Interview: 60 Minutes with Benedict Cork

Rhiannon D’Averc sat down with singer-songwriter Benedict Cork to get his thoughts on the current state of the music industry, mental health, and the background behind his soulful lyrics.

 

Benedict On…

… On Growing Up Arty

I’m from a family of four kids and we were all arty. My brother was into film, my sister’s a singer, my other brother was playing three different instruments… we weren’t sporty! I loved painting and illustrating. I still do, I just haven’t got time to do it. I think if I hated music, or fell out of love with it, I think I’d want to move to Italy to paint flowers or paint portraits or something like that.

 

… On Getting Started in the Music Industry

I started to play the piano when I was eight years old, and I got my first job when I was fifteen, in the restaurant next to my school. I went in there on a Friday night and said “Can I play?” and just started there. I started playing anywhere that would have me for the next few years.

… On Social Media

There’s so many pros and so many cons. I think it’s amazing now that I can write a song tomorrow, put a little video up in the evening, and it goes immediately to all the people that might enjoy it. You can have immediate feedback after shows, and most of the time on social media, especially if it’s the people that follow your music, it’s positive stuff. But sometimes there will be some negative stuff, which is actually quite constructive. People can come to a show and be like, “The sound was awful, why would you play there?” and it’s quite useful sometimes. I just try and balance it out and have boundaries with it, because it can be so useful, and so positive as well.

 

… On Favourite Artists

It changes every day. At the minute I’m really into female voices, so I have a few albums that I’ll put on in the morning just when I’m making breakfast and stuff. Kacey Musgraves, Jessie Ware, Lianne La Havas, Emily King, Maggie Rogers. But then I also love pop music, I love loads of Scandi pop – Tove Lo, Astrid S, people like that. I love classic songwriters as well, people like Elton John, Carole King, Joni Mitchell.

… On Doing Covers

I think it can be dangerous… sometimes, people do a cover and it blows up, and you get known for that cover. But I also love taking songs that are maybe traditionally seen as a big pop smash where people don’t really listen to the lyrics or a song that I grew up listening to and then heard twenty years later and I hadn’t realised the poignancy of the lyrics. So, if I feel like covering something, I just do it. I don’t think I’d do a series of loads of them, because then you can get typecast as a covers artist.

 

… On Covers of His Songs

I’d love it! Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen all the time because there are loads of messy chords in my songs. Sometimes I get messages from people asking to send the chord sheets through or the sheet music, because they want to cover it, and then they say “Oh, this is really complicated, I don’t know how to do it!” But when people do it, it’s really lovely, because that’s how I started. When I was playing the piano bars, I’d be playing four hours of covers of other peoples’ music. That’s how I learnt how songs were structured and written. So, when someone else does it to one of my songs, it’s a massive compliment.

… On the Song-Writing Process

 

Recently, I’ve really liked being messy! I used to live in Stockholm for a little bit, and making pop music there is really… I don’t want to say like a factory, because they have a heart to it, but they’re very efficient. They can put out two songs in a day, and sometimes I like spending two or three days on a song, really perfecting the words. The EP that came out last year was very clean. Recently, I’ve really enjoyed leaving loads of messy stuff on. The other day, I was writing with my friend Hannah Yadi, she’s a really talented songwriter and we were just throwing on loads of messy backing vocals, just singing in the room. When I listened back to it the next day I was like, “This sounds great because we’re having fun, and that’s what people want to hear”. Recently I’ve been starting an idea and sometimes leaving that original vocal, or leaving the original messy piano, or maybe I made a mistake or my voice has a bit of crackle in it or something, and rather than trying to perfect it, I’ll leave it in. It feels a bit more real, I think.

 … On Writing From Real Life

I find it really hard to write not from real life. I’ve done a bit of writing for other people, which I’ve really enjoyed, but obviously, that is from their real life. I find when I try and make up a story or something it just doesn’t feel very genuine. I love coming into the studio with a concept or something that’s happened recently, or even a story that I’ve heard that makes me relate to something in my own life. It’s quite nice to know where you’re heading – wherever the music goes, this is the story.

When it’s about other people, I want to be really careful about honouring what’s actually happened, whether it’s a past relationship or something that’s happened with a friend. Actually, even if it’s myself, I don’t think I’d want to put something out that’s not representative of how I feel about the situation. Sometimes a lyric will come, especially if you’re co-writing with people – which I love doing – they’ll say, “this line sounds really great”, but I’m like, “yeah, but it didn’t happen”. If I have to sing the song for the next ten years, or my family hear it and it’s about one of them, or a past relationship or something, I find it really hard to lie and twist the truth.

