Benji Hughes on His 3 New Albums — Plus, Stream a New Song!

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Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos

"Is Benji Hughes the great pop troubadour of his generation?" asked Jody Rosen in a New York profile of the hirsute, supernaturally prolific singer-songwriter. If Hughes's awesome 2008 album debut, A Love Extreme, wasn't evidence enough, consider the three equally excellent new albums — XXOXOXX, OXOXOXOXOX, and Songs in the Key of Animals — which he recently made available on his website. We spoke with Hughes about his new material and the songs he still has in the vault. He allowed us to stream a new track, "Let's Not Ever Die," from XXOXOXX. Listen below!

Can you tell me a little about each of these three albums? 
One of them is XXOXOXX. I wanted to make something that people who liked A Love Extreme would enjoy, so it wasn’t so shocking to hear the next album. We got the old crew together, pretty much, trying to do the same thing, just not as many songs. Another album is OXOXOXOXOX, which is more of a subdued record. There’s a lot less going on percussively, though there's still plenty of stuff going on. It’s not like it’s an acoustic album. It’s more mellow but it’s definitely not completely mellow. Gee whiz. You can tell I don’t have my answers prepared.

I can!
Then there's Songs in the Key of Animals, which is the one that I’ve been working on more recently. It's got some slow jams, it’s got some upbeat canons. It’s all over the map. The thing I like to do when I’m making records is to keep it exciting, as opposed to, "There’s a bass player, guitar player …" Just a little variety. Hopefully there’s something for everybody.

You were working on a kids' album, right? Is that Animals?
Well, there’s another album called LILILIL [available here]. It would be misleading to call it a kids' album because it would most likely scare a lot of kids. But I would say there's a lack of sensuality or sexuality about it. I think that’s the thing that separates it from my other albums — not that any of my other stuff is boiling over with that, but this one is definitely kid-appropriate. I take pride in the fact that I don’t need to resort to cuss words or being dirty, because that’s just a cheap trick people use when they can’t do something better.

You've been sitting on these albums for a while. Why did you decide to suddenly release them?
It wasn't suddenly. I’ve been moving toward making things available for a while. I’ve been working toward it, making up a web store. I think there’s something really exciting about having several albums on a zip drive. There's the high quality of it all, and how compact it is, not to mention that you can reuse it for whatever you want. I think that’s really cool. People probably haven’t done that a lot because it’s not cost-effective to release just one album like that.

Why self-release these albums without a label?
It just hasn’t been my priority [to sign with a label]. I believe in working on the music right up until it's ready. And then I’ll worry about how to let people know it’s there. I can’t say that I won’t work with somebody again. I worry about talking to someone and them talking to someone else and lawyers and blah blah blah — when I could just have music available. If something comes around in the future, who’s to say what will happen? But why not just roll along, you know?

How much more music do you have in the vault? Are you sitting on more albums?
I have quite a bit of songs and tracks. There’s several albums that I want to make, and I kinda know what I want to do. And there’s lots of stuff I’ve already recorded, a nice amount of stuff accumulated. I’ve got a few records I never put out that I might go back and mess with. There’s a lot there. 

How prolific a songwriter are you? How many songs have you written this week?
I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect with what it looks like I’m doing and what I'm doing. There are a couple of ways that I write. Let’s say I’m writing by myself, just me, and not collaborating with anyone. Then I might turn out just a few songs a year. I’m not the kind of writer that goes, “I’m gonna write a song about sunshine,” or “I’ve just heard a phrase, so I’m gonna write that,” and then I write a song. I’ll wait for inspiration to hit, and you can’t depend on it. I don’t even think I’ve written anything this week.

I definitely would like to think that even though I’ve written a lot of songs, I also hold them to a higher standard than many folks do. It’s pretty funny to me when I hear people say, “I write six songs every day,” or “I turn out a song a day.” I bet you that’s a whole week of bad songs. A lot of people aren’t straight with themselves, and they just think everything they do is magic, and lots of times, your girlfriend or your wife or your boyfriend or your best friend — nobody’s gonna tell you the truth: that it’s kinda lame and you’re kinda lame. Not you, but you know what I’m saying.

My favorite right now is “Do You Still Love Me,” a breakup song, from OXOXOXOXOX. How does a track like that come about?
It usually happens all at once. The best songs do. And unfortunately, as far as the words go, that song's pretty self-explanatory. But it doesn’t do anybody any good to get too specific about things, because let’s say somebody really relates to a jam and then you tell them, “I wrote that when I was at the milk festival” — and then they’re allergic to milk, or whatever they call it, lactose-intolerant. I didn’t even know there was a milk festival, by the way, and there probably isn't. But yeah, I hope that makes sense.

Stream "Let's Not Ever Die" from XXOXOXX:

Benji Hughes‚ Let's Not Ever Die