Australian multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Donny Benét didn’t think he’d be here. For Benét, “here” means both stuck in his home unable to tour in support of his latest album Mr. Experience due to the coronavirus pandemic — but also releasing another record at all.
“I actually thought The Don would be my last album. I’d done a few albums in Australia, and it was a small, underground indie thing,” he says. “Once The Don moved out of Australia I was like, ‘Oh shit. This won’t be the last one.’”
The Don, which he describes as a character sketch of a “super cocky mid-30s guy where the world is his oyster,” won Benét fans around the world for his neo-disco sound, earworm basslines, and droll lyrics. It enabled him to tour internationally with artists like Mac DeMarco, but it also left him creatively stuck, unsure of how to build off his last record in a way that showed growth, but didn’t alienate his newly expanded audience who had fallen in love with the persona of “The Don.”
“As much as I’d love to do a 90-minute, jazz odyssey album, I don’t think it’s going to seamlessly fit into the natural progression from The Don,” he says.
In 2018, he began writing a record geared more towards the European festival crowd and inspired by italo disco of the late ‘70s. It didn’t work. Benét simply describes the music from that particular phase as “all rubbish,” and he quickly scrapped it. Needