Music

Genre-Bending Artist grandson Talks Getting Political in Music, ‘I Want to Just Be Myself’

Mary Grace Ritter | The Phoenixgrandson poses at Riot Fest on Saturday, Sept. 14.

Jordan Edward Benjamin, who goes by the stage name grandson, might not have household-name recognition yet, but he’s certainly making a name for himself on the alternative music scene with politically charged hits such as “Blood // Water” and “Rock Bottom.”

Benjamin’s music comes from a place of resistance and defiance toward the current political climate. He released the song “thoughts & prayers” — a critique on many politicians’ typical response to mass shootings — just a month after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting of 2018, and continues to speak up about issues.

The 25-year-old artist, who performed at Riot Fest on Sept. 14, talked to The Phoenix about releasing new music, touring and getting political in his songwriting.

Mary Grace Ritter: So you just released “a modern tragedy vol. 3.” How’s it feel to have it out?

Jordan Benjamin: Really good. I can’t imagine what it’s like giving birth, because I’m a dude. So it’s like taking a big shit. It feels awesome. I can find a better metaphor for that. It feels really nice.

MG: The weird thing is you’re not the first artist to describe putting music out like that.

JB: Recently — and it’s been something I’ve been actively working on because I don’t know if it’s the healthiest relationship — but when I get an idea I’m excited about, I feel this real unease getting it finished. I almost feel like if I don’t get it out into the world, then I’m going to get hit by a train and with it the secrets will die with me. So I’ve had these recurring dreams of having a hundred pieces of chewing gum stuck in my mouth and things like that, literally being unable to get it out, whatever it is. So having a project out comes with this great deal of relief, but then half a second later, [there’s] this anxiety around how it’s going to be received and what’s going to happen. But I try to take all of that in stride and it’s part of the best job in the world. So I feel really lucky and I’m in a position now where there are actually people on the other end of this thing, receiving it and giving me feedback in real time as to how they’re enjoying the project and how they relate to the messages and the themes and the songs so it’s pretty cool.

MG: How has fan response been?

JB: Really overwhelmingly positive. It’s crazy. It’s really cool. And it’s cool to be in 2019 and songs drop online in different time zones [at] different times. So there was this wave of people in Russia or in England or America, Australia, and so that’s cool. It’s cool to be in the middle of that tornado and remind myself that while this microcosm feels real and feels important, the only thing that matters is who’s on the other end of this. And does this community feel heard and seen and supported by this music, whether they’re using it to go on a run or using it to do a hard thing, you know? Not that running’s not hard.

MG: A lot of your music’s very political. Does it spark debate between fans?

JB: Sometimes. We try to facilitate dialogue. Inevitably, with where we’re at in the political climate of today, a lot of these conversations can derail very quickly, which can be frustrating. But still, I believe those conversations are important to be had. I believe one of the most effective ways to mitigate conflict is to force people of different ideologies to talk with one another and ideally they’d be trying to solve a common problem. Even if that problem’s not necessarily related to the issue they are split on. So through things like the XX Rock Bottom Campaign where we were giving away merch and tickets, all you had to do was post a video explaining what gun violence meant to you and what your rock bottom moment was as it pertains to gun violence. Those sorts of things are meant to just start a conversation. Where that conversation goes is out of my control and I’m not necessarily here to patronize or be condescending toward people who think differently from me. I’ve learned so much about what I believe through meeting people who think differently than me. I try to meet with an open mind and I would like to be met with an open mind. But I believe that topics like gun violence, topics like climate change, political gerrymandering and the stifling of democracy, I believe those issues are important and I believe that there’s a sense of urgency. And that we need to figure this shit out and we need to figure it out quickly because it seems to be degrading very fast. So when I look around this festival and I see rock ‘n’ roll, I see alternative music, and also, particularly at Riot Fest, when you look at the intersection of hip-hop and rock ‘n’ roll, when you look at a band like Rage Against the Machine going on tour with Wu-Tang Clan in 1999. Public Enemy. What made those very different fan bases harmonious was confronting these difficult to talk about issues and I believe that for us to move forward and for this genre to continue to thrive and speak to young people we need to return to those roots. But I can’t control what other people are doing, that’s just what I want to do.

MG: I know if I talk about politics for too long it can get exhausting. Do you ever feel that with your songwriting?

JB: Absolutely. And I think that naturally the songs have ebbed and flowed in how deliberately they speak to one issue versus a feeling. I think that I used to come out very gung-ho and say “Fuck Donald Trump” and “Fuck you if you think differently from me,” and over the course of the last little while, that conversation has become more about empowerment, it’s become about agency. It’s become more about “we want to give you a voice.” We want young people participating. We want them registering to vote. Those sorts of topics, they just feel better, it’s less divisive, it’s less tribal, it sparks a less vitriolic response, and through that, those things that I believe in are still being pushed forward in some way. So I think using that, and also relating to mental health and spending some time talking about my relationship to depression and self-loathing and those sorts of things can really help, so that’s how I take time away and then return.

MG: Your new song, “Destroy Me,” it feels different from a lot of your other music both sonically and lyrically. It feels more personal to you.

JB: Yeah, that is a very intimate song and I’m trying to pursue the butterflies in my stomach. Creatively, when I get onstage, I want to do things that scare the shit out of me, that I feel less comfortable doing. I think that’s part of being alive. The more time I spent immersed in those “holy shit” moments, the more I grow, so I’m trying to push myself creatively and as an artist to do uncomfortable things, to be personal. I think one of the biggest things that prevents people from having these discussions is this idea of what it means to be a political artist. Like, “Because I talked about thoughts and prayers not being enough anymore, therefore I have to be this.” I liken it to this whole backpack-rapper kind of label that has this kind of condescending tone and implies that it’s not necessarily about taste, it’s more about the message. I’m trying to challenge that. And I have a lot of different feelings and emotions throughout the day and I don’t want to always have to be one particular character when I get onstage or in front of a microphone. I want to just be myself and a natural extension of that is sometimes going to write songs that are about me and sometimes about the environment that made me me. And this whole last chapter of this “modern tragedy” series was about nothingness and nihilism when you look around you and this applies both when I look around me politically and in my environment as well as within myself and within my group of friends and stuff. There’s this real flirtation with “numbing away” the feeling versus confronting the feeling head on. And “Destroy Me” kind of served as a love song to that sinking feeling. I have a family history of addiction and I have a family member who hasn’t had a drink in a couple years, five years or something like that now. And it’s kind of like a love song to that first sip she would have, hypothetically. That was the idea.

MG: Anything else you want to add?

JB: We’re on tour right now, “End of the Beginning Tour,” it’s been an incredibly empowering, exciting time, and if you want to find out more about me or the grandkids you can go online at grandsonmusic.com, or xxresistance.org and if you feel marginalized, if you don’t feel that you have a voice, come join the grandkids, there’s always room for one more. And if you think differently from us, then shoot me a DM and explain why and maybe I can learn something.

grandson’s music is streaming on all platforms.

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