Alone Together: How solo artists shook up rock music
From grandson to Ghostemane, nothing,nowhere. to NOAHFINNCE, solo artists are proving that rock isn't just reserved for bands anymore…
If you were to ask Jordan Benjamin how he’s been doing recently, he’ll probably tell you what he told Kerrang!. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” the artist otherwise known as grandson says on a Friday morning. His answer is both a result of him being in full promotion mode – his full-length debut album, Death Of An Optimist, arrives in little under two weeks – and also the sharing of a valid and sincere feeling. Many of us are daring to feel that after 11 full months of 2020. But Jordan would never blame you for saying otherwise.
The 27-year-old has lived like all of us through the extremes. He’s been shut up in lockdown, released and trapped again, felt lost and hopeful, been scared about the world then suddenly sure the metaphorical pond is being drained. He too is aware of the maddening dissonance of reality – of simultaneously watching Joe Biden get the most votes of any presidential candidate in American history while Donald Trump gets the second most; of vaccine trials rolling out while countries reach all-time-high daily deaths from and cases of the virus. He’s thinking a lot about the Alice In Wonderland nature of our disastrous global landscape seeming both better and much, much worse.
If you wanted an uncertain album that sounds like it was forged in the fires of 2020, it might be Death Of An Optimist.
Despite his chirpy constitution – displaying YouTuber pluckiness in front of a podcasting mic with his curly hair poking out neatly from his Adidas cap – Jordan’s tired. “I know so many people in the spaces of activism or community building any sort of resistance to the status quo, and it’s a long game… a lot of people report being really burnt out and frustrated and exhausted,” he says. Change has been painfully slow to observe. Take Greta Thunberg, for example, who has been working on her student striking campaign now for well over two years. Despite the awareness and support for Black Lives Matter swelling this year, the movement formed back in 2013.
In black and queer activist spaces, “social justice burnout” is a familiar reality. As a younger generation comes of age in 2020, activism fatigue is an important issue to highlight. This year, unfortunately, is the beginning of a long and arduous decade for society, for the economy and for the planet. As an artist, grandson wants rock fans to know that political artists and activists also get burnt out, and they too wonder if it’s “even for anything”.
Jordan already had this crisis while touring in the past couple of years. He felt hypocritical performing his most popular track, Blood // Water, a triumphant story of karmic retribution and change being within reach (“How am I gonna keep fucking doing this? I don’t even know if I believe in what I’m fucking selling them right now”).
So, Death Of An Optimist exists on a “spectrum of hope”. It’s dualistic in mood, swinging one way then the other, just as at odds as the sonic splicing of rock, hip-hop and electronic music. It’s explicit about the issues we face (on Soundcloud rap-leaning track Identity, they’re listed as “mass confusion / air pollution / compromised foreign contribution”). This spectrum is in part presented as a fictional fight between grandson and a new alter ego character, a fractured, doubting side to the musician.
“What’s crazy is that the majority of the songs were written before the lockdown happened,” he explains today over Zoom. “What this year has done is put what was underlying to the forefront of our minds: the unsustainability of how we look after ourselves and each other, the absence of any sort of holistic responsibility for the person next to you.”
Jordan spent “a long time” writing angry music for people who don’t understand those issues of responsibility – or rather, have no interest in helping to combat them. Death Of An Optimist is different. “This album is for the people who are already here in that fight,” he says. “Struggling to continue to find hope, struggling to continue to find that purpose.”
Jordan was born in New Jersey and at the age of three moved with his parents to a small Jewish neighbourhood in Toronto, Canada. The lives of young people in his community felt more or less prescribed to them. Or, as Jordan puts it: “Everyone goes away for the summer to a sleepover camp, you go to one of the three universities that everyone goes to, then you come back and either work for your parents or get a job as a lawyer or something.”
His family, by contrast to those of his neighbours, comprised of very liberal parents and two older sisters, both passionate about identity politics and community building and organising. His home became a hub for local kids feeling down or confused. When his sisters went off to college, the basement was transformed into Jordan’s own den for him and these kids, walls lined with posters of rock bands and musicians.
