Songwriter Interviews

Benmont Tench

by Leslie Michele Derrough

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Benmont Tench first started playing with Tom Petty way back in the early 1970s, in their hometown of Gainesville, Florida, in a band Petty had formed with guitar players Mike Campbell and Tom Leadon called Mudcrutch. After a few years of not much happening, they dissolved. In 1976, Petty took Campbell and Tench and started a new group: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

For Tench, his road with Petty has been long and fruitful. His piano/organ/keyboard playing kept the band grounded in sound and texture, and attracted the attention of many other artists: Bob Dylan, Stevie Nicks, Don Henley, Lucinda Williams, Ringo Starr and Ryan Adams have all called on Benmont to play on their records.

Often overlooked, however, are Benmont's talents as a songwriter. In 1985, he had a #1 country hit via Rosanne Cash's "Never Be You," and in 1993 Carlene Carter recorded his song "Unbreakable Heart," which became one of her best-known tunes. On his 2014 solo album You Should Be So Lucky (remarkably, the first of his career), Benmont wrote most of the record's 12 tracks. He got some high-powered help on the set: It's produced by his longtime friend Glyn Johns (who has helmed albums by Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and the Eagles), and features appearances by musician pals Gillian Welch, Don Was, Blake Mills, Petty and Starr. The music is a delightful breath of fresh air very different than what might be expected from those who only know of his playing with the Heartbreakers.

Calling in from California, Tench talked about his roots, his songs, his goals and a songwriting spurt that has led to another wellspring of songs.
Leslie Michele Derrough (Songfacts): When did you first feel the pull or the desire to write songs?

Benmont Tench: In the first grade [laughs]. I grew up on the show tunes of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" and those great songs. I was born in 1953, so the great songs from the War were still in the air, like "Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree" and "It's Been A Long, Long Time," which were all such brilliant songs.

Then when I was a little kid, so many great songs were on the airwaves, from The Fleetwoods' "Mr. Blue" to "His Latest Flame" by Elvis Presley, which was a Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman song. There were just so many beautiful songs in the air and I just loved music and I wanted to be either a composer or a songwriter. I had dreams of being some kind of fancy piano player but I always wanted to be some kind of writer, either melodies or songs.

Songfacts: Did you always take your songwriting seriously from the beginning or was it just a way to get out the emotions you were feeling?

Benmont: I took it as a serious way to get out the emotions I was feeling. I took it seriously but the thing is, I couldn't really craft a song before I was 18 or 19. I remember very clearly managing to get like three-quarters of a song or two-thirds of a song and get it almost to work but not quite work, and riding the streetcar in New Orleans when I was in college at Tulane and just writing songs in my head - either in the streetcar or on the bus or just walking down St. Charles - to try to write and complete and come up with a good song. I don't think that I really started writing anything that resembled a decent song before I was 18 or 19.

Songfacts: Do you have to feel what you are writing about?

Benmont: I have to have some emotional connection to it. I've come to realize that you find out later what the song is really about. There's a great story about Rodgers & Hammerstein. Their play wasn't working and the producer came back and said, "You need to write an opening song for Act III," or whatever it was, and they went, "Okay, give us half an hour," and they went into the piano room and wrote this song, "Oklahoma!"

Some people can do that. Not me. I have to have some emotional connection to it. A lot of times it will be a phrase somebody said and I'll tap into something, either an emotion that isn't really necessarily related to the facts as presented in the song but there will be an emotion behind it that will be related to the song. The story might not be a true story but the emotions behind it usually are true.

Songfacts: Has your creative process changed much over the years?

Benmont: I'm more prone to write the words first now. I used to always write both at the same time and I found it really interesting to write lyrics and then see what melody came. It's very interesting because I don't always write in the meter - I just kind of write blank verse, then when the melody shows up, I adjust it to the melody and I adjust the melody to fit. It's really interesting because if you write the words first then you notice you have something to say. You should write an instrumental if you don't have something specific to say or if you don't know the words to say it with. You should never write a song where you're just taking up space.

Songfacts: What do you think is the real heart and soul of a song?

Benmont: That's what it is, it's heart and soul. For me, you know, there're all sorts of songs. You look at the Radiohead work from the Amnesiac and Kid A period. There's that sort of song which has emotions to it but is a very intellectually constructed, thought out, conceptual way of writing a song. Then there is Elmore James singing, "The Sky Is Crying," which is an entirely different song. I like a song that connects with me melody and words and emotion. The wonderful thing about music is that there are songs for everyone.

Songfacts: Do you think that the music of New Orleans had a more profound influence on you than growing up in Gainesville and that type of music did?

Benmont: No, I don't think that it did. There is a specific music to New Orleans and those musicians – the drummers, piano players, sax players, guitar players, singers that are out of New Orleans – that influenced everybody. But what happened for Gainesville was what happened to a lot of people in the '60s. I was 10 when The Beatles hit. You had a regional radio and you got something that had the flavor of the place, instead of nowadays when you're going to hear Taylor Swift on every radio station in every town across the country. You're not going to hear anybody on a major radio station that you're not going to hear everywhere else. Now on college stations, you'll get to hear some other stuff, but the big stations back in the day were regional.

