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Exclusive: Benmont Tench On His New Solo Album + Upcoming New Music From Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers

Sam Jones, Blue Note Records

When you think about the people that Benmont Tench knows, he could very easily make a solo record with one heck of a guest list. In fact, he’s had offers to do just that. But when the longtime keyboardist for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers decided to lay down a set of songs for an album that would bear his name on the cover, he preferred to keep the focus on the music rather than filling out each song session with star power. He wanted to keep the integrity of the project and let the songs dictate who the players should be.

During a recent conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock, Tench described the “whirlwind” process of recording and mixing his new album ‘You Should Be So Lucky’ with famed producer Glyn Johns as one that was “among the best 11 days of my life.”

They worked quickly because that was the zone of time that they could get into Sunset Sound to record and the scheduling window also worked for Johns, who was in town at that time and all of the supporting players — from drummer Jeremy Stacey to a wide range of friends who pitched in on guitars, including producer Ethan Johns, Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Tom Petty and Ringo Starr also add their talents, but as Tench was quick to point out during our interview, each person was on this record because of their individual talents and not because of who they are.

The resulting album You Should Be So Lucky’ feels pleasantly vintage and Tench is quite pleased with how everything turned out.

“I think it’s a really good album, I do. I think it’s really good. But it’s what it is. It’s not a modern pop record — it’s a bunch of friends playing music in a room and it’s recorded on tape and to me there’s no greater way to make music than with your friends onto tape.”

We spoke with Tench to get the story behind the new album and with the knowledge that there has also been a new Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album in progress, we had the chance to get a status update on that as well.

Glyn Johns produced this new album. You had worked with him on the Ryan Adams record, but that probably wasn’t the first place you initially connected with him, was it?

I’ve known him for probably 20 years and when we were having dinner a year ago, we couldn’t figure out where we first met. We’ve known each other long enough to where we couldn’t figure out where we first met.

Creatively, I know Glyn kind of pushed you towards the idea of recording — how did he further assist as far as the material?

You know, I sent him little phone memo tapes of probably 15 or 20 songs. He let me know which he preferred and he told me to practice my singing. He said, “Look, write a couple of instrumentals and pick a couple of covers.” So I did and I kept writing as well. There’s a song that isn’t on the record that I wrote the night before the last day that we tracked and we were just too fried to get the right take.

What’s the history on some of this stuff? You’ve done your share of songwriting through the years, but had you been stockpiling material at any point with the idea of one day making your own record?

I just like to write. I had never intended to make my record and I didn’t see any reason [to do that]. I was writing for the fun of it. There was a period when I wrote in Nashville for Maverick and then Warner/Chappell and it was interesting. It was the ‘90s and I preferred the songwriting in Nashville in the early ‘90s to the current country style, although there are still great songwriters there. But it didn’t work for me to try to sit down and write a song. It worked for me that a song shows up and I want to write.

So I stopped doing that and I kind of burned out on writing for a long time because of the Nashville experience. They [the songs] just started showing up again a couple of years ago. The song ‘Hannah’ showed up a couple of years ago and ‘Like The Sun’ showed up a couple of years ago. I rewrote ‘Hannah’ a week before [we recorded] the record and I wrote the title track a month before we made the record. But ‘Today I Took Your Picture Down’ goes back to ‘78 or so. ‘Ecor Rouge’ is one that I wrote a month before the record, because Glyn had said to write an instrumental. So it’s a mix of stuff that goes back and stuff that’s brand new.

‘Ecor Rouge’ is one that I hear bits and pieces of a few different things, like Vince Guaraldi and maybe a bit of Dave Brubeck, even.

Oh, thanks! Do you know Jonathan Wilson?

Absolutely — I love the last couple of albums that he’s put out.

I was at Jonathan’s house, because I was going to do some demos to send to Glyn and Jonathan had said that I could do it at his house. Before I did them, he had to step outside to talk to somebody on the phone and we were killing time and I was messing around with his upright piano and that song showed up pretty much full-blown. I called it ‘Ecor Rouge,’ because it sounded Southern and that’s the name of the road that my aunt and uncle live on in Alabama.

What do you enjoy most about the writing process?

It’s just an expression. It’s like you have something on your mind that you want to say or it just wants to come out. Something is knocking and it says, “I want to come out and play.” You have to answer that knock. It’s Saturday morning and you have to wake up and stumble to the piano and answer that knock. That’s the kind of writing that I enjoy.

I did enjoy Nashville a lot of the time, because I made really good friends who were really good songwriters and they would be a joy to hang out with. But my preference is to just kind of have something knock on the door and to answer it and then to drive around with it and see what it does.

And the other thing is that in Nashville, I was with a woman named Lisa Carol and we were just sitting around a conference table, because we were going to write something. “Dogwood” showed up — I had a guitar in my hands and I started playing the lick and I started singing and I sang it exactly like it is. I had no idea what it was.

