
Put on the spot a little bit.
JB: Well I needed to think about it for at least an hour, but the third song she called me up.
Well at least you got fifteen minutes.
JB: Yeah I was freaking out and I was like just do it don’t be dumb. I went up and there was a lot of pressure, but it was really nice. A few weeks later I came back to the jazz place and one of the waiters approached me and asked if I sang a couple weeks ago.
You’re famous now.
JB: I was like how did you remember that? He said I was really good and asked if I wanted to do a three hour set. He asked me to get a band together and in January I think I’m gonna do it. I have to mentally prepare for that.
Is that something you want to pursue more, doing more gigs?
J: Yeah I want to get better at it. I had to do a performance for one of my finals, I had to sing a jazz standard and a contemporary piece. I had recently talked to my vocalist teacher about wanting to do more songwriting because it’s more important to me. She sent me this beautiful email saying I Was a natural performer and said I should really keep with it.
Is getting all this positive affirmation helping with the stage fright and gaining more confidence?
JB: Yes, it was something that I never really had, someone else was put on this pedestal instead of me. Now it feels better and people come up to me and ask if I put anything out there. Spotify is really cool but it’s hard to project that far into the future.
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