By Jeff Walsh
On a random night out in San Francisco a few months back, the bill featured an unannounced addition. Garrin Benfield, a cute, waifish guitar player, took to the stage to play some of his original folk-tinged music. Benfield's music immediately resonated with me and I was glad to be able to buy one of the ten demo CDs he had brought with him that night.
Later this month, Benfield will release his first solo album, "Living a Dream," on Eighth Note Records. The album features thirteen stellar tracks that show Benfield's skill as both a singer and songwriter. Listening to the album from start to finish, you get the immediate sense that you're hearing the debut album of a potential rising star.
Recently, Benfield sat down with Oasis in his apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco to discuss his music, his relationship, and his dreams. Benfield, 26, has been in an eight-year relationship with his boyfriend, Josh, which is a heavy influence on the album.
"It's definitely really personal. Most of it relates in some way or another to my relationship with Josh," he said. "I tend to write out of depression or strife, though. I haven't written any 'life is wonderful' kind of songs. Even the title track, 'Living a Dream,' is really about living in a haze and not being fully awake."
Josh, an artist who creates beautifully intricate photo collages, designed the album's cover artwork, and his artwork hangs throughout the couple's flat, above Benfield's music equipment.
Benfield may be queer, but his music is not the folk version of Pansy Division by any means, though. His songs have a maturity and structure that reflect his Beatles and Grateful Dead influences. If any comparisons need to be made, Benfield, with his emotive, personal songs, is like a guitar-playing Rufus Wainwright.
The songs tackle a broad scope of styles and topics: "Too Much Information" has a simple chord progression underneath its confessional lyrics. "What You're Hiding" is Benfield's honest, heartfelt reaction to Matthew Shepard's brutal murder. "Easy To Guess" combines beautiful harmonies and a Beatlesque chorus. "We Don't Dance" is a song I've loved since hearing it on the demo with its reflective lyrics and spare chord progression. "If You Find" and "Slave" are flawless songs that standout on the album and in a perfect world would be picked up by radio stations everywhere. And "Walking" gives the album a nice sense of closure with its light, breezy feel.
Benfield moved to San Francisco a few years ago as part of a band which played funk and dance music.
"We were together for a few years out here and then I sort of parted ways with them to do my own stuff, because I have this whole other side which is more folk, pop-oriented stuff," he said. "So I started doing that more on my own, just building up songs. Then I met Michael (who plays piano on the album), who does engineering and works with Boz Skaggs, who is based here in San Francisco. So we had a great 'in' there, using the studio."
Benfield said he always starts writes music before lyrics, and surprisingly never had a guitar lesson.
"For me, it's always a melody or a chord change. I have to have that palette to fit the words in," he said. "The last track 'Walking' is one of the tracks I wrote in the studio, that and 'Already Heard.' They just sort of came in one piece, words and music, which I love."
Seeing Garrin live, even in San Francisco, is not a common occurrence, and one he plans to remedy in the near future.
"It's weird, after every gig I feel so great, and I just feel 'God, I want to do this all the time,'" he said. "And then I'm working again and a month will go by without any performances."
Even with his folk tendencies, Benfield prefers to be onstage with a band rather than just solo with his acoustic guitar.
"When I'm writing these songs, I'm hearing all of the instrumentation. Plus, I'd rather be working with a band than just be up there by myself," he said. "That's a whole art in itself that I know I haven't totally mastered, holding the whole thing together yourself and people not feeling like there's something missing. That's something I'm not completely secure about. Plus, I love the interaction of a band."
His two major influences are also bands, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead.
"Primarily where I'm coming from is the Beatles. Back when I was 9, my brothers and sisters bought me a Beatles album, so I've always like the melodic thing," he said. "I like colorful chords and nice bridges. When I was a kid, it was the early stuff, I didn't get the late Beatles and the White Album. The other big influence was the Grateful Dead. I don't know if, listening to my music, anyone would pick up on that, but they were just a melting pot of American music -- bluegrass, country, rock, jazz."
As far as his sexuality, Benfield has been with Josh for the past eight years, since he was 18. He was the first boy he ever dated.
"He sort of pursued me, actually. I had a girlfriend at the time," Benfield said.
Benfield knew at the time that he also had feelings for guys, so he started seeing Josh. Eventually he told his friends, who all took it in stride.
"It was just 'Garrin has a boyfriend now,'" he recalls.
After he and Josh were together, Benfield's mother wondered why Josh kept calling Garrin so much over Christmas. Benfield came out to her and everything seemed fine. A week later, his parents were freaking out, went to a PFLAG meeting and everything's been fine since then.
Benfield also had quite a coming out challenge, since he has nine brothers and sisters. He came out to each sibling separately on the same day, driving from house to house.
"It was surreal, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted," Benfield said.
Benfield and Josh had a ceremony a few years ago, which called a celebration of their love. Family members from both sides came to California and Josh's grandmother presided over the ceremony.
While Benfield is not really looking to market himself as a "gay singer," he has no problems talking about his sexuality, Josh, or gay politics. Plus, the music is so strong, there should be no fear that it will be overshadowed.
Benfield is planning to start playing out more in the Bay Area, then California and maybe someday, music will be his full-time job.
"That's my dream and it always has been, do be on the road promoting my music."
And we'll all benefit if Benfield starts living his dream.
For more information on Garrin and his amazing debut album, go to http://www.garrin.com/