For singer-songwriter 1010benja, genius happens spontaneously, involuntarily, and, possibly, divinely. “It’s like in the Bible, when God says, "I’ll come like a thief in the night… No man shall know the date or the hour,”” he says. “Well, this is how it works with the best songs. They just come.” On the Tulsa-born, singer-songwriter and producer's long-awaited debut album Ten Total, 1010 assembles just these kinds of lightning strikes.
We’ve been eager to listen to his debut album for a while; now that is out not only has it been critically acclaimed, but it also challenges the most traditional songwriting and production in alternative pop music, but there’s something punky about it in which both rap and gospel come hand to hand in such an original way. Across 10-tracks, including the singles I Can, H2haveyou and Peacekeeper, 1010 layouts out a compelling exhibit of his distinctive production style and vocal range, adding to his sparse but fantastic catalogue which includes 2017’s single Boofiness, the expansive 2018 singles Wind Up Space and Ultimaybe, the stripped-back single Dobby in 2020 and his 2021 stand out single High.
Ten Total was recorded over the last two years between his Kansas City bedroom and Los Angeles studios, and the album sounds not unlike a punk record: ten songs, straight and to the point, showcasing the outer limits of 1010's skill, passions and curiosities to this day. On his debut, 1010 exposes his inner language. His vision of pop is simple until you listen closely. Improvisation and spontaneity are part of the creative process, as the artist is able to convey so much in a few sounds without even using language. 1010's voice is so beautiful, and it is his use of it that makes his songs so compelling. His own story shows in his voice when he sings, his upbringing is key to his message throughout this album; Ten Total also tells the particular story of an honest and dedicated person who took some of his life's struggles and turned them into pieces of art.
The artist has been glimpsing toward the unknown since childhood. Growing up in Tulsa, OK, 1010 spent nearly all of his time in Pentecostal and C.O.G.I.C churches, where his parents served as ministers and congregation members. He absorbed the message and the music. “Like 4 to 8 hours a day, most days a week,” he recalls. “My earliest memories are falling asleep on my mother’s breast, and hearing her heartbeat, and her voice humming in one ear, and the band blaring in that other ear.” Religion shaped his worldview in more ways than one. There was an interest in the metaphysical and ancient history, cultivated by his immersion in scripture, but also the church tradition itself, a connection to black culture informed by his father, uncles, and grandfather, whose histories as clergymen traversed the Black American south and midwest.
Coi Leray, Kanye, John Frusciante, Björk, Matthew Barney or Star Trek are among some of the influences that shaped the imaginaries for this record, but it is in 1010’s drive and artistic abilities where the power of this album resides. In this conversation not only we do learn a lot about the album, some of his references and influences and his approach to production, but also how the right time to release an album is not always a process as easy as it may look.
To call this album pop is an understatement; it has such a punk and rock’n’roll flavour to it. Were there important things for you to take out in this record, emotionally?
No not really, I just really wanted to make songs, I had all types of feelings, I want the music to be what you would call pop because I want people to listen, and for it to live in the world, and all the other things I added are either things I’ve heard that I’m reaching to mimic or things that I think people should hear that come down from somewhere else. I have seen it as a punk record in many ways, short to the point, and the point is vague, and the point is pointless. It’s 10 demos for public consumption, a beacon meant to give away my position. I just want to make contact right now. I don’t really know anybody.
One of the most interesting things about some of the songs and the intro of the album (Looking Out) is the presence of onomatopoeias (laughter, sighs, shouting etc.). It makes it more real, as if you were improvising. Why was it important for you to include these gestures?
To be honest, I was improvising, when I was recording, I think a lot of the best takes, the ones that are easy to keep, they come instantly and thoughtlessly. Everyone who does it really knows that. I think the sounds that words make are in some ways more important than the words themselves, and that words probably get a lot of their power from the sounds of the words, rather than just the definitional meaning of the words. Sometimes when I’m singing, I’d rather tap directly into the sounds, and forget about all the rest.
It's been more than five years since you released Ultimaybe, one of the songs we knew you for back then, with your EP Two Houses. I wonder what it feels like to look back from then to now and why now was the time to release your debut album.