Despite the fact he felt like an outsider, Jordan recognises he was extremely privileged as a white, middle class male. His upbringing and background enabled him to get into trouble and get out of it just as swiftly. “I went through a phase of selling pot and stealing random shit from the local Urban Outfitters and stuff, but when those things hit dead ends, they didn’t stay with me in the form of a criminal record,” he remembers. “The manager of the Urban Outfitters called my mom, and I got grounded. When I stopped selling weed, it was because I needed to focus on school and not because somebody pulled out a gun on. It never got that serious, and I think a big part of that is this privilege that I’ve been born into.” With that in mind, he tries to “not glorify a lifestyle that could’ve gone so differently”.
He began writing music at 15 or 16 years old, a fan of “acoustic campfire sing-along type shit” as well as crooners like Frank Sinatra, before he discovered hip-hop and weed. “I was that kid with my Jewfro and my braces and baggy basketball jersey,” he grins. His simple ambition? To be the best rapper in his school. When he moved away to college in Montreal, his party trick was improvisational rap: letting friends and acquaintances pull items out of their pockets and then rhyming whatever he was presented with.
He was only “passively interested” in classes. “My parents helped me pay for college so I felt like I couldn’t just leave,” Jordan says. “I was asking, ‘What’s the point of me being here?’” He became convinced that attending a nearby liberal arts college would provide some direction, but when he transferred he was followed by the same vague frustration and confusion about what he wanted to do with his life.
Change came out of nowhere. A video of him rapping on a rooftop with some friends, shot impulsively one autumn weekend, ended up on a music blog. A couple of days before his 20th birthday, a manager reached out to him. Within a couple of weeks he’d dropped out of college and travelled to Los Angeles to start a music career of some kind.
Why, then, did he still feel like an outsider? “From a young age I always questioned the world around me,” he reveals. “I always had a hard time with authority figures.” Still, the disillusionment he felt in society was an immensely positive one: he had all the support he needed for a creative and fulfilling life that came from within his actual family, despite what may have been going on for his contemporaries. Jordan is upfront about that. “From very early on that feeling of difference wasn’t met with, ‘What the hell’s wrong with you?’ It was, ‘Have you considered writing in a journal?’ It was dropping out of school to try to become a rapper and have my mom drive me to the airport,” he explains. “Those are things that I took for granted for a little bit of time.”
As a result, he sees his role as a musician to provide fans the expansive outlook and opportunities for freedom that his parents gave him. When on tour, he says, “I imagine myself as a caravan of the ideologies that my parents raised me with.” He wants to remind underprivileged or stifled kids that “no-one truly has it figured out” and “you don’t have to do anything permanent to navigate a temporary situation”, something as fleeting as an oppressive high school experience.
Despite a strong start at school, essentially becoming the best rapper, his rap career was never to be. Around 2014, Jordan watched white rapper Macklemore – remember that annoying, catchy horn-heavy hit Thrift Store song that was inescapable in the summer of 2013? – win a GRAMMY for Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar. The response was mostly negative. Music fans of the genre wanted to know why hip-hop was being co-opted. “I found myself feeling, ‘Yeah, why am I doing this? Why am I taking a seat at the table?’” And so he turned to rock and alternative music, which felt more appropriate and ultimately more freeing.
The pseudonym grandson allowed him to step away from any self-consciousness. Early EPs released as volumes of A Modern Tragedy illuminated issues including war, benefits and police brutality. His sound was equal parts Rage Against The Machine and more recent on-the-nose iterations of political rock music, IDLES, while incorporating his own love for hip-hop and electronic music, in a way that echoes twenty one pilots or even the approach of Linkin Park, whose Mike Shinoda has long championed Jordan.
Despite relative success with grandson, Jordan wanted more. When tasked with penning his debut album in late 2019, he wrote songs built to be mainstream, popular and radio-friendly. They were fine. But he realised he had settled for an easy win. The music got scrapped.
“I felt frustrated that I haven’t gotten as much love in print journalism or terrestrial radio so [thought], ‘Let me do what other people are doing in those spaces and maybe then I can use my microphone to say something,’” he remembers of this time last year. “It wasn’t the right place to be writing from. I think I was hurting and feeling competitive.” Instead, he insulated himself to think about the world and to start the project again.
