Benedict Cork

by Corey O'Flanagan

Benedict Cork went the piano man route, much like Billy Joel. He hasn't written a hit song about the experience yet, but he has developed into an outstanding songwriter and performer, able to find beauty in the darker emotions. That kind of nuanced melancholy is his specialty, but he takes a different direction on his latest single, "Have A Good Life (See You Never)," which he breaks down and performs for us on the show.

Cork started playing his local London piano bar around 2009 when he was just 15; he released his first single, "Easy" in 2018. Here, he tells the stories behind some of his best songs and shares stories from his days in the piano bar - you might be surprised what people request.

Benedict's Podcast, Secrets I'll Never Tell

I've just started. My first episode relaunched like two or three days ago. It was a little lockdown project - I've always loved podcasts, so thank you for having me - and I love this sort of unfiltered conversation where there's no ad breaks and you're not bunched into three minutes or five minutes of time, so I feel like the conversations just go a bit deeper.

So, for my new EP, which is called Secrets I'll Never Tell, I wanted to chat with other creatives about some stories in their lives and share their "secrets." It's been a learning curve. I've never edited a podcast before, and I don't know how you do it - it's a big job. But it's so fun and it's really rewarding.

Piano Man Days

It was actually really exciting. I was 15 when I got my first job doing it, and it was a really cool job to have. I was just so lucky I fell into it. I had been playing piano for a few years but I hadn't ever thought of it as a job, really. I was still deciding what I wanted to do.

There was a little restaurant next to my school that had a piano in the window and I walked past one day and just knocked and said, "Hey, have you got anyone who plays your piano on Friday nights?" That was my first job and I did it for two years while I was still at school doing my A-levels.

It was such good training. It was quite tough playing for three or four hours in a night, especially when you don't know that many songs. I really had to learn on the job. Then you had people come up like, "Play that Billy Joel song" or "Play that Elton John" and you've got to be able to do it. So, it was kind of like my music college in a way and I look back on it really fondly.

What Songs Got Audiences Going In The Piano Bar?

Do you know what's crazy? It's always the unexpected ones.

There was a guy, he must have been in his 70s or 80s, who walked up to the piano, dropped a fiver, and said, "Can you play Miley Cyrus 'Wrecking Ball'?" Obviously, I had never played that before in a lounge bar, and did this sort of jazzy, stripped-back version of "Wrecking Ball" and it went down so well I kept it in my set for years because it was a bit weird to hear a piano man in the corner playing Miley Cyrus. And Kesha "TiK ToK" came up loads of times as well. Katy Perry "Firework." Loads of big pop ballads that you turn into piano ballads. It was fun.

A lot of traditional pop songs are really simple, so things like "Firework" by Katy Perry, I think it's just four chords, so after you've played the first 20 seconds you can sort of figure it out, and then a few of them I would just look them up on my phone online.

Using Phone To Learn Music

There's a thing called Ultimate Guitar, which I have been using to teach myself guitar in lockdown, and it's literally the best thing. I haven't had to pay for a single guitar lesson because every single song you could ever imagine is on this site. And I'm not, by the way, sponsored by them, I just love it and I go on every day and I pick a new song - I learn the riffs and I learn the patterns. It's kind of the same thing in the piano bars: You just sort of pluck a song out of thin air and try it.

Piano Man To Songwriter

I definitely learned from playing those songs, like how to structure a song. When I properly started songwriting and collaborating with people, I could reference songs that I was playing in the bar, like a traditional pop-song structure.

No one teaches you that in school. I did lots of classical stuff in school and jazz stuff, and no one goes, "This is how you write a pop song." So I took a lot of that information in, sometimes it was subconsciously. Like I'd be playing these songs in the evenings and then in the daytime I'd be going to studio sessions and it would filter into the songs. I'd have to be careful not to steal people's ideas, but even just structural ideas and the way people formulate their verses and the lyrics and stuff, it was really useful for that.

Breaking Free From Traditional Songwriting

Sometimes when you know where you think a song should go, it becomes too formulaic, so there are some chords which traditionally people use in a bridge or a medley, and now I try to stay clear of them because I don't want it to just sound like a regular bridge.

