Benji Cossa was once called “The King of Song” by Bjorn Copeland of the Black Dice. Other people that have been referred to as musical royalty include: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, not to mention Queens Aretha and Latifah, Ozzy the Prince of Darkness, and just plain old Prince–all popular artists that achieved massive radio success. Cossa heard his song played on the radio too. Once. He recalls, “They played ‘April’ on WFMU and I missed it. I didn’t know it would be on, but I turned on the radio and heard my name. It was exciting.”Benji Cossa, like many truly great songwriters, doesn’t “write” songs in an active sense of the word. They just seem to spill out by the dozens–on train rides, at work, all the time. It’s remarkable, and it’s genuine. That isn’t to say that he doesn’t work hard. He’s a craftsman, and he’s very serious about his work. The man’s prolific, but only a small cult of friends and fans can say that they’ve heard even one of his thousands of original compositions.
Cossa’s a complex and emotional individual, but there’s nevertheless a certain element of simplicity that pervades his music. Well, to call it simplicity is to sell it a bit short because what we’re really talking about here is innocence. There’s more than a little bit of Daniel Johnston in him, if it’s possible to draw the comparison without implying that Cossa’s an acid-casualty-crazy-person (he isn’t). That said, he’s been making music almost as long as I’ve been alive, and still refers to guitar chords by shape: “line” (A major), “triangle” (D major), “upside down triangle” (D7), “regular” (that’s “G major”), and my personal favorite, “the hard one” (meaning “C major”). His instruments are often a bit out of tune, and I’d wager that the whole concept of musicianship (you know, precision, sounding “good”) that so many songwriters embrace as a crutch is the furthest thing from his mind during the creative process. Actually, Benji Cossa doesn’t really have a creative process; his whole life is a creative process. He just does, and fortunately for us what he does is really phenomenal. Part of it’s the voice, that wonderful effortless voice. I once asked him whether a particular part happened to be sung in falsetto, to which he replied “What’s that?”. Seriously. He has no vocal break whatsoever, and makes use of more octaves than most pianists (Hyperbole, you say! Listen, I say).
Cossa’s songs are flexible shells, and translate well into a variety of formats. Whether it’s his home recordings (Benji Cossa’s Vault Vol. 2), acoustic pop (Between the Blue and the Green), or rollicking country rock (Benji Cossa & The Tightens), his melodic sense and complex world view shine through. His catalog is a veritable “choose your own adventure” album, which made constructing this 7-inch a blast. What we have here today are some recordings made at the turn of the millennium on 4-track tape and 8-track cassette machines. But don’t let the lo-fi aesthetic fool you, Cossa’s not trying to fall in with the likes of Iron & Wine or Devendra Banhart. His influences are more in the direction of ELO and the Doobie Brothers than anything deliberately DIY or folksy sounding. And for those who would draw the seemingly obvious Beatles parallel inspired by his soaring tenor, Cossa would respond with “Beatles? Not that great.” There’s no pretension to Cossa’s incidental appropriation of the lo-fi aesthetic–it’s merely a product of the tools that he had available to him at the time.
Benji Cossa has a knack for writing beautiful and catchy pop tunes about some seriously heavy themes. A-side “Superlow” is a hook-ridden walk through the guilty pastures of someone’s impulsive sexual exploits. It so effectively conjures the grit and depression of an adulterous encounter that I feel shitty just listening to it. But it pushes even further into the psyche, switching voices between some governing subconscious and the perpetrators themselves. The song opens in medias res, and the subconscious voice advises “If so, let yourself go,” to which the perpetrator responds with the rationalization, “We both need it, and why not? It’ll be our little secret.” The subconscious voice then returns with the provocation, “Go on, go, go, go go go go!” The perpetrator, now sexed, reflects, “We set our sights super low, we made our beds and now we’re lying, but it’s not cheating.” Literary critics would have a field day with this, as the ensuing cacophony brought on by the song’s multiple narrators allows it to possess a kind of intratextual discourse, and consequently assume layers of interactive meaning that would be otherwise impossible. In other words, this is some good shit.
“Superlow” was written in 2000, back when Cossa was living jobless in a spacious apartment in the now trendy Williamsburg, Brooklyn. After blowing through his savings, he took on a job for $6.50 an hour at Petland Discount and moved to the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he was promptly mugged at his front door. Finding more cockroaches than neighbors, he brought home a Tokay gecko named “Creepers” to rectify the situation. His room was barely large enough for a bed and a dresser. It was around this time that Cossa began his love affair with WCBS FM, the New York classic rock (50s-70s) radio station that played day in and day out at Petland. Most (if not all) of Cossa’s music has deep roots in WCBS FM’s top 40 lists. It’s with this mindset (shitty apartment, shitty job, classic rock) that we approach “Life Might Be In Vain.”
Now, from the above description you might assume that B-side “Life Might Be In Vain” is about “the artist” and his struggle to function within the bounds of a society that doesn’t fully appreciate his craft. But, this is where you’d be wrong. It’s actually about zombies. A friend happened to be making a film about a zombie invasion and asked Cossa to contribute to the soundtrack. The premise to “Life Might Be In Vain” is this: the main character’s girlfriend has abandoned him and he laments that without her love, he might as well get bitten and turn into a zombie. Cossa insists that most of his songs, even those with deeply personal themes, are merely his quirky take on humanity’s problems. Only a handful are directly relevant to his own struggles and triumphs. “Life Might Be In Vain” has a certain comfortable lilt and off-kilter vocal style that might seem oddly familiar to those of you who’ve heard Bob Dylan & The Band’s “Basement Tapes.” It’s Cossa on every instrument here, testing the waters in a style and groove that would resurface in a major way on his Benji Cossa & The Tightens record.
Not enough people listen to Benji Cossa’s music, period. We’re working damn hard, hand in hand with the folks at Serious Business Records to change this. So go on, go, go, go go, go listen to some Benji Cossa.
Life Might Be In Vain
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem036/02 Life Might Be In Vain.mp3