Benmont grew up in Gainesville, Florida, the son of a circuit courts judge. Home to the University of Florida, it was a fertile breeding ground for musicians who would become instrumental components of the southern rock/folk movements in the 1970s, amongst them Tom Petty, Don Felder, Stephen Stills and Bernie Leadon. Tench remembers seeing Petty for the first time when Petty was 15 years old and working at a local record store.
The Heartbreakers, the original lineup of the band was all from Gainesville. And right now, we're almost all from Gainesville. Steve Ferrone is British and Scott Thurston is from Oregon, but we all grew up in the same time period. In Gainesville there were songs that were only hits in Gainesville. Every band had to know how to play those songs, so we had a shared musical heritage.

There was also a really strong country and bluegrass tradition in North Florida, so there was a lot of country music on the radio; like old hardcore, genuine country music with an accent to it and a lot of heartache to it and not a lot of trucks in the song. I never heard a song about a truck in my life when I was growing up, except if it was genuinely a song about a truck driver, "Six Days On The Road" or something like that. Then you get it.

So I'm growing up in Gainesville, going over to people's houses hearing really virtuoso musicians playing mandolin and banjo and guitar and things like that just in somebody's living room. And some of the local players had that inflection in their playing. So you mix all that in with the British Invasion and country music you hear on the radio, and that had an impact on you.

Then when I moved to New Orleans, I'd heard all the records that Earl Palmer had played on. I heard all these songs that Allen Toussaint had written and I had heard all this great, great stuff. But when I moved to New Orleans, you could go see Professor Longhair play, you could see The Meters play. You would hear from the source that different beat, that different feel, and that had a huge impact on me. I just wouldn't say it was a bigger influence than music from Gainesville.

Songfacts: I want to ask you about a few of your songs and I want to start with "Ben's Boogie."

Benmont: That song shouldn't even have my name on it as the writer [laughs]. It's just a jammed-up boogie woogie. There's a wonderful boogie woogie player named Pete Johnson and a lot of riffs I learned off of Pete Johnson records that showed up in that particular show, cause it would change a little bit every time. It's got a lot of stuff, "Roll'em Pete" and different songs like that by Pete Johnson. So that's what that song is.

I love playing boogie woogie and I'm okay at it. Pete Johnson is my favorite piano player of all those guys. Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis are great players, but I have a special spot in my heart for Pete Johnson. Not to mention Ian Stewart from the Rolling Stones. THERE was a piano player.

Songfacts: I talked with Carlene Carter about "Unbreakable Heart" not too long ago and she told me how much she loved it. What can you tell us from the other side of the story?

Benmont: I sat down at the piano and the first couple of lines showed up and it just followed through. I was driving around in a car that had a broken radio at the time - I couldn't listen to the radio so I would drive around and write songs in my head. For about a month, I fine-tuned the lyrics. The melody and all the chord changes came pretty quickly.

A friend of mine in Canada and I had seen something along the lines of the phrase "Unbreakable Heart" on a billboard, and we said to each other, "Okay, I'm going to write one called that and you're going to write one called that." And it just so happened that it really connected with me in an emotional way. I think I was thinking of "True Love Ways" when I wrote that song but I wasn't consciously going, I'm going to write a song like that. I think those were just the spirits in the air.

I took it over to Howie and Carlene - Howie Epstein and Carlene were together at the time, and they were my best friends. I went over to their place because I wanted to show Howie, who was my best friend. I said, "I got this song. Do you think it's any good?" I played it to him on the guitar, which I don't play well, and he just said, "That's great. We're going to cut that." And Carlene sung it great.

Howie Epstein replaced original bass player Ron Blair, first appearing on the band's 1982 album, Long After Dark. He had played with John Hiatt and Del Shannon prior to joining the Heartbreakers, and produced records for Carlene Carter and John Prine in the 1990s. Epstein passed away in 2003.
Songfacts: I wanted to ask you about "Woman In Love" off of the Hard Promises album.

Benmont: Well, you'd have to ask Tom and Mike about that cause that is their song, but the main thing I remember is Duck Dunn played bass on that. Nothing against Ron Blair who is a brilliant bass player, but Duck Dunn was around and he played bass on that and he did a beautiful thing to it.

I like the way the track breathes. There is a lot of space, there are a lot of places where there's only drums, bass and one guitar playing with a vocal. I like the air in that song. I like the way that the beat picks up a little and then drops down in tempo and picks up for the chorus and then drops back down for the verses. I really like that. I thought it was a brilliant song.

I'm a huge fan of Tom's writing and Mike's writing, so it's a delight to be in the Heartbreakers because we just sit there and these beautiful, beautiful songs show up and you get to get your hands on them.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs typically have lyrics by Petty, who often writes the music as well but sometimes gets help in that department from guitarist Mike Campbell (who was kind enough to grant us an interview back in 2003). Members of the Heartbreakers are often enlisted for side projects by other artists, Don Henley in particular. Campbell co-wrote Henley's tracks "Boys of Summer" and "The Heart of the Matter"; Benmont co-wrote "Sunset Grill."
Songfacts: When you and the Heartbreakers are creating music, when does your input actually come in and how much freedom do you have to change some of the things that Tom and Mike have written?

Benmont: Well, I get to play whatever I want on it but then if it's not working, Tom will say, "Why don't you try this instead." Or maybe when he presents the song, if he wrote it on piano, he says, "Try it like this." I always express my opinion. I drive them up the wall with my opinion. Unfortunately, I'm not very tactful with it, and once in a while they will listen to my opinion and go, "Oh shut up, Ben, it sounds great." [laughs] And they're generally right.

Songfacts: Your song "Wobbles" from your solo album goes back to the New Orleans influence.

Benmont: I had seen Harry Connick Jr. play some New Orleans/Professor Longhair type stuff, and he was doing the entire rhythm with his left hand. I'd always played the rhythm with both hands, but he was playing the whole rhythm pattern with one hand and it was freeing him up to play melody with his right hand. So I thought, I'll try to do that. It was like an exercise that I wrote very much in the Professor Longhair vein but with a melodic tip in the first three notes to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

So I was trying to write a little exercise like that and Glyn Johns said, "Let's have some instrumentals on the album." We pulled that out and that's how we recorded it. I wrote lyrics to it, so if you look on the album, on the CD or vinyl, there are the lyrics and they are about a girl wobbling down Esplanade on her way home after a pretty fun night out in the Quarter.

Songfacts: How did it feel having this spotlight all on you for a change?

Benmont: It was really good to make a record with the people who played on the record; they were all friends of mine. We'd hung out at my house and I showed them songs that I'd written, they showed me songs they'd written and we all just jammed some things out from time to time. So it wasn't intimidating like I've got a bunch of session players and I've got to be the center guy and be Mr. Leader. It was a bunch of friends that are musicians who didn't really need any guidance.

And Glyn Johns is a good friend of mine, so it wasn't intimidating. It was just, Hey, let's play some songs, and it was really wonderful. We spent 11 days doing it and it was the most joyous 11-day period of my life.

Songfacts: Are you going to do another one anytime soon? Did that whet your appetite?

Benmont: I've written a whole bunch of songs. I talked to Glyn about a month ago and we're trying to figure out when and how to do it. I'd like to do one before the year is out and get it out next spring or summer. That's what I'd like to do. Of course, best laid plans.

Songfacts: When did you write all these new songs?

Benmont: They keep showing up [laughs]. I've got enough to make a good record. I've got maybe two songs that are old songs. The last record had four or five songs that I had written over the previous years and four or five songs that were new, and most of the songs are new now. There are a couple I'd like to record that are old.

Songfacts: You produced Doyle Bramhall II's Welcome album in 2001. Had you produced anything before that?

Benmont: Never did before and never did since. My friend Jim Scott co-produced it with me and Doyle. It was a really fun experience. I don't know that I have an urge to produce. I like making music and I love writing songs and I like playing live and playing on records but to be the producer... I like to be able to have input and express my opinions, but to be the guy in charge, I don't think that I really have that desire.

Songfacts: Piano vs Hammond B3 vs keyboards: Which one has your heart?

Benmont: The piano has my heart the most but if I'm playing the Hammond, it has my heart the most. I'm not a fan of synthesizers. I like Wurlitzer electric pianos but I'm not a fan of synthesizers. I just can't play them. I can't get anything good out of them.

But I've been playing a lot of piano lately. I have a long way to go on the piano. I listen to people like Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston and I listen to Roy Bittan and all this stuff just flies from beneath his fingers when he plays. If I listen to Dr. John or James Booker or somebody like that, it's just shameful that I'm considered a piano player. It's really shameful. I'm an amateur. At least I know it and I enjoy it. But I'm really only scratching the surface.

Songfacts: Who are your three wise men of songwriting: the three songwriters who inspire you the most?

Benmont: Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan and Irving Berlin. Irving Berlin twice [laughs].

Songfacts: Do you think you are more inspired now in your life than you were in the early days?

Benmont: I don't think so. I don't have any say over it, you know. I don't have any say whether I play well one night or the other, no matter how much I practice. And I don't have any say over whether a song is going to show up or not. I went through a really dry spell about ten years ago where I wasn't writing anything and then when I started writing songs, I wrote a song called "Like The Sun" on the You Could Be So Lucky album about four years ago. Since then, they show up but I can't force them.

Songfacts: So after everything you have done, are you happy or do you wish you could change a few things?

Benmont: I just feel like there's plenty more to do. That's all. I'm very happy with my career today. I'd just like to keep going because there is so much more to learn and express.

April 17, 2015. Get more at benmonttench.com. Solo photos by Sam Jones.
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