“I see my father now in me, a little more every day, the bad is there too, keeps the good company.”
-Tony Benn, “Don’t Give Up Your Heart”
Tony Benn has an interesting namesake. He is not the former minister of technology, nor is his name the hip shorter version of the famed crooner. And for all the college basketball fans out there, it’s not the head coach of Virginia’s stage name.
No, Tony Benn is his own person, and he’s made a name for himself as a modern folk singer-songwriter.
“People give bullshit advice, tell me how to live my life, what to think and what to feel, what is right and what is real.”
The Irish singer has spent most of his career as a solo artist. Yet, he found success in 2005 with the band Exploding Marmalade, reaching the Irish Top 30. Having been in the industry most of the 21st century, Benn has shared his stories internationally. He dedicated himself to music when he was young, however.
He reminisced, “I always sang in school and when I was 15 I had some money saved from my summer job. I wanted to get either a surfboard or a guitar. I decided on a Squire Telecaster (no regrets, it shaped the rest of my life), I bought a book and taught myself, playing every day till I was obsessed.”
After grabbing the axe and mastering the strings, Benn wanted to make a mark with his own voice, and he strengthened the talent he had inside the hard way and the academic way. While busking on streets, Benn attended Dublin’s Ballyfermot school of Music, and the combo helped prepare him for this career aspirations.
With influences such as Eddie Vedder, Roy Orbison, Ani Di Franco and Bruce Springsteen, Benn’s knowledge of music was vast from a variety of avenues. Listeners may even find some Bob Dylan-esque dynamics in Benn’s composition, both musically and vocally.
“I try to marry modern songwriting with a classical DADGAD guitar sound and my singing voice,” Benn said.
His acoustic stylings fit the alternative folk genre well, but with the addition of his deep soulful poetry and measured tempo, his sound becomes very stripped-down and raw. He isn’t afraid to find inspiration outside of the genre as well. For example, listening to pop and classic country helps discover basic and infectious melodies. All these elements help construct a good singer-songwriter, and it’s a style that audiences of the genre have come to love from generation to generation.
In 2009, Benn released his first solo album, Tony Benn. Though the production quality wasn’t outstanding, the tracks really defined what Benn was going for: emotional lyrics paired with great guitar play. Just like some of the best Irish music. His songs were basic to his plight, but tracks such as “It Starts in C” gave hints at the passion he was capable of creating.
After a lengthy hiatus from releasing new content, it wasn’t until last year when Benn put out another full-length album, If I Cross Your Mind. The title track softly, and fittingly, opens the album and sets the tone of what is to come—and it’s one of the songwriter’s favorite songs.
Benn explained, “It has a distinctive sound because of the DADGAD tuning. The melody is sung in kind of a yodel which I don’t usually do, and the lyrics are simple and mature.”
When an artist is able to accept and stay true to a consistent sound early, it makes for a better collection. Benn created his own distinction in the alternative folk genre without straying too far and deterring listeners who are loyal to the style.
The harmonica in “Don’t Give Up Your Heart” is a nice touch, and also a staple in folk music. There is a slight shift in sound in “Won’t You Be Mine” and an increased tempo in “The City.” Yet, his best cadence may come, depending on the ear, in “No More Excuses.”
Explicit language isn’t needed in most stories, but when Benn curses in “People Give Bullshit Advice,” it heightens the song. Since it is uncommon throughout the rest of his lyrics, it strengthens his passion.
“Gypsy Rover” closes out the album nicely with a little more volume then the tracks that preceded it. If not paying attention, as in playing the album in the background while focusing on work or another task, the songs could sound the same. However, they aren’t, and there lies Benn’s brilliance. Subtle changes in the sound provide enough variety to produce a quality album.
Benn’s latest 2021 single, “If We Make it Through the Winter,” continues his consistent sound, fresh with harmonica, melodious guitar and a sing-along..
Though imperceptibly different, each song has two traits that are never abandoned: guitar melody and meaningful lyrics anyone can be moved from and find a relation to.
Benn said of life, “The struggle for me, like anyone else, is to survive and keep all the plates spinning.”
Alternative and folk fans, especially ones accustomed to Irish melody, will be satisfied with Benn’s latest release. He stays true to himself just like listeners stay true to the sound.