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Talking to Benny Sings, the godfather of bedroom pop, from his bedroom

Dutch musician Benny Sings standing in front of a beige wall wearing a blue jacket.
Demarquis McDaniels
Benny Sings kicks off a US tour at The Indenpendt in San Francisco

It’s 12:30 pm in Oakland, but when Benny Sings calls, it’s late at night in Amsterdam and he warns that he’s not able to speak too loud because his wife and three children are all sleeping in the same room. He’s just a few days from the beginning of a US tour, which kicks off at The Independent in San Francisco, in support of his latest album Young Hearts (Stones Throw Records). The prolific songwriter and producer, who was born Tim van Berkestijn, has been making music for two decades, but it’s only in the past few years that he’s gained attention for it worldwide. “I kind of gave up around 2012 because I thought this is just not working,” he says with a string of lights twinkling behind him. “And the strange thing was when I did that, like two years later, the phone started ringing. Because then all of a sudden, bedroom pop became a thing and millennials were totally into fluffy and kawaii, cute music and I was doing that for 20 years.”

Those phone calls led to collaborations with the likes of the Free Nationals, Mayor Hawthorne, and Marc Rebillet, and a co-producer credit on Rex Orange County’s 2017 chart-topping album, WHO CARES. On Young Hearts, the tenth Benny Sings studio album, the bedroom pop gets anthemic on the titular lead single, stays cute with child-voices and trumpet bursts on “The Only One,” and goes to Latin America on “Pyjamas,” which also features Palo Altan Remy Wolf.

Here is more from the conversation with Benny Sings.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Benny Sings standing in front of a giant Donut King donut
Courtesy of Stones Throw Records

KALW Music: You’ve been making music for two decades, why do you think it really started taking off in the last few years?

Benny Sings: I think it's the zeitgeist. So back in the ‘90s, I started this kind of music, and it was like, anti-grunge or something like that. I was in a small town, and everybody was listening to grunge, and everybody was wearing black clothes and listening to Metallica and stuff. And we were skaters, and we were like, we're going to do a different thing. We're going to do fluffy, pink, and the light blue, you know? So that's when it started. And that was immediately like, nobody cared for that. So you couldn't sell one record from that. That was the hardest actually.

So when Rex Orange County called me, he was very young then, around 16 years old, [it was because] his parents used to play my music for him. So it was like nostalgia for him, you know? And then after that, everything started rolling. And luckily, nowadays, bedroom pop is an actual genre. You can just be on Spotify for days and days listening to my kind of music with all different artists. I'm happy that this happened.

KALW Music: When you started, had you imagined this kind of international success or would you have been happy if it stayed contained in Europe?

Benny Sings: It was more like making money. That sounds stupid. But to me, I just wanted to be part of society. I wanted to do my share. I didn't want to be an artist that nobody listened to. You had the baker, you had the guy that cleans the street, and I would make the songs. So it was really relevant for me that people liked my music because otherwise, it wouldn't make sense for me. Yeah, of course, making it big in the US would be the best thing for that, but I never thought that would happen. I never thought it would be a thing. I was already happy if I could just pay my bills making songs. That was hard enough.

KALW Music: You spoke about making happy, fuzzy music, did you see that as your specific contribution to society?

Benny Sings: No, I don't think I want people to, per se listen to fuzzy music. Because I respect people that listen to dark music and stuff. And I think there's real depth in that but it's just not my thing. So I think everybody has his own thing. And when you make music or art, you should do the thing you love, because otherwise you're going to be confused. I think maybe a troubled mind would be more attracted to light music. That's how it works for me. I need music and art to give me some air and give me some light. And other people, they really want to emphasize the gravity of it all, you know, and that's just not me.

Benny Sings - Young Hearts (official video)

KALW Music: So what was the thinking and process behind Young Hearts?

Benny Sings: For me, it's always about “how can I make relevant music now?” You know, for the people. So how do I make music that's better than the thing I did before? It's really about the trade. Is that the word? The idea for this album was really to work with Kenny Beats. With the album before this, I kind of felt like I can do another album like this, but I don't know how to go further. I wanted to get that extra thing in there. And then I had a Zoom call with Kenny, which is really funny because he’s so overconfident. He immediately said, “Yeah, I can do that for you.” So I was like, okay, that's super funny. Let's try that. And he actually did. So he's not bragging. He's just kind of realistic in a way. So he gave me that extra thing and I don't know if it's good or bad or something but it's the thing I wanted.

KALW Music: Since you play everything yourself when recording, how does that translate when it comes to performing live?

Benny Sings: It's always hard to put my art on the stage because it's so much in the studio. I'm not a singer that's extroverted or that sings from expressing himself. I'm more like a thinker, or a writer that tries to show you what song I made. It's more cerebral, maybe. It's not so physical. So it has taken a long time, actually, 20 years to figure out how we can make this nice in a live environment. And I figured that out, I think, in the previous album like two years ago. I just found these amazing musicians that just fit me. What I didn't want is a band that sounds so good, and it sounds just like the record or something. I was looking for something that's like the music happens in the room. It's something that happens between the musicians and the audience. So it's just a very normal band. It's just drums, bass, guitar keys, singer, and trumpet player and it's just very normal. But it's the right musicians with the right music.

KALW Music: Anything you want your US fans to know ahead of the tour?

Benny Sings: Just come, it's gonna be nice. I'm looking forward to it so much. It's always an amazing experience to see that the Promised Land has listened to my music and sings along to stuff. So yeah. Let's celebrate.