There’s definitely a battle there because sometimes a line will look great – the rhyme’s great, it sounds wicked – but I just don’t want to offend that person! That’s not fair.

 

… On the First Song He Wrote

This was really dramatic! Basically, my friend didn’t invite me to a party – it was as stupid as that. I think I was 14, 15. I wrote a poem first: it was called ‘The Girl With the Coldest Eyes’. I wrote the poem and then a few months later I did a gig in my local pub, and it was my first ever public gig, and I did all covers. There was a little review in our local newspaper that said “It’s a shame Ben doesn’t sing his own songs”, and I took it so to heart! Then I found this little poem and I put it to music, and it was so dramatic. I think the chorus was like “I’ll hunt you down, you’re the girl with the coldest eyes”! I told one friend who it was about, and it somehow got back to her! She’d be there at my shows like “It’s about me!” She could tell obviously that moment had passed and I wasn’t angry anymore, but I think from that I’ve learned that’s why you shouldn’t lie.

Although, sometimes people piss me off and I’m like, “I will write a song about you!”

 

… On Playing the Chanel Joan Elkayam Runway

That was such a fun experience because I hadn’t done a live runway show like that before. What was scary, and also fun, was that she asked me to play and said: “These are the songs I’d love you to sing, in whatever order, but this is the setlist”. And then just because those days are mad, we didn’t have a chance to properly run through the whole show. We got to the sixth song and there were still all of these models walking out in these beautiful clothes, and I was like, “I haven’t been asked to sing anything else!”. Some musicians would just be like, “Right, I’ve done my gig, I’m leaving”, but I thought, I can’t leave her in the lurch like this. So, I just started playing random songs that came into my head. I think one of them was Beyonce, Crazy in Love, and then the next one was Rihanna, Diamonds… I just kept on churning them out because I was like, well, it hasn’t ended yet!

In the end, it was actually really fun because I just went with the flow of it, someone would come out in a beautiful gown or a long flowing dress and I’d play a slower song. Or if someone came out in a cool diamond outfit I’d go for something a bit punchier. It was scary and fun at the same time.

… On Playing Future Fashion Events

I’d love to. I love fashion and I love playing around with it, so it’s really cool that you can be really theatrical with it and get away with it, whereas sometimes if I rocked out on stage in something crazy, people would be like “You’re a bit full of yourself. You’re not Elton John!”.

… On His Style as a Musician

I think it’s the training from playing in little restaurants when I was a kid. I’ve literally been playing and they’ve been bringing out these giant trays of food, or someone’s arguing – I had one where a couple basically broke up right next to the piano. I feel like you just kind of carry on. There’s no other way. It’s a bit like live TV when something goes wrong, you can’t just freeze up and say nothing!

It’s easier to lose yourself in it when you’ve sung it so many times, I can just get into the emotion and I’m not thinking about where to put my fingers on which keys or so on.

… On Making an Impact

[My favourite song to perform] changes. For a good six months, it was Therapy, just because it was so personal and it was really lovely saying a little bit before each time I performed it. And then people coming up afterwards and saying “Oh my god, I’ve just started CBT”, or “My sister’s going into therapy and I really want to send her this song”, so that was really rewarding. I enjoyed playing it live even though it’s a sad song.

But then I did a little support tour at the end of the last year and would get the audience singing other songs which are a bit more sing-a-longy. That was a proper moment because when there’s like 2,000 people singing your song back at you, even though they don’t know it but you’ve taught them a little bit of the chorus, it just feels really good. Maybe Mama Said or Funny How Things Change.

… On Distractions at Live Shows

I think it’s the training from playing in little restaurants when I was a kid. I’ve literally been playing and they’ve been bringing out these giant trays of food, or someone’s arguing – I had one where a couple basically broke up right next to the piano. I feel like you just kind of carry on. There’s no other way. It’s a bit like live TV when something goes wrong, you can’t just freeze up and say nothing!

It’s easier to lose yourself in it when you’ve sung it so many times, I can just get into the emotion and I’m not thinking about where to put my fingers on which keys or so on.