I’ve been trying to release a debut album every year since, I wanted to do it on a major platform for the sake of my own personal plot, for the sake of the impossibility factor, you know, because my music work is passionate, deranged and inherently incomplete. In ways, I’m so naive and stupid, that’s part of my characteristic approach to music, but being an idiot also makes me confused, mainly about business and work and stuff. So, it simply took this long for all the pieces to fall together so that a record release could happen. If I could’ve put out an album in 2019 I would’ve, one of these songs was even demo’d during that time, there were just things I still needed to learn in order to actually be able to get a record out in the world without compromising the work too much, and also I needed to begin to figure out and take more seriously the question of what I really would want to put out in a global context and in a semi-permanent way.
Peacekeeper is one of the singles where you've shown a side or style that we didn't know much about you. The rapping is smooth and original, and the whole song feels like an ode to your resilience, with references as concrete as Cremaster, the work of contemporary visual artist Matthew Barney, among others. Also, in the video we can see you walking on such a tiny world. How did this song come about?
I think that 360 style of video is called tiny planet. But I didn’t mean to directly create any metaphor or analogy about the world in the subtext. The song came because of a beat from a producer I met in LA named Lido. I only met him once, but he emanated a lot of good energy. I think the beat was really just organ and metronome. Then I added a few synths and dumb sounds. I’m sure I tried a lot of different voices and this is the one that stuck, I don’t remember when I recorded the voice. I was thinking about YN Jay I think.  With rap it’s always been hard for me to be honest and make it hit, it’s been that way my whole life, and I don’t know if I’ll ever master it the way real rappers do, I just love music, still it always ends up being something very weird and incorrect. I just have to keep rapping till I start to say stuff that’s actually my life. I can’t pretend too much. I love rap music and there are all types of rappers, and a lot of my favourite rap these days has something to do with doing bad ass awesome and satanic stuff, but I mostly just read and watch movies, and walk, so there you have it (laughs).
Beyond the lyricism, the production on some of these tracks is breathtaking, and some of the songs like H2haveyou, Twin, Mire or I Can develop progressively, and the instrumentation is really great, it takes you deep into the song. What was it like to approach this part of the album?
I think these are just sounds I live with in my heart and mind, I love chamber music and soundtracks, and I love big timeless popular music like Michael and Janet, I love Ye, and I love many types of more obscure music too. I also like artists from all over the world like Hikaru Utada. So, I mimic and mix. I’ve just been in my bedroom trying to make really large, interesting stuff for the longest time, and I’m not very educated in music and so you get this broken maquette version of all of these big classic things, I think it’s apocalyptic in a way, I lean into it.
I Can is a heartfelt and powerful song. As you say in the press release: "Looking back is a heartache, looking forward is a mystery to me”. Where do you usually find the inspiration to write your songs, and what happens when you have a clear idea or theme? What is the starting point of your writing?
I eat and breathe songs at this point, it can come from any direction. I never have a clear idea really, in my entire head. If I didn’t have music, I’d really just suffer. Because I’m a singer, I often am longing, just longing, aching for the world, to be with it, to be it, to feel everything, and also hurt by it. I think that feeling propels a lot of my more romantic songs, the desiring to feel that way.  I often want to make straight forward, generic, I want you and I need you songs and they just come out a little spookier because it’s always Halloween in my world.
Anyway, as a kid I used to cry to songs like The Slaughter by John Frusciante. Or The Dull Flame of Desire by Björk and Anohni. Or Consume Me by DC Talk. Someday soon I’d like to do romance on a really sweeping musical level like that. Lend Me Your Voice from the Belle soundtrack.
Did you always know you wanted to be a musician? Is there any other field of art that you are drawn to as a creator?
Yes, I’ve known that I’m supposed to make music for most of my life that I can remember. And yes, for sure, every other major field of art, I’d like to engage with each of them if I can be of any use. I love films, I’m getting into plays, and I love the future. I really like Hideo Kojima, and David Lynch, someday it would be amazing to be a part of a world built by someone like that. To work on some sort of team creating something truly ambitious, detailed, contemporary and felt; a reality. Once again, in whatever ways I could actually be useful. I mainly just play guitar. But I’m sure I can learn a thing or two new still.
