Riveting Riffs Logo One  Laura Benitez and the Heartache - California Centuries
Laura Benitez Interview Photo Two by Emily Sevin

In conversation singer and songwriter Laura Benitez uses superlatives, lyrically she utilizes metaphors and vocally she is emotive, all of which are effective in communicating her message, often autobiographical, either from personal experience or things she has observed. In many ways she is a throwback to the 1960s and early 1970s when protest songs and social commentary through music were in vogue and yet one should not mistake her music as an attempt to mirror or clone artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Sam Cooke, Pete Seeger, and later Patti Smith, as she clearly blazes her own trail.

Laura Benitez sat down with Riveting Riffs Magazine recently to talk about her new album California Centuries by Laura Benitez and the Heartache. Depending on where you are on the ideology spectrum you may find yourself cheering this album on or in various degrees of disagreement with the lyrics and tone, but the one thing you should all agree on is these are well crafted songs, played and sung superbly. Full disclosure by this writer that he is firmly encamped in the section cheering this album on.

Laura Benitez Interview Photo One by Emily SevinThe opening song “Bad Things,” sets the tone for the album, each verse its own story drawn from real life.

“The first verse was inspired by my partner Brian’s family, his mom, sister and stepdad all lived in Paradise California and they lost everything in the wildfire. His sister was driving to escape the flames and she got caught in a traffic jam and she had to just run. The first verse is a true story about his sister running for her life. You don’t think that is something that will happen in your family.

The second verse I wrote a week before lockdown (because of COVID) when it just seemed like people were hoarding toilet paper and things were getting crazy. I was thinking about that fear and what it is like to be in a pandemic.

The third verse is about refugees. I didn’t think I would know people who would lose everything in a wildfire. I didn’t think I would live in a pandemic. I also didn’t think I would live under a regime when I would consider leaving my country. We were living in that. The people in Syria didn’t think they would have to leave their country and the people in Guatemala didn’t think they would have to leave Guatemala.

Nobody thinks it is going to happen to them, but sometimes it does. The last two verses are me saying what would it be like and what would it take for that to happen to me? When I imagined it, it was almost predictive of January 6. The last verse is about refugees, but it is about me as a refugee imagined,” explains Laura Benitez.

Bob Spector serves up a delicious guitar solo on “Bad Things,” and Dave Zirbel is equally splendid on steel guitar. The song moves along at a brisk pace.

The second song on the album “I’m the One,” is more celebratory, and it was the first song written that appears on the album. It is also autobiographical, as it references being in attendance at the late Justin Townes Earle’s concert, as well as the success she is enjoying in her own career.

“I liked the story of me being at the concert and being ridiculous about Justin Townes Earle’s tattoos (she chuckles) and laughing at myself. I thought it was funny that I had that whole experience, then I got the arm tattoo. It was really empowering to do it. I got my arm tattoo in 2015 and my album Heartless Woman had done really well. We were doing festivals and I felt like I was a real musician. It was an amazing feeling. I knew that I didn’t need to look for this feeling in anyone else and that I was the one I was looking for. It is a powerful feeling. I felt like it needed to be a song.

(The song) chronicles my relationship with a musician. I started out (in the song) with a musician that was not a good relationship and I felt disempowered in that relationship. It is about learning what it is like to be a musician and learning the ins and outs of the (music) business. It is understanding what that journey is and what it means. The guitar that I wrote my first two songs on for the album was the guitar my ex-husband gave to me toward the end of our relationship,” she says.

Then Laura Benitez, quotes some lines from “I’m the One,” bringing the listener ever closer to her personal story, “I took the guitar that you gave me and named it / Used it to write this song, so I claimed it / Closed the case and shut the door, took that song and went to war / Cause I’m the one / I’ve been waiting for.”

Drifting back to the Justin Townes Earle concert in San Francisco and how it relates to this song and the lyrical reference to tattoos she recalls, “He had all of these fantastic arm tattoos. His arm tattoos were great, and I thought I should be with somebody with arm tattoos. Then I thought, Laura for god’s sake get an arm tattoo. I got an arm tattoo and then I told my friend that story and we laughed. I wrote the song and when I played it for her, she said oh my god you wrote about that! It resonated with people.”

By now it is evident to the reader that “I’m with the Band,” is autobiographical and Laura Benitez says, “I would say eighty-five to ninety percent of what I write is autobiographical. Mostly I write from what I know. I wrote this song during the pandemic when I was missing playing shows. I just want someone to spill beer on my shoes. I missed being in a crowd and hearing music. I missed the connection that you get when you play music live for people. It is really a special thing. Because I came to it late in life.