Lisa went, “What the hell is that?” and I said, “I don’t know — write it down, I think we just wrote a song.” That’s a really good way to do it and that’s a real joyful experience when that happens. Then there’s the ones where you fine tune them. But a lot of the stuff on this record showed up like that.

It does all seem really organic.

Yeah, a lot of it showed up like that or at least the first two verses show up like that and then you fine tune on others.

Writing songs like this, obviously at this point you’ve been doing it for a while. But I guess this is the first time you’ve put them all towards a record with your name on it. When you’re working your way into the process of being a songwriter, does it take a while to embrace the idea of both being a songwriter and also someone who can write something people want to hear?

The idea that I could write songs that people wanted to hear came from other people who said they liked what I did. Both from the Nashville experience and before that when Rosanne Cash cut a song that Tom and I wrote and from just different people encouraging [me] and saying “I like it.”

Other than that, I’d write stuff and I’d like it. I’d play for friends and I wound up making this record partly because some of my friends who I respected said, “You know, that’s a really good song.” So I went, “Okay, I liked it. But if you like it, it means something.” But as far as being a songwriter, I never look at myself as a songwriter. I look at Tom, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, John Prine, those are songwriters. I’m a guy where a song shows up every now and then and I love tracking it down.

I guess that’s what I was getting at is that I could see that being around guys like that, it could be intimidating to think, “Hey, I can write something that’s in the league of what they do.”

Well you can’t think about that, but what I did realize, you know, the Heartbreakers aren’t on this record and that’s not a diss on the Heartbreakers — it’s because I didn’t think it was up their street and I didn’t think they would dig it. I didn’t think it would be something that call to them. Tom’s on ‘Blonde Girl, Blue Dress,” but it’s a song that I thought would appeal to him.

You got an impressive amount of folks onto this record, considering the window of availability that you had to work with. I’m sure you could have called up anybody — how easy was it to assemble the group of musicians that ended up on this album?

I literally looked around my living room. Literally. These are all really good friends of mine and we hang out and we’ll get together a lot of nights and just gather at my house and sometimes somebody else’s house, sit around and play covers for each other and every now and then say, “Hey, I wrote this one, what do you think?”

So that’s why Blake Mills is on the record. Tom hasn’t been over to the house, but Tom is [someone] I’ve known forever. That’s why Gillian and David are on the record. Ethan, I’ve known for years and he’s been over to my house and Glyn has been over to my house. Everybody that’s on this record is a good friend. There’s nobody on the record because of who they are. They’re on the record because we play well together.

I had been approached before by people who liked my songs, like 10 or 20 years ago, they said, “You know a lot of famous people, you could get them to sing your songs and you play them” and I said, “Nah, I don’t want to exploit my friends.” Besides, the way I sing has its drawbacks, but it’s the way that I hear the songs. So I’m not exploiting anybody here. Even like the big names like Ringo and Tom, it was like “Is there a better tambourine player than Ringo Starr for this kind of music? No.” So I need a tambourine on here and Ringo just called and he lives 20 minutes away. “Dude, get down here!”

It’s great to hear David and Gillian all over this album.

Well yeah. They’ve been really good friends to me. I loved playing with them — I really loved playing with them and I get to play with them far more often than I should! [Laughs] Everybody that’s on this record is all about listening to each other play and playing off of each other and not doing anything that doesn’t enhance the songs. Everybody on this record is playing from a place that’s not about, “Listen to this cool riff I’ve got.” Everybody is just listening to the song and playing the song and the production does the same thing. Glyn is very subtle — he’s doing a lot in there that I don’t even know what it is, but he’s really responsible for this.

Now that you’ve got a full set of songs with your name on them, where do you see things going from here? What’s next?

I want to find whatever way I can to give it a shot for people to hear it. The reason to make the record was not to go, “Hey, look at me!” The reason to make the record was [to say] “Hey, check these songs out, because I think they’re good songs” and to go, “Check out the way these guys played these songs, because I thought that was really cool and really special.

So I want them to have a shot and what I am going to do is play some of them on the radio. The Grammy Museum very kindly has asked me to do kind of a Q&A and a brief solo set. The week after that, I’m doing three nights in the club Largo here in town, which is where I first played some of these songs — that whole scene has been very encouraging.

What’s the latest on the new Heartbreakers album that’s been in the works?

I think it’s really good. I’m hoping we finish it soon. I think we’re really close to being done and I think it’s really good. I’m curious to see what the final song selection is, because we cut a lot of stuff and there’s lots of really good stuff there, so the nature of the album depends on the shape…you know, Tom and Mike [Campbell] are producing with Ryan Ulyate and it’s when they decide, “Oh, these songs fit together and sound like an album.” I’m curious to see how they decide to shape it.

Next: Top 10 Tom Petty Songs

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