So sometimes not knowing is quite nice, but it's nice to have those tools to figure it out. Sometimes if I am struggling for a chorus idea, I'll just sing someone else's song over mine and then I'll be like, "Oh, that's how they structured their chorus. That's really cool. They started here, then they came back down and it's like A-A-B-A." Even though you don't want to steal people's ideas it's really nice to take that influence and use it in songwriting.

There have been times in the past where I've left the studio thinking that's a great song, and I wake up the next morning and it is 100% an Adele song. Those songs will never see the light of day. But we all take influence from everything. I have conversations with friends and I steal things they say. So as long as you're not literally taking someone's idea and showing it as your own, I think it's fine.

Writing "Easy" With Simon Jefferis

We wrote that song in Simon's front room in Brixton on a rainy November morning. Simon has a wonderful wife called Kara, who is American. They'd been long-distance dating for years, and they finally got married a few years before he wrote that song. They are just the sunniest couple, the loveliest people. I was definitely not in love at that point, and all I could think about when we were writing that song was them and their relationship.

So, it just felt like it had to be something really positive and really feel-good because I love writing about heartbreak and I love writing about deep emotion, but when Simon played that guitar riff and the chords, I was like, "This is going to be a happy song." So that's where that came from.

What's crazy about that song is I think it came out about three years ago now, and there are so many people who have used it for their wedding song. I never thought I'd be able to write a "first dance" song because I love being sad and I love writing sad songs. To have that song resonate with people is awesome, because at the end of the day we all want to have a good time and have fun as much as we'd like to feel things as well. But to know that people loved it enough to play it as their first dance at their wedding, it's really cool.

I end up playing at all of my friends' weddings and I love it because it's like my gift to them. So rather than getting them a funky lamp, I'll just sing them a song. But those moments are so special, especially with social media and stuff, they will be on camera for life and they will go back and watch it. To know that that song is playing for someone's special moment is really, really cool, it's really humbling.

Sad Songs Say So Much

In my day-to-day life, I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky guy, but for some reason, I just love exploring that part of human nature. I lived in LA for a bit and even there I still would write sad songs all the time. I think it's just more interesting.

I do love pop music and I love a party and I love feel-good music, but I find it rewarding to go deeper and find things that really connect and look at why people feel so deeply. I just find that really inspiring to explore. I think it's a really interesting space to have a look around. It's a bit messy and I really like that.

I love collaborating, so I find it way easier to write happier songs when I'm co-writing with other people. I love being miserable with other people as well. I love sitting around and hanging out and talking about really deep things, but I've actually challenged myself to do that over the past year, especially being in lockdown here, I've had to do a lot more writing on my own so I've tried to flex that happy muscle and see how it goes. It's been an interesting process because piano is my first instrument and it's so easy to just fall into the sad minor chords and find something that feels really beautiful that often leans toward a sadder vibe, but I don't want to always be stuck behind a piano singing sad songs, so I really want to push it a little bit and get outside of my comfort zone.

Opening For Lionel Richie And Stevie Wonder

What's so fun about being a creative is, as much as there are highs and lows, you get one phone call like that every now and again which changes your week or month or year or life. I have been a Stevie Wonder fan ever since I was like 3, and I remember listening to Motown CDs when I was growing up. I actually went to watch him in Hyde Park with my sister maybe seven or eight years ago and then I saw he was playing again with Lionel Richie, who I also love, and I begged my agent to try and get me on that show. In some miracle he managed to get me on it and it was so cool.

Stevie walked on and he was in tears already before he even started singing. He said it was going to be his last show for a while because, I think it was kidney surgery he was going to have done. So the whole set was underpinned with this feeling that it could be one of his last shows. And it was awesome. It was magical. To be able to go in the daytime and play a set for him was awesome.

Hyde Park

I have been going to those shows for years now. The amount of amazing people they've had in Hyde Park is ridiculous. I try to go most summers, and actually that weekend it was Stevie Wonder on the Friday and then Celine Dion on the Saturday, and then it was Barbra Streisand on the Sunday. It was a legends weekend, and luckily because I was playing on the Friday, I had an artist pass where I could just slip in on the Saturday and Sunday. It feels good standing there in that field with 60,000 to 70,000 people and see the greats play. It's for sure a privilege, and it's a memory I'll never forget.

