Benjamin Booker is 28 years old, but a conversation with the punk rock-infused blues singer-songwriter reveals an old-soul wisdom that is at the root of his powerful music. Booker is a Florida native who grew up in the punk rock music scene. After graduating from the University of Florida in Gainesville, he moved to New Orleans and pursued a musical career. He released his sophomore album, “Witness,” in June. The album, which features the unmistakable vocals of gospel singer Mavis Staples, has enjoyed rave reviews. But Booker isn’t quite ready to admit that he has made it.
“We are just trying,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I’m happy just being able to play for people when we show up in town.”
“The only thing I have heard from everybody [about Utah] is people are nice,” Booker said. “It’s one of those places where it’s very different. I listen to a podcast called ‘99% Invisible,’ it’s an architecture and design podcast, and they were talking about how the streets there were set up with the church and how they’re super-wide and how it’s become a problem. People have to use orange flags to cross the street is what I’m hearing. I’m interested in the design of the city and how the street numbers are coordinated.”
Geeking out on the street designs of Salt Lake gives a glimpse into the many layers of Benjamin Booker as a person and a musician. He is introspective, well-read and seems to be perpetually in the throes of an existential crisis — in a good way.
On first listen, his music sets off an explosive sonic experience that makes it impossible to sit still. A deeper examination reveals lyrics ranging from anger over blatant racism and discrimination in America to the emotions one goes through simply trying to exist. His music sends some serious messages, but Booker said “Witness” was inspired more by the pursuit of happiness than telling others what to derive from it.
“A big part of the album was about pushing forward and trying to be a better person,” he said. “I think that continual growth is important for people. People get stuck where they are and they think that they can’t get out of it. But digging deeper and trying to tackle the things that are problems in your life and actively trying to find solutions is important. The songs come down to those kinds of things — just trying to get through the day and be a good person.”
In previous interviews, Booker has described suffering from writer’s block after releasing his self-titled debut album. He made his way to Mexico, where he spent a month living outside his comfort zone — and found inspiration in the simple things in life.
“I am trying my best to change my priorities from worrying so much about work and those kinds of things to just trying to enjoy friends and family; just enjoy the sunshine,” he said. “I am trying to live a more wholesome, complete life than I was before. I got a little burnt out of what you think of when you think of playing in a rock band. Those kinds of things got old pretty fast.”
Booker’s experience in Mexico changed his perspective, but despite his musical successes, he is still expanding his mind — he’s currently reading “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Marquez — and trying to be positive in a time when it’s easy to be anything but.
As he gears up to hit the road for a headlining tour, Booker, who volunteers his time teaching creative writing in Los Angeles, said that what’s on his mind right now is the need to get involved for the greater good.
“I usually say that when people get overwhelmed, it’s good for people to think about the smaller scale: their community and the people around them,” he said. “I encourage people to get out and volunteer and be active in their community and donate to organizations that they support. Stay educated. Read up on the world around you and try to keep going. Those are the things that I tell people. They help me feel more at peace when everything gets stressed.”
Benjamin BookerWith She Keeps BeesWhen • Wednesday, 8 p.m.Where • The State Room, 638 S. State St., Salt Lake CityTickets • $25, Ticketfly