I didn’t really start a band until I was thirty-five. Because I came to it late in life, I have a gratitude for how far I have been able to go with it and for the fans that I have. Part of this song is about missing going to the club, holding a guitar and introducing yourself to the doorperson. It is also gratitude for my hard-won musical career, such as it is. That’s my name on the poster. That’s me. Sometimes I roll up and the doorperson says who are you? I point to the poster. It (the song) is a bit of an anthem.”

She talks about the uphill struggle being a woman in Country music and how, “People go we can’t have more than one female headed band on the bill, are still things that you hear. You roll up and they think you are the girlfriend of a member of the band. It is like who is your boyfriend?”

Concertgoers should be ready to two-step when attending a Laura Benitez and the Heartache, while they play “Are You Using Your Heart,” a terrific song musically, lyrically and a song on which her vocals really shine. This is also a song that most women will be able to identify with at one time or other during their lives, a suggestion that prompts a bit of laughter from Laura Benitez.

“The story of the song is a woman who has been in the dating world for a while. I am writing from my own perspective. I have been out in the world a bit (light laughter) and this is a moment when you can see trouble coming from a mile away. You are in the tractor beam of the guy across the bar from you. It is a path I have been down before and I don’t want to go down again. It is about remembering when you are eager to take yourself out of that and it was just funny for me to watch the dance. Of course, you can’t tell anybody, because you have to live it, but you think, yeah, that thing you are doing is not good,” she says.

Let’s take a step back, where did those incredible vocals come from?

“I have always loved to sing since I was a little kid and I knew it was something I could do. I would sing along with the radio and I remember a time when I was a little kid and I said I sound just like the radio, which is not true. It was just that I could sing in tune. I studied voice for a lot of years, but what was difficult about the time period was, most of the instruction you could get was Classical and that is not how I wanted to sing. It took a long time for me to have confidence to sing how I wanted,” she remembers.

Those lessons did however contribute positively to her vocal technique, “I learned how to sing without injuring myself. I learned breathing and some things like that, but I made some decisions about how I wanted to sound on my own. Most people love that throaty, belting, lower range and I wish that I could sing that way (but I don’t). I sing in a higher range.”

She tells a humorous story about her vocal lessons, well maybe not humorous to at least one individual in the story. Laura Benitez Interview Photo Four by Emily Sevin

“I had a voice teacher in college and back then I was studying acting, while trying to get into musicals. I definitely don’t have the right kind of voice, but I think I could have done okay singing musical theater, but there are better musical voices out there. I was studying with this wonderful teacher who had been in the cast of Les Misérables. There was one time when she looked at me and she said you have a guitarist’s voice. My husband has a guitar and I am going to give it to you. Her poor husband was, what are you doing? Apparently, he had no say in the matter, and she gave me his guitar. It was a basic Yamaha and it sounded pretty good. I learned a few chords at that point. Then I met the man I was in a relationship for about ten years and he was a musician. We went and played in bands together and he taught me how to approach the guitar from a Country Music and rhythm guitar point of view. I don’t play it particularly well, but I play it well enough to get by on stage. It is a beautiful instrument and I do love it. I wish I played it better.

(Anyway), I showed up for the next lesson (with my teacher) and she said I kind of got in trouble for giving away his guitar, but it’s okay. I was like alright, that’s between you guys.”

As for the musicians on the album, Laura Benitez says, “I have worked with Bob (Spector) for almost ten years now. He is one of my regular band members. We exchanged sound files during the pandemic, as an outlet. It was a real privilege and if it had been another time, I don’t think he would have the time to spend on arranging (the music) and doing demos with me. Steve Pearson on drums I have been playing with for five or six years and he played on the last album. Russell Kiel is our electric bass player and he is the newest member of the band. He has been playing for probably three or four years. Ian (Sutton – steel guitar) I have also played with for a long time, but he was on tour for half of the record. The other half of the record (on steel guitar) was Dave Zirbel, who I have known a bit in the scene, and I called him to see if he was available to play on this record.

It was like a family reunion and I had a smile on my face for the first three sessions. It was like dudes I haven’t seen any of you in three years. My friend Sarah Schweppe is a fantastic vocalist and she sings a lot with R & B groups from southern California. She and I have been singing together since we were fourteen. We went to school together.