"All My Famous Friends"

It's all about social media and how we're living in a very strange time now, where on one hand, having all these devices which connect us to everyone around the world has been such a godsend throughout the pandemic - I've been having monthly Zoom calls with my family in Australia, and I've got family in America as well, and friends around the world - and it's been so amazing to have that and to be able to do that. If we were in lockdown 10 years ago, it would have been so different.

Yet at the same time, we've all been living our lives online, and I'd say that song came out of the dark side of social media and how it can become quite overwhelming. At times it feels like everybody is sort of famous in their own lives and they're curating their own TV shows every day with photos and videos all filtered and carefully selected to paint this idea of what we all are. I do it as well and I'm really trying not to these days more and more because I want to just live my life truthfully. So, if I'm having a bad day, I'll just say it, and if I'm having a great day, I'll try not to over-egg it so that other people who are having a bad day don't feel worse because of that. So I'm just trying to live as authentically as possible. That song was kind of born out of that feeling.

"Have a Good Life (See You Never)"

This one is an upbeat song. I wouldn't say it's necessarily a happy song, but it's definitely energetic, it's definitely got some rhythm to it.

I was on tour with an artist called Duncan Laurence from the Netherlands just before the pandemic hit and we did maybe 13 or 14 shows together. I was the supporting act and I went on and did a full set, just me and the piano, and I loved it and had such a good time, but in the middle of those shows, we had this studio session booked. I'd been playing all these piano ballads and I just walked up to him and I said, "Please, please can we do something upbeat today. I'm bored, I'm sick of the piano, I don't want to see one."

Mack Jamieson, who I wrote the song with, he had this guitar riff and he was like, "How does this feel?" [scatting the guitar riff]. And then Hannah Yadi, who I wrote the song with as well - the three of us used to live together and we're super close, and we just thought, let's write a song that's basically saying all the things you wish you could've said in the moment, but you don't. You know when you have an argument, or a breakup, or a relationship breaks down, and there's all those things that you've played back in your head from years ago that you wish you had said in the moment, why don't we just put that into a song?

The night before, we had a break in the tour and one of the tour managers was leaving, and as he left the car park, he waved and went, "Have a good life man!" as if to kind of say, "It's been really nice getting to know you but I'm probably never going to see you again." I waved back and said, "See you never."

I parked it in my head, and I said, "Wait a second, there's something in that." When we got to the chorus, I was like, "How about we just say all the things that you wouldn't say, like I never really liked your mama, goodbye, I'm never going to see you again, have a great life." And that's where it was born out of, that frustration.

The verse and the pre-chorus were hard to write, but when we got to the chorus, I had that title written on my phone and I had a simple list of like concepts and ideas which I always keep on my phone, and I just opened it up and I was like, "Wait a hot second!" And "have a good life I'll see you never" just literally came. There were a few little lyrical tweaks and stuff, but the chorus came super, super quickly and once we had that, the whole rest of the song sort of formed around it.

Where His Vocal Chops Came From

I am the youngest of four - I've got two older brothers and one sister, and we all sang when we were growing up, so it was the kind of music that was around the house. We weren't a sporty family, we came home and sang songs and stuff. So my love for it started then.

I've heard recordings back from when I was maybe 8, 9 or 10 and they are not good, but I just loved music, and I think the more you do something, the more you chip away at the bad habits.

I have this really famous clip of Ed Sheeran on a talk show playing a song that he wrote when he was like 13, and the host was like, "All of these songs are amazing," and Ed was like, "Well, listen to this one."

I think if you really chip away at something every day, especially if you love it, even if it's only a tiny bit of improvement, you get better. And then playing at the piano bars really, really helped because I was playing maybe four or five hours a night. You have to learn how to sing properly and play properly because otherwise you'll lose your voice. It was the 10,000 hours.

Honing Piano Skills

Piano was way more methodical. I did classical piano growing up, and again I loved it. I'd come home from school and play for two or three hours sometimes, doing the scales and then doing the technique-y stuff. Then I'd do all the exams and things like that that really helped with technique in playing. It was only later when I discovered writing and chords and being creative in that kind of way.

June 23, 2021

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Comments: 1

  • Josh from VirginiaThis is excellent stuff! I learned guitar mostly through friends and Didgeridoo through friends as well! the old school way!
    Thanks for the post!
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