Success shouldn't have happened so quickly for Benjamin Booker. Now 25, the New Orleans-dwelling musician has been one of the biggest surprises of the past year. His explosive blend of blues and steamy lo-fi garage rock with crunchy riffs has seen his career path move from working at a nonprofit to playing in clubs across the country, including many popular festivals. Booker's gravelly yet ferocious voice has added a retro element that has managed to align parents with their children's tastes.
Born in Virginia Beach, Booker spent his formative years in the Tampa Bay area. Though he says there are punk and folk scenes in the city that's home to the Buccaneers, Booker kept himself busy by hanging out at the skate park. "I hated living there," he says. "It was awful. The skate park had this art gallery that I really liked to go to, but I got out as soon as I could [and moved] to a much cooler town. I would never live there ever again."
That town was a few hours to the north in Gainesville, where he attended the University of Florida. There, Booker studied journalism, with his eyes set on becoming a music writer. He applied for an internship at NPR, but he was rejected.
While a Gator, Booker started dabbling in music, recording a few demos on his laptop. After graduation, Booker left Florida and headed for New Orleans, where he worked at a nonprofit. He posted the demos he recorded in Gainesville online in 2012. Calling the EP Waiting Ones, Booker didn't much think of what would happen with his music until it ended up being praised by the Aquarium Drunkard blog.
Before he could blink, Booker's songs were being played on SiriusXM; he parlayed that meteoric rise into a record deal with ATO. The guitarist landed coveted spots at the Newport Folk Festival, Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits and this year's Coachella (playing with drummer Max Norton and bassist Alex Spoto). He opened for up-and-coming Australian Courtney Barnett and Jack White, who has championed Booker. In addition to releasing Booker's Live At Third Man album on his label this year, White taught the young singer/songwriter the importance of having a dynamic live show. "[White] puts on one of the most impressive shows I've ever seen," Booker says enthusiastically. "We got great responses from the crowds, I think, because we have a similar sound to him, which was important to us."
Though Booker has had his share of fun on the road, that doesn't mean touring is without pitfalls. "Things have been gradual, and the crowds have increased pretty quickly, but . . . we've still had to sleep in our van outside of venues," he says. "I would never do that again and, hopefully, will never have to."
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Booker's self-titled, 2014 debut album won him plaudits in many music circles, including from the organization that once rejected his internship application. "It wasn't just NPR. I applied to all of these places that I do interviews with now," he says. "It's very strange to be rejected from every place, then have them want to talk to me now."
Benjamin Booker performs with Small Wings at the Constellation Room at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 603-6724; www.constellationroom.com. Tues., 8 p.m. $15. All ages. For more info on Booker, visit www.benjaminbookermusic.com.