The songs that Sarah sang on “God Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise” and “Invisible,” were pretty new. We didn’t have as much time to work on them as some of the other songs on the album. The song “Invisible,” is an emotionally vulnerable song for me. I was really having trouble figuring out how to sing it and feeling comfortable with it. Part of that was I hadn’t spent as much time with it and part of it was the vulnerability of the song. When Sarah sang the harmony, I felt like my voice was free and I could sing the way I wanted to sing. It was so inspiring. She is a really fantastic singer and I love singing with her. I wish I could all of the time. It was a cool experience. I said I need to be with you in the studio singing with you live or it is not going to sound as good. We ended up singing the harmony live rather than overdubbing it.”

Gabriel Shepherd engineered and mixed California Centuries.

“Gabe worked with us on our last three records. I think some folks like to work with different people on different records just to change up the sound. For me it helps a lot to work with people that I know and who get what I am trying to do.

Gabe did such a good job on the first record, I thought why would I want to reinvent the wheel? He is an amazing person, super talented and he has worked with some really big names. Working with Gabe was part of the family reunion feeling. It is fantastic to have that kind of relationship even with people who are working on the technical aspects.

It is the same thing with Piper (Payne) who mastered this record. I think she really gets what I am trying to do. I didn’t think I needed to look elsewhere. She has done a fantastic job on all three of the records,” she says.

Laura Benitez agrees that her song “Gaslight (We Shouldn’t Talk About It),” is “absolutely a protest song. It is one hundred percent in that tradition.

I was nervous to put this song on the record, just because of what it talks about. When you wade into the culture wars there is pushback. It is not that I am very clearly on the progressive side of things. I have been a very outspoken activist, but you never know how people are going to react to a political song. It is not just how fans who are conservative might react to it, but fans who are progressive and might find the song preachy.

That being said, I was so angry, so the first two verses were extremely easy to write, because they came out of that anger. I knew I wanted the first verse to be about gun control and mass shootings. I knew I wanted the second verse to be about Black Lives Matter and I knew I wanted the third verse to be about Me Too. The third verse was the hardest one to write. I really struggled with that one. It is personal to me. I have experienced Me Too moments and I think 99% of women have. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it. It took about a year. I knew I needed to write the song, but I didn’t quite know how to do it. I thought what I have to do is do all of the stories (in the three verses). People told me they like and appreciate that song.

The song was written three years ago and the verse (about gun control and mass shootings) is still relevant.

I think for the most part my audience is not going to push back on this song, but I think if enough people hear it, absolutely people will push back against it. I originally titled it “We Shouldn’t Talk About It,” but I wanted to make it incredibly clear what I am (saying). I am using irony. You have to be really careful when you use irony that you are really clear that is what you are doing. If enough people heard (my) song it would piss them off. It would be the people who are doing the gaslighting or who are helping to perpetuate the gaslighting. That has been the case and those of us who are progressive have had to fight global gaslighting for the past couple of decades. During the Trump era we had to fight for what we knew to be true and it is exhausting and infuriating. The mental strain of that over the last four or five years is something that we are going to be dealing with for the rest of our lives. To me it was important to point out what it is like to be gaslit and how it feels to be gaslit.

Anytime you bring up something that is misogynist or sexual violence what you get is you are smearing a good man’s name and he has a family. Well, I have a family too. What does that mean? It is a really hard song for me to get through, because it gets me so angry. I have had a really positive response to it, which is really gratifying.”

The song “Plaid Shirt,” at its core is truly a Country song in the old-time tradition, with Ian Sutton’s steel guitar and Bob Spector on electric guitar setting a strong foundation for Laura Benitez’s vocals. This is another song that she extends an invitation to listeners to two-step to it.

She talks about the song, “There is a way that you only get to know a person when you break up with them. There is a side of them that you don’t see when you are with them. Part of it is your perspective and part of it is you are moving on. I have seen that in relationships that I have been in. I wanted to crystallize that in a visual metaphor with the plaid shirt. I wrote that song when I moved in with my partner Brian and I asked him is it cheesy that it is a plaid shirt, should it be a certain color. He said yeah, I think plaid is good. I said alright cool.”

You should visit your favorite online store and purchase Laura Benitez and the Heartache’s newest album California Centuries or better yet go to one of her concerts and lineup at the merch table to buy a hardcopy.

You can visit the Laura Benitez website here or preview the song “Bad Things,” here and follow Laura Benitez and the Heartache on the official Instagram account.    Return to Our Front Page

Photos: All photos by Emily Sevin and are protected by copyright ©

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This interview by Joe Montague published September 5th, 2022 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of Laura Benitez unless otherwise noted and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine.