In the three years since Benjamin Booker moved to New Orleans, the blues-rock-punk singer and guitarist from Florida has risen from aspiring local performer to internationally acclaimed recording artist.
In Florida, Booker dabbled in music and didn’t perform in public. But in August, ATO Records released Booker’s self-titled album debut. Andrija Tokic, who previously worked with ATO acts Alabama Shakes and the New Orleans-based Hurray For The Riff Raff, produced the project.
In January, Jack White’s Nashville-based label released Booker’s in-concert album, “Live at Third Man Records.”
The busy Booker, 25, recently found some time to talk just after returning to New Orleans from Paris.
“Every time we go back to Europe, it seems like there’s more people out at the shows,” he said.
This weekend, opening weekend for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Booker is performing Friday and Saturday at One Eyed Jacks. Yet, when he moved to New Orleans in the spring of 2012, he had no intention of becoming a professional musician.
Following Booker’s graduation with a journalism degree from the University of Florida in Gainesville, AmeriCorps placed him with HandsOn New Orleans, a nonprofit where he could put his journalism skills to work.
Two weeks before he moved to New Orleans, Booker recorded a handful of demos.
“Music started for me almost exactly at the same time that I moved here,” he said.
Booker had played guitar since he was 14, but not professionally, and he’s been a blues fan since his teens.
“When I was growing up in Tampa, I was listening to as much blues as I was listening to punk,” he said. “Stuff from the ’20s and ’30s. I was the weird kid who would pull up to school blasting Robert Johnson. People were like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ That’s one the things that was nice when I came here. Because you can just turn on the radio and hear that kind of stuff.”
In Florida, Booker wrote and recorded songs to be messages to friends and family.
“Just as a way to communicate,” he explained. “I wrote songs for specific people and would just, like, give them a song. It was a way to say things that were difficult to say. I could hand them or send them a song, then they could listen to it and I wouldn’t be there. It was therapeutic for everybody. Our relationships are stronger now because we’re finally able to talk about things that needed to be talked about.”
Booker continued writing songs after moving to New Orleans, eventually having enough songs for an album. His New Orleans-written songs show the city’s influence on him.
“There were a lot of days when I listened to WWOZ all day,” he said. “I wrote the second half of the album here. It’s very different from the half that I wrote in Florida, because I was listening to rhythm-and-blues and regional music from Louisiana.
“I didn’t know anything about that kind of stuff before I came here. I loved it right away. I was so taken by it that it worked its way into the music I was writing.”
But finding the courage to perform his songs on stage was a challenge.
“It was terrifying, especially because the songs are so personal,” he said.
The New Orleans musicians Booker met encouraged him. It was unlike the competitive music scenes he’d known in Florida, he said.
“The people, the music community here, the bands, were very nice to me at the beginning,” he said. “A bunch of bands were like, ‘Hey, we have an opening spot. You want to come and play with us?’ ”
Booker also came to love the city.
“It was hard when I first moved here,” he said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people that it’s just so different from everywhere else. But once you adjust, it’s hard to go other places. I don’t think there’s anywhere else I would live in America now.
“People here get really excited about music. Everybody wants you to know about it. That’s nice. I’m ready to learn.”