Early Talks w/ Jess Benko

This week, I got the opportunity to talk with Jess Benko, an 18-year-old from Toronto who has one of the craziest stories I’ve heard in music thus far.  From meeting Billie Eilish, to recording her first album in her bedroom on an iphone, to growing up too fast, Jess explains the ups and downs that molded her into the musician she is today.  We cover everything in our conversation and even learn a little about “Expired,” a brand-new single that examines the transition from childhood to adulthood while considering all of the psychological baggage that comes along with it.  Check out Early Rising’s conversation with Jess Benko Below!

First and foremost, thank you so much for taking the time to hop on this call and share your story and what you’ve been working on with the whole Early Rising family.  To start, can you take me through your introduction to music?

Yeah, so I was very involved in music from a young age. I was always just playing around on the keyboard when I didn’t even know what the word keyboard meant. I don’t even think I knew how to talk at that point.  I was just slamming keys, all the time. My dad is very musical and so I got a little bit of inspiration from him to start taking piano lessons. I was in the school choir, the band, and I also did a lot of musical theater.  I danced a lot too.

When did music start to take over?

As soon as high school started. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be a singer. I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to be able to support myself with my music.  But the thing is, it never actually clicked in my head that I had to make my own music to be an artist. I was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just sing covers all the time and that’ll make me famous.  I wasn’t that into songwriting until I was 16 in my junior year of high school. I went through a lot of shit that year. It kind of brought me to my breaking point and I didn’t know how to cope with any of it. I didn’t know what to do. One day when I got home from school, it was like something clicked in my brain. I knew what I had to do. I picked up my guitar and I wrote my first song called “Take It Back.” For months after that, every single day, I was writing songs. It was insane. I felt like I had found it, like something clicked in my head and songwriting just came to me.  After that point, I couldn’t stop writing.

What instruments do you play? 

I used to be able to play a lot of instruments.  As I said, I did piano lessons and I was pretty good but I ended up quitting because I didn’t like my teacher.  In the school band, I would play a lot of different instruments, I always tried to experiment with something new.  Right now, I would say the instruments that I play are just guitar, ukulele, and piano.

“Honestly music really did save my life and I know I’m getting a bit deep but it’s true.”

In terms of songwriting, were you classically taught or was it more of a spur of the moment instance where you decided to pick it up and just run with it.

I mean, I was never taught how to write songs. I actually thought I couldn’t write songs because I was awful at the creative writing portion in English class. And so I thought there’s no way I can write songs, I didn’t know what I would say. A huge part of it was that I didn’t know what to talk about. I didn’t want to be another one of those pop singers who sings about how someone cheated on them and sing about heartbreak and sadness. Well, I mean, my music is kind of like that, but it’s a bit more into depth. Or at least, I’d like to think it is.  The year before I wrote my first song, I would come home from school and just fuck around on my guitar and record voice memos of literally anything.  But there was no intention of writing songs beyond that. It just came out naturally and honestly. It was definitely a very surreal moment.

That’s crazy how it all just clicked for you.  I myself don’t know how to write songs so this is a foreign language to me.

It definitely clicked and it instantly became my main coping mechanism because, as I said, I was struggling. I was having a really bad year.  Honestly music really did save my life and I know I’m getting a bit deep but it’s true.  Music completely changed my life a year and a half ago, I never would have thought that I would be in the position that I am right now.

So when I was scrolling through your Instagram feed before this call, I noticed that you have videos and pictures up with Billie Eilish.  How did you two meet and how are those moments related to your career as a musician?

I’ve been listening to Billie’s music since around the middle of 2017.  I heard some of her songs on SoundCloud and I was like, ‘Yo she’s dope.’  I instantly became a fan and started going to her early shows in Toronto at small, 200 cap venues.  

I went to New York to go to her brother Finneas’ concert.  That night she announced she was doing a magazine signing the next day and I knew I had to stay another day.  I bring my ukulele everywhere so I can play music wherever I go and I asked her to sign it. I had no intention of singing for her, but a couple girls in line recognized me from singing on Instagram and they started shouting.  They were yelling at Billie telling her that she had to hear me sing and Billie was the sweetest.  She asked me if I wanted to play so I just started playing my ukulele and singing.  Right after that, videos went viral online and people started to notice me.

“I recorded one take of guitar, done. I recorded one take of my vocals, done. I have absolutely no soundproofing, no mixing, and no mastering.”

What happened after that?

