I’d never put my music so completely in someone else’s hands before,” says Marco Benevento. “I’d been hesitant to work with outside producers in the past, but the experience of making this record ended up being so freeing and exciting. I loved every single minute of it.”
It’s impossible not to hear that freedom and excitement and joy coursing through the veins of ‘Let It Slide,’ Benevento’s first new studio album in three years. Produced by Leon Michels (The Arcs, Lee Fields), the record introduces a gritty, soulful edge to Benvento’s brand of high-octane keyboard wizardry, an uptempo, uplifting sound he playfully describes as “hot dance piano rock.” For all Benevento’s virtuosity on the keys, though, the songs here are driven primarily by intoxicating grooves, with spare drums and minimalist bass lines underpinning infectious, intentionally lo-fi vocal hooks. The resulting vibe is a timeless one, filtering elements of vintage R&B and soul through modern indie rock and pop sensibilities and peppering it with the kind of adventurous improvisation that Benevento’s come to be celebrated for worldwide.
“This record has a really nice mix of what Leon does at his Diamond Mine studio and what I do at my Fred Short studio,” explains Benevento. “The final call on everything was always Leon’s, though, because I trusted him completely. If he had ideas about structures or arrangements, I just said yes without any hesitation.”
That might sound like a risky move for an artist used to total control, but Benevento’s built an entire career out of musical fearlessness. Dubbed “one of the most talented keys players of our time” by CBS Radio, Benevento’s released six critically acclaimed solo albums over the last decade, performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall and Newport Jazz to Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, and worked in the studio and on the road with the likes of Richard Swift (The Shins, The Arcs), Jon Brion (Spoon, Aimee Mann), A.C. Newman (The New Pornographers), and Simone Felice (The Felice Brothers, The Lumineers) among others. “It’s safe to say that no one sees the keyboard quite like Marco Benevento’s genre-blind mashup of indie rock, jazz and skewed improvisation,” the LA Times raved, while NPR said he combines “the thrust of rock, the questing of jazz and the experimental ecstasy of jam,” and Rolling Stone praised “the textures and colors available in his keyboards and arsenal of manipulated pedals and effects,” along with his “deceptively rich, catchy melodies and straight-ahead grooves.”
Benevento first met Michels while filling in for him on tour with The Arcs, a gig he landed at the suggestion of the late producer and Arcs member Richard Swift. Swift and Benevento had collaborated on an album a few years earlier, and the two formed such a deep connection that Benevento ultimately titled that collection ‘Swift’ in his honor.
“Richard and I stayed in touch after recording together, and any time I played in Oregon he’d do sound for us and I’d stay at his house,” says Benevento. “He kept telling me, ‘You gotta hook up with Leon.’ He just knew that we’d click.”
Though Swift tragically passed away before he could mix ‘Let It Slide’ as planned, his matchmaking ability proved uncanny. Like Benevento, Michels boasted an astonishing resume that included work writing and recording with Sharon Jones, Adele, Dr. John, Eric Clapton, Lana Del Rey, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, Charles Bradley, and Norah Jones among others, and like Benevento, he called New York’s Hudson Valley home.
“We became instant Upstate bros,” laughs Benevento. “We’d play tennis and go out for pizza and have our families over to each other’s houses. On top of everything else, I got a really great friend out of the deal.”
Benevento and Michels tackled initial tracking over the course of a few days at Diamond Mine in Queens, where they were joined by multi-instrumentalist and fellow Arcs member Nick Movshon (Amy Winehouse, Mark Ronson), who played both bass and drums. After laying down basic tracks, they headed back Upstate, layering up overdubs over the course of several months of on-and-off work at both of their respective studio spaces.
“Leon left room for outside ideas and inspiration, and I realized I had a lot to contribute in that regard,” says Benevento. “Sometimes I’d take a song back to my studio and layer up more synths or vocal ideas and bring them back to see what Leon thought. Everything’s filtered through his ears, but there’s obviously still a lot of Marco in this record.”
That much is obvious from the outset, with album opener “Let It Slide” leaning into Benevento’s trademark mix of effervescent keyboard work and deep-in-the-pocket grooves. Like much of the album, the song is effortlessly catchy even as it reckons with weighty lyrical concepts. Acceptance is a recurring theme here, and Benevento’s songs often find themselves recognizing that contentment can come only once you’ve freed yourself from the chains of desire and regret. “You’ll feel better, I’ll just say / When you finally let it go,” he sings on the funky “Say It’s All The Same,” which features vocal contributions from live bandmate Karina Rykman. The hazy “Solid Gold” celebrates the simple joy of being in the moment with someone you love, while the Lennon-esque “Lorraine” (co-written with Simone Felice) grapples with loss and change, and the anthemic “Send It On A Rocket” contemplates loneliness and connection.
“I started out as an instrumentalist, so I tend to write the music first and come to the words last,” says Benevento. “Often I don’t know what songs are about until after I’ve written them, and then I start to see my own personal philosophies subconsciously bubbling up throughout the songs.”
While ‘Let It Slide’ showcases Benevento’s remarkable growth as a singer and lyricist, it doesn’t shy away from his musical roots either. The dizzying instrumental “Humanz” (featuring guitarist Brad Barr of The Barr Brothers) bridges the gap between Ethiopian jazz and American funk, and a series of piano improvisations titled “Gaffiano #1,” “Gaffiano #2,” and “Gaffiano #3” demonstrate the staggering range of his creativity.
“The piano sound at one point didn’t feel right, so when no one was looking, I put some gaff tape on the strings to mute it,” says Benevento. “Everybody loved it and started calling it the Gaffiano. They’d say, ‘Go play something that sounds like Sun Ra meets Keith Jarrett on the Gaffiano,’ and I’d make up these crazy pieces on the spot.”
In the end, it’s that mix of methodical craftsmanship and spur-of-the-moment improvisation that defines ‘Let It Slide.’ The songs represent the unique magic that comes from surrendering control, from embracing the moment and, by extension, embracing yourself. In letting go and putting his music in Michels’ hands, Benevento freed himself to be himself, and the result is his most authentic and singular work yet.