… On Phones at Gigs

It’s such a balance, because – for instance, last night I was supposed to go and watch Lianne La Havas, and I love her, she’s one of my favourite artists. I couldn’t go in the end because I had this gig come up. My sister was there, and I said: “Please enjoy it, but can you just take a couple of videos for me because I really want to feel like I was there?”. In my cab home from the gig, I was just watching a few videos and it honestly felt like I was there, because technology is so good now that the sound’s amazing, the picture’s amazing.

So it’s the same for me when I’m playing. I’m thinking, obviously you want to have that connection with someone’s eyes, so when people film the entire show I guess that’s their choice. Sometimes that can be really useful because someone can go and watch that on YouTube and feel like they were there. Someone that doesn’t live in this country, in Serbia or something, they can go and watch that concert. But there is a balance because I remember doing a show last year and I asked people to put their phone lights up, and that was really lovely, but then people actually just started filming the room!

… On His Musical Direction

It changes day by day! Recently I’ve been doing a more stripped-back EP, we’re mastering it this week. It’s another live EP, Piano Tapes Volume II. What’s really nice is that while I’m putting that out and releasing that and playing that live, I want to make the opposite again and scratch that itch.

Especially over the winter, I think I like just playing the piano and writing these songs and being really intimate, and when I’m in the summer sometimes it’s nice to play something that’s got a bit more energy to it and a vibe to it.

… On Coming Releases

The EP is basically done. We’re doing the final vocals and it’s being mixed and mastered, and then I’m really excited to get this one out. This is the first time I’ve finished a record before putting it out, completely. In the past, I’ve made it as we go along, which has been really fun, but equally stressful. Whereas with this one, I made it over the winter with my friend Paul Stanborough, who’s an amazing producer. We just spent two months laying these tracks down, putting loads of layers on it, and being really creative without a timeline. Piano Tapes Volume Two is pretty much done and the first track is going to come out in April.

Then we’re going to do a little residency in London, which I’m really excited about. I did one last year, at Fiction Studios, which was really fun and really intimate. It only fit 45-50 people, and we did five shows with each song that came out.

I wanted to grow on that, so we’re doing a new residency at St James’s in Islington, which is a beautiful church with a grand piano, just a really lovely vibe. April, May, June, we’re doing that. And then I’m going to do my first headline tour in June! I’m going to go to some places where I’ve never played a headline show before. We’re firming up the dates but I think I’m going to go to Amsterdam, Berlin, maybe somewhere in Scandinavia as well.

It was one of my things for this year, I would really love to do a headline tour even if it’s just five or six cities. I feel really bad – because I love London, I’ve always been a Londoner – but I feel bad for people that are like “well, I live in Munich and I can’t get to London to see you live”, so at least this might be somewhere closer.

… On Collaboration Wishlists

A lot of them are songwriters, actually. There are loads. Because I love co-writing, I love being challenged by different people, especially people that have come from a different world. There’s a Norwegian songwriter called Ina Wroldson, who’s also started releasing her own music, which is amazing. She’s written some of the biggest pop songs in the UK, like Rockabye for Clean Bandit and stuff like that. She’s also written some really beautiful solo material that she’s released that’s really personal and more singer- songwritery.

But then I’d also love to sing with Alicia Keys and Jamie Cullum, the piano greats that I love. Elton John, Maggie Newman, people like that.

… On Staying Grounded

If you’d asked me that four or five years ago when I first moved to London, I’d have said, “I want to be playing Wembley stadium!”. Anything less than that would feel like a failure. But actually, recently I rewatched the Amy documentary, and the Lady Gaga one, and it really made me think about the levels that some musicians can get to that really hinders their life in a way. As much as I love those artists and I’m sure they’ve lived a life that they’re proud of, there’s a certain amount of personal life that you don’t get. It must be a challenge when you meet new people and it’s like, do you see me for who I am or for being Lady Gaga, or Amy Winehouse, or Adele?

Recently, I’ve been looking at people I love like Lianne Le Havas, Jessie Ware, Maggie Rogers, and I’m thinking, you have these beautiful, cool careers where you can release music that is personal and beautiful, and yet it also feels like you can go down to Tesco and buy a pint of milk, and live your life.

So, my goals recently have changed. I want to play shows to people who really like my music, and I’d love to play venues that I’ve always loved going to, like the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Union Chapel. I just want to get to a stage where I can just enjoy it, rather than be chasing something always.

