After a few years of touring for his self-titled debut album, Benjamin Booker was in need of a change. He called his manager and told him he was going to Mexico for a month, despite not speaking a lick of Spanish.
He tells The Frame he was getting "claustrophobic" in the South. So he packed his clothes, books and a cheap classical guitar and left New Orleans to spend time in Mexico City.
The change of scenery gave Booker the chance to reflect and write, away from the "distractions" of New Orleans and the perpetual American news cycle.
Booker’s sophomore album, “Witness,” and its title song, resulted from his experience in Mexico and his own desire to “do more than just watch.”
When Booker stopped by The Frame, he spoke about the inspiration for the album and his motivations for writing it in Mexico City:
The move was sparked by just a need to push forward ... move to a different place, see some new things. I think that, especially if you're somebody who's writing songs, you're constantly looking for a stimuli. And I think that I just got a little claustrophobic in the south and I was like, Let's try something else.
The reason I went to Mexico was because I was just feeling very overwhelmed in New Orleans. I'd gotten back from touring for a couple years and was just feeling very strange. My life was so busy and regulated, and I was by myself.
While in Mexico, Booker was able to sit with his thoughts without the distractions of everyday life. This helped him write the album, though he had already started jotting down ideas on the flight there:
When I was on the plane, I just took out a piece of paper and started writing down things ... that I always had a problem with. For once, just, like, Let's be real ... and be honest with yourself. And I think that bullet-pointed list ended up being what the songs in the album are about. The things in my life that I was reluctant to touch.
Booker says his new album is different from his first record, which debuted in the top ten of Billboard’s Alternative Albums and Independent Albums charts:
The last album ... I was younger and I think that it was more about my relation to other people and the problems I had with other people. As time went on, I think I had to look and say, Okay, well, maybe we should talk about your problems too. I think it was just kind of like realizing my own faults. I'm growing up — I'm becoming a real boy!
In “Witness,” singer Mavis Staples belts out, “Am I gonna be a witness?” The New York Times dubbed it “a piano-pounding hymn for Black Lives Matter.”
The same ideas apply to the album, which ponders racism to the tune of gospel, blues and soul. Booker, who has relocated to Los Angeles and is currently on tour, hopes the album sparks some questions for listeners:
I think it's a hopeful album. I think that I came out of it on the other side a lot better, more at peace with myself. Sometimes you just have to really look at yourself and ask yourself the things that you want to change and things that you need to do to be the person that you want to be. And I maybe it will just spark some of those kind of questions with people listening to the album.
To hear Benjamin Booker's interview, click on the player above.