From there, people started tuning in whenever I sang on Instagram live.   When I put my first song on SoundCloud, it gained a little bit of traction just from the people who started following my social media accounts and continued to grow after that. I kept on writing about this shitty year that I was going through and finding ways to connect with myself and people on the outside looking in.  I wrote a song called “A Soulmate Who Wasn’t Meant to Be” and my recording setup was quite strange, to be honest. I’ll get more into depth about that in a second. I put the song out on SoundCloud and it instantly started gaining a good amount of streams.  I included a free download link and some YouTube channel downloaded it.  They posted my song on their channel and it started to grow.  It got a couple million streams in the first month. I was singing and writing songs because it was helping me cope with my hardships but reading what other people were saying in the comments and seeing that my music was helping other people was a very surreal thing to watch. 

So what did your recording setup look like?

So imagine this. I have an Iphone 8. I have a very shitty mic that plugs into my phone. I have GarageBand on my phone.  I placed the mic down to play.  I recorded one take of guitar, done. I recorded one take of my vocals, done. I have absolutely no soundproofing, no mixing, and no mastering.  You can hear five seconds of just static at the beginning of the song because I didn’t know how to cut it out.  There’s the noise of cars passing by and really everything else you could possibly imagine with that studio setup.  The album I recorded with that setup is poorly produced, but it’s what I could do at that point.  The music kept growing though.  It’s crazy to think that I put absolutely zero money into creating, distributing, and marketing that album.  It kind of just took flight and grew on its own.

“It doesn’t hurt to reach for the stars. And then once you reach the stars. It doesn’t hurt to reach even further.”

Obviously, I’m hoping that your recording process may have changed a little bit since your humble beginnings. But what does your creative process look like now, now that you’re not the SoundCloud artist recording on an iPhone?

Well I got connected with a couple different producers in August and I found these two producers in Toronto who I get along with really well. Their names are Matt and Quinn and we’ve been working almost every week together since August.  They’ve been really great helping me on the writer side but Quinn also produces everything, he’s a genius. I’ve been just just trying to write with a lot of different people and try out different techniques. I know I’m still very new to making music so I’m constantly trying to be experimental and find my identity and my sound.  Writing with other people is great because I get to try new things, but I still try to write music alone as often as I can. The process hasn’t changed much. I usually write lyrics first without a melody. I just write stuff in my notes and then I take it to either guitar, ukulele, piano, or whatever feels right. After I finish an idea, I figure out the chords and melodies and build it from there.

What are your goals in relation to your music?

I’m still trying to figure all of my goals out in terms of my music career.  I think my main thing is just trying to grow a community of fans as big as I can and just really focus on creating a safe space for people. I want to create an environment  where fans feel valued, heard, appreciated, and loved.  I know a lot of people don’t have that so if I can provide any sort of help, I will.  Also, once COVID is over, I want to start doing shows and meet the people who made all of this possible. I want to thank them and see how far I can go in the lane that I’m in.  It doesn’t hurt to reach for the stars. And then once you reach the stars. It doesn’t hurt to reach even further.

That’s incredible.  I’m writing that down.  Before we finish off, tell me a little about this song you have coming out on Friday.

Back in August, when I first met Matt and Quinn, the first session I had with them was actually my first session ever. It was August 19th and that was 11 days after I turned 18.  I started to feel the weight of the responsibilities that I hold as a legal adult and the weight of the world became a lot heavier, but it also came with a lot more freedom. My mind was in a crazy place from turning 18 and I felt like I had no time to be a child anymore. We ended up writing a song called “Expired” and it’s essentially me talking about how I felt like I had to grow up really quickly over the past couple years.  Considering my circumstances, the shit that I was going through, and the fact that I just turned 18, it really felt like I didn’t have much time to be a kid anymore. I called the song “Expired” because it’s in reference to my brother’s birthday card, he told me that my 18th birthday is my expiry date. It’s the time when my childhood expires. It’s actually, quite funny.  The first line of the song is an automated voice and it says, “we regret to inform you, your childhood has expired.” But yeah, that’s how the song starts off. It’s just me talking about everything that’s going on in my mind and how I want to be a child, but I can’t, I can’t get it back.

I just can’t get enough of Jess.  Her story is so unique and so special at the same time.  To come from such humble beginnings recording on an iPhone to amassing the following that she has is no small feat.  It truly shows how talented the rising star really is.  Check out “A Soulmate Who Wasn’t Meant to Be” below and make sure to listen to “Expired” when it drops tomorrow. Enjoy!

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