Interview: Eric Benoit on finding inspiration in trauma

by on January 11, 2018

Posted in: Music, Uncategorized

On a guitar rich in bass tones and coated with tasteful reverb, Eric Benoit conjures a series of gentle arpeggios, punctuating them with a few well-placed harmonics. Then, with his lilting tenor, he carries us through simple, evocative lyrics: “I’ve never been to New Mexico / Never seen the canyons there / But I open up my window sometimes / I breathe the Jersey winter air.” The atmosphere is serene, wistful, and melancholy. You can imagine Eric in his bedroom in Jersey, guitar in hands, singing quietly and dreaming of western landscapes. This is “Taos,” the first single from Eric Benoit’s upcoming sophomore album, Heartrender, out January 26, 2018.

Eric is a Middlebury graduate (’16) and a New York City-based singer, songwriter, producer, and mixing and mastering engineer. His experience at Middlebury shaped him as a person and impacted his music significantly. In fact, his debut album, College (2017), was based on his experience braving Middlebury’s high-pressure environment while facing challenges to his mental health and well-being. “I found Middlebury to be a very lonely place,” he recalls, “a place of high pressure and stress, and unhealthy social relationships and division. That’s on the negative side. But on the positive side, it was a place where I felt people cared about what they were doing and were extremely passionate and wanted to learn and develop and grow.”

Less than a year after his debut, Eric has returned with Heartrender, a more polished and more focused sophomore record, full of unforgettable, emotional tracks that venture into dark and uncomfortable lyrical themes. “It’s an album about trauma,” Eric explains, “and especially the trauma that comes with growing up, losing innocence, and having negative experiences related to sex and love.” Although “Taos” is built on mellow guitar, Eric considers it “an aberration” for him. The rest of the album is more electronic, with punchy percussion and growling synthesizers supporting Eric’s powerful, dynamic vocals. “They’re definitely not typical dance tracks in any normal sense,” Eric muses. But still, electronic dance influences are integral to Eric’s unique sound.

The experiences that informed the album are what many would consider personal and private, but Eric takes risks and embraces vulnerability in his art, even though it scares him. “One of the messages of my music is that allowing yourself to be vulnerable is a great thing. But it can also be very scary. . . Having strangers peer into the inner parts of your life, that’s probably the scariest thing.” And yet, Eric finds that the more risks he takes, the more rewards he reaps. For him, dealing with negative experiences through art can be “an extremely cathartic and positive activity.” He quotes one of his favorite Middlebury film professors, David Miranda Hardy: “Art is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic.”

The anxious sound of the album mirrors not only the lyrical themes, but also the tension under which it was produced. “It was a time of extreme stress in my life, and I think that had to manifest itself one way or another. So these songs kind of came tumbling out of me. I wrote the album very quickly. . . I felt like it was something that already existed and that I just had to find.” You can hear this sense of agitated intensity in the music. It bursts with energy, a living thing with a mind all its own.

Take, for example, the second single, “Dragonflies,” set to be released on January 19. With a catchy pluck-synth melody, a hammering beat, dissonant piano chords, and a gradually building tidal wave of buzzing synths, the claustrophobic atmosphere is palpable and terrifying. Meanwhile, Eric sings with heart-stopping conviction about sexual disgust and physical discomfort. “I’ve had a poor relationship with my own body, and that is the inspiration for a lot of the more vitriolic lines in the song,” he explains. “That song is not really meant to be cathartic, it’s just an outpouring of emotion and pain. But I also think, strangely enough, it’s a fun song to listen to.”

Eric’s film studies at Middlebury had a major impact on his philosophy of composition and his keen attention to detail. “When I was taking film classes, I was constantly blown away and inspired by these directors who could take the subject matter of their film and represent it abstractly through the way they were filming it. . . Just from a completely formal perspective, they could add so much weight to the character and the story and every other aspect of the movie. And so that’s something I’ve been obsessed with finding in music as well.”

Much like a good film director, Eric brings out the emotional, universal meaning of his art by telling specific, concrete stories, rather than hiding behind figurative language and clichés. “I feel it’s through the personal, through the specific, through the individual, idiosyncratic experience that you actually get at the broader question of everybody’s lives. . . My favorite songwriters, like Phil Elverum, in his previous album especially, are able to get at universal human experiences and anxieties and pressures and joy and all those other emotions that we all experience, by being so ultra-specific.”

Under the enormous pressure of being an independent artist in a competitive music scene, Eric has a number of strategies to keep his head up and keep the creative inspiration flowing. “Your best insights often will come when you’re thinking about something completely different. Your unconscious mind somehow is processing the creative work while your attention is occupied by something else. So if I ever find myself facing a creative roadblock, I’ll stop what I’m doing and try to do something completely different.” Especially key for Eric is talking to other people and learning from them. “Just talking to others and getting their perspectives and worldviews and their opinions on what’s going on and what they’re thinking about and what’s important to them. Making it a little bit less about yourself is huge.”

Finally, Eric strikes a delicate balance between keeping his audience in mind and staying true to himself. “I do try to think about who is going to listen to my songs and what they’re likely to think. It can be hard or impossible to predict that. I think the main thing is that I’ll never release a song that I don’t want to listen to.”