His friend, another musician called Maxwell, agreed that the material wasn’t good. According to Jordan, he couldn’t understand why grandson started his career with hip-hop and electronic-spliced political alternative music and gone backwards to be accepted. Together they then wrote the song We Did It!!!, the lead single of the forthcoming album. Optimism was born.
Enter the strange and surly character, X. Here is Jordan leaning into his “more cynical and pessimistic side”. He wanted a channel for all his antagonistic forces – his own imposter syndrome, “the system”, or people in life who have gotten in his way – so it wasn’t abstract.
“I feel that is where so much resistance or political music goes wrong – it’s so vague,” he explains. “They wanna stop us, you know. I remember DJ Khaled blowing up on Snapchat going, ‘They don’t want you to win,’ and, ‘They don’t want you to succeed,’ and it was like, ‘Who the fuck are you talking about?’” To Jordan it felt shallow and ineffectual. “I want to keep talking about these things and I want to confront them but in giving that force in my life an identity and for me to play that… it opened up doors for me in the same way that calling myself grandson did four years ago.”
Inspiration came from Eminem and his evil alter-ego Slim Shady, and more recently twenty one pilots’ Blurryface, a character who represents the insecurities of vocalist Tyler Joseph. Like Blurryface, who is visually represented with black smudged on Tyler’s hands and neck, Jordan’s X features on the Death Of An Optimist album cover with two black crosses over his eyes and his thick curly hair slicked back. In the video to Riptide, you can see X emerge, dishevelled and wet, from a body of water in his suit, eye sockets now grey.
In quarantine Jordan acknowledged for the first time that he was someone who enjoyed being “more dramatic” and “more flamboyant”. Putting on X’s baggy vintage suit, given to him offhand by a stylist on a photoshoot, was a turning point. “I felt like Ace Ventura or The Mask or something when I put it on.”
If you hadn’t yet gathered, for all the duality Jordan witnesses in the outer world, he has his own longstanding inner conflict. A theme that arises multiple times in our hour-and-a-half chat is his egoistic battle between success vs. ‘Doing It Right’. He’s deeply concerned with becoming a serious musical triumph, but also has a strong sense of what is the correct action. At one point he admits: “It’s hard to tell what part of the story we’re in right now; will I have a song that’s any bigger than my biggest song?” He wonders: “At what point do you start looking at the new kids that keep being 19 and ask yourself maybe I’m the one who’s out of touch and I should be happy with what I’ve got and settle.”
This anxiety seems to hold more force over him recently. “It’s hard to hold on to these ambitious goals for your sense of purpose in life, when you start feeling the urgency to start having some shit figured out,” he says of his mid-to-late 20s. He clearly thinks deeply about concepts, results, and whatever else comes to mind, maybe to his detriment. To this he says that being over-analytical is “the only speed I’ve got”.
But his desire for mainstream success at all costs lost this time. “If I try to do the other thing,” he says of his scrapped work, “not only am I also stuck with all these problems, but I also have self-loathing and feel like a fake.”
This yo-yoing is indicative of our current collective state of mind. To win, it’s evident we all have to do make the right moves at potential personal cost. “There’s such a line to straddle between wanting to as a collective take on these big lofty problems and then wanting to retreat inward and go into our own expression,” he explains, while adding that he sees this when people respond less positively towards his more pointed political music. “There’s gotta be somewhere in the middle between completely giving up on it and moving away… It can’t just look like posting a black square on Instagram, that’s not gonna do it.”
There is only one option in grandson’s mind: hope. Why must we keep on staying engaged? He shrugs when he says it. “You can’t give up, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Fame-propelling or not, Death Of An Optimist is precisely what Jordan wants to say for himself. But far more importantly – in 2020, a time when everyone still insists on speaking over the lost art of listening – he’s here to ask the questions.
grandson’s Death Of An Optimist is released on December 4 via Fueled By Ramen. Pre-order or pre-save the album here.
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