… On Getting Feedback

To actually go and write a positive thing about something, whether it’s just on a photo on Instagram or a video on YouTube, or an Amazon review, that’s still five, ten minutes of your time, which is a big deal for some people. Some people are just so busy, and we’re all quite selfish as well, so if someone takes the time to come to a show or write a review or say something nice, or sometimes I’ll get these messages from kids who say “I never realised I was meant to break up with my partner and this song made me feel like that” or something, the fact that you go to that much effort to say that is a big deal.

… On Whether Albums are Still Relevant

Potentially not. But I love projects. There’s some artists who really thrive on singles, on putting a song out and then riding with it for three months and then putting another one out, and they’re all massive bangers. I love that as well, and I love their music. But I think some of my favourite artists that I really love going to watch live and really diving into their world are people that really make a statement with an album.

There’s not many that I’ll really listen to in full, like the whole 45-50 minutes. But when I do find those albums, I’ll rinse them so much. For instance, Kacey Musgraves, when that album Golden Hour came out I was sleeping on it. Someone recommended it to me and since then I think I’ve played it once a day without fail. When I wake up, I’m like “Alexa, play Golden Hour” and it will just go on in the background. I know every single lyric and I can just dip in and out, but it’s proper beautiful music.

… On Releasing New Music

Piano Tapes Volume One, the first song came out in June two years ago. That I was shit-scared for, because there was such a build-up to it. I’d been writing, writing, writing for so long. I’d played singer nights, and singer- songwriter circles, and all that kind of stuff for years, but that was more for the experience.

So, I really wanted to put out some songs that I was really proud of. I remember staying up until midnight for each of those five songs, each time so nervous – for no reason! Because there’s nothing you can do, the song’s there, it’s finished, you can’t touch it, the artwork’s done, you’ve announced it’s coming out, so all you can do is sit there and wait.

Whereas now, I really enjoy it. We did a song a month for six months last year, which then became a little EP, and each time was like a party. I’d just be there in my living room. My housemate had gone to bed, so I’d be sitting there with my laptop, replying to people and maybe doing a little livestream, and it becomes a little party.

Although, it’s weird now that you put out a song and you spend the next two hours on social media, whereas five years ago you probably just had glass of wine to celebrate. But that’s also what’s really beautiful about it. You can put it out and someone in Rome can say “I’m listening right now, and I love it, here’s what I love about it,” and you’re like, “Thank you so much, what do you think of the lyrics?”. It’s a really cool experience.

… On International Fans

The support tour I did last year was all across the Netherlands, and that was amazing because I’ve never played there before. Suddenly, I gained this beautiful group of people that are really receptive to singer- songwriters, and they’re really supportive. I haven’t put any songs out since I did that tour in October/ November, so there wasn’t anything new for them to latch on to, and they’ve stuck really loyal for the last five months while I’ve been making this record and hiding away a little bit. So, I’m really excited to go back there and meet them all again, and play there.

The other day I saw a message on Instagram from someone that said: “I live in Tokyo, and we’re having your song Easy at our wedding at our first dance”. That’s really cool. Those kinds of things, you wouldn’t hear about as easily, or they wouldn’t get out as far as that, five, ten years ago. Now you can put a song up and five minutes later someone in Australia can hear it, which is awesome.

… On Releasing an Album

I’ve never done an album. I’d love to, but I feel like that’s a big project, and that would take me a year or so. I’d want to be at a point where I’d really solidified what I want to say with it. A lot of my favourite artists might disappear for three years and then come back with this incredible statement, and it’s because they’ve taken the time to really think about it. I don’t necessarily want to disappear for a long period because I just love playing shows and putting out music, but I don’t want to rush putting an album together just for the sake of it. You can only ever have one debut album, so I want it to be a really true representation of me and what I’ve been through and the things I think about.

However, what I really like at the moment is putting songs out and seeing how people react to them, and potentially thinking “That song, if I still really resonate with it, could go on an album in a few years’ time, if we produce it a different way like an album version”. Maybe curating, in a way, my own little art gallery-type album of songs from the last 4, 5 years. No solid plans yet!

… On Playing Live

I get really nervous, then after the first song, I’m like, whatever happens now, everyone’s here to have a good time. Or to have a good cry, or to be emotional or whatever, but everyone has chosen to spend an evening with me, and that’s amazing. It takes a lot for me to give up my time for something, so the fact that they’ve done that for me is such a gift that I just want to really appreciate that and honour it and have a really lovely experience. Even saying things between songs, it will never be the same. Someone might heckle you, or you might meet someone afterwards that has this incredible life experience… I think that’s why musicians live off that high, because there’s nothing really like it.