H2haveyou is also another great song, I’d say the most positive and optimistic of the album. It’s quite intriguing when you see the video as it’s filmed in negative. Why did you choose this song as the first single from the album?
I chose the negative footage because it felt polar. Polarity is a lot of what I’m about, being in both extremes of something. That’s what the 10 thing is about. Binary, but the space in-between. I also felt the negative looked more dramatic. I was given nothing to really work with to make videos for this project, I had my point and shoot camera and a friend named Ashley to shoot in KC, he’s actually a really talented musician, and I had already shot some mountains and stuff in LA, when I went to edit it all, I didn’t like how it felt till I switched to negative, it just kind of happened, and in the same way I sort of just picked it as a first song for no strong mental reason.
Since the release of Boofiness, almost every music media has been praising your music, has it encouraged you or has it put more pressure on you to get back into the studio?
I don’t know that I knew that (laughs). Pitchfork has been really nice and there’s been some other publications that have been really nice and helped to spread the word about me. Sometimes because someone working at a place really likes it and soldiers for it, sometimes it seems to come from somewhere else, I really don’t know, that world is new for me. But no, it doesn’t make me feel any added pressure, the truth is I’m always in the studio.
I read about your experience at the historic Booker T. Washington Magnet High School in North Tulsa and wanted to know a bit more about how important it was for you and if you think it influenced you to pursue your musical career with a different outcome.
Booker T planted seeds in me of an intellectual type, certainly put a latent craving in me for studying things which didn’t manifest till later. But we had to read some really good books, there were lots of languages, and the social environment of the school involved so many races and classes it was very educational for me. I’m sure it did affect my work, my first performances were at the school talent show, I think. Historic black school, a pioneering school during desegregation, historically performance arts focused, can’t go wrong there. Shout out hornets (laughs).
It's really interesting to see how two genres as important and as different as gospel (in your childhood) and the Tulsa punk scene (in your teens) were part of your upbringing and musical self-taught career. When you pay attention to most of your music, it makes a lot of sense, and with your expression you have in a way created a new genre. What did you learn from those experiences?
First of all, Gospel is for life, some of us may backslide but we all end up going back home to the loving arms of The Lord. I don’t think that I’ve created a new genre, but I certainly seem to avoid settling down to a genre whatever the case. I think to answer this question we really have to go back to polarity and the space in between, the space in between is what both polarities in any given example have in common, this space is what they both have contact with and access to at all times and in this way this gulf between polarities becomes a shared quality between the two. And herein lies the riddle, why so often is your enemy more like yourself than you want  to admit? What I’m saying is, are Gospel and Punk music even actually very different at all?
John Frusciante, surrealist literature and contemporary art were also key elements and references that interested you during the early years of your youth. Are there other cultural elements or artists that influenced you in making your debut album?
Fru is always an influence, for instance I Can, Ye is always an influence, Björk, especially around the time of Volta, when she was using all this hoarse epic brass arrangement, a lot of rappers, I was mimicking Coi Leray’s deliveries a lot at the time, I think she’s an under-appreciated singer.  Carti, Michael, Star Trek theme songs and Evangelion rebuild music and stuff like that. I think Jonathan Bepler’s sound work on films like River of Fundament had a big influence. The Book of Revelation. Also, just the struggle, you know, the ol’ dusty trail (laughs).
“And that’s when I became obsessed with knowledge and information and started reifying my own mind as a buffer between my heart and the constrictions of the real world.” This is quoted in the album's press release and it kind of sums up an important element of your music: at times it comes across that coming from a working-class background is not only key to your story, but also to the things you talk about in your songs, and how you sing about them. Have you ever received feedback along these lines from other artists or fans?
I see what you mean I think, but no, no one ever says anything to me like that. I think it’s sort of important that once in a while someone from the districts makes it to the capitol, it brings fresh attitudes and energy and helps to reinvigorate an artistic era. As anyone with everything will tell you, people grow complacent. There’s a few of us out there, a few more coming. Katniss survives it, I plan on doing so also.
Thanks so much for your time on this, and all the best with new album. One more thing; what’s next for 1010benja?
A lot more 10. Thanks too!