… On Speaking Up

I used to hear people talk about mental health a lot. I didn’t really understand it very well. I’d heard buzzwords floating round and read a few bits, but I went to a boys’ school and we never had any mention of mental health. I didn’t go to university, and I never worked in an office with an HR department with someone saying you need take a mental health day – and I think we’ve only been saying these things for the past few years. But then when I had a little blip, I realised that I’d been anxious for a while, and I had a bad few months. I realised how important it was to share, not just for yourself but for other people. I didn’t share. I was going through it and I just thought, I can do this, I’ve got through everything else in my life and I’ll just power on through, and then actually went to go speak to someone by recommendation. It changed my life, it was incredible. The things he taught me, I use every single day. So then I thought, why do I want to keep this to myself? That’s really selfish. Some people have never even heard of therapy, or think it’s some American concept that rich people send their kids off to therapy or something, and it’s not. It’s the most beautiful experience and I think that everyone should do it, to just go talk about the things that have happened to you, things you’re feeling uneasy about, with someone who doesn’t know these characters and can look at it from a really objective standpoint. It’s incredible.

So then when I wrote the song Therapy, I didn’t know if it was going to come out, it was super personal. I remember playing it at a show and crying halfway through, and I never cry during a show! I was like, okay I don’t know if I can do this. I played it for a few people, and they said, “Do you know what? This is too important. You should start talking about it”, and I’m so glad I did. Now, it’s not like I’ve come out the other side, I still have these moments just like everyone does, but I’d love to do something with that. Especially with social media, and especially with the music industry, because it’s such a weird, pressurised, up and down sort of space. I’d love that to be something that I can really help and fight for.

… On Advice for Aspiring Musicians

What I’ve really loved over the last couple of years is just not being too precious about stuff. I used to be very much like, I’ve written a song but I’m keeping it to myself. Maybe I’d send it to my manager or something, but not share it. These days, with social media, it’s so lovely to be able to write a song and do a little clip of it, or livestream it that evening, and just see what people say. Sometimes it will not land and people will be like “that was shit!”, but sometimes it’s this amazing experience where you get an immediate reaction. So, just making a song, working it out, putting it out a month later – I feel like it’s how music is really going now, and it’s really refreshing. Just collaborating with people. I love that personally, some people don’t, but I love meeting new people and hearing their ideas. Playing shows and saying yes to – well, not everything, but putting yourself out there.

… On Handling Criticism

I’m sure I’m like everyone else, you remember the one negative thing. Other times I’m like, eh, whatever, I don’t believe it. I just try and take a break or get a sense of reality. This was actually a really good piece of advice someone gave me: ride the highs, but also ride the lows. You have to have the highs with the lows. When you have a high, appreciate it – it might be like playing a show, and the next day, if it’s gone well, I’ll often just feel really good and maybe have some nice messages about it, really riding that. But also if there is a low, and if it’s something that’s truthful that might have happened, you just have to kind of appreciate it and take it in, and go, why is this person acting like that? It might be something that I’ve done, it might be something in their life. Just take a note of it. But not taking it too seriously. It’s not heart surgery. No one’s dying.

… On the Legacy of Musicians

I think it’s the songs. For instance, we mentioned Amy Winehouse – so many people are still discovering her now, and that’s incredible. Wouldn’t it be so sad if someone that amazing – or, you know, Janis Joplin, or somebody who died really young – if in the moment they die, they’re forgotten about? Or like Eva Cassidy, who people only discovered after her death. Or people like novelists, painters, people who were penniless and struggling artists until the day they died, then suddenly people discover it and realise how beautiful it is. So, I hope the songs stand the test of time. And I’d like to think that that’s also my gift to the world. I feel really weird if I haven’t written a song for a few days or weeks. I feel like I haven’t got a purpose. Not that I’m someone who’s like “Oh, I must give the world my art because everyone needs it” – it’s more like if I haven’t created something for the world, I feel really sad. I haven’t played a show for two months – the one I did last night was a private thing – I haven’t played something people can come to for a couple of months, and I miss it so much. The same with music, if I died tomorrow, hopefully even if it’s only my family/friends, people just have those songs and remember me by what I said in those songs.

Stay up to date with Benedict at @benedictcork on Instagram.

All images via Upstairs Music

Note: Benedict’s headline tour and EP release sessions have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Check back on social media for updates and announcements when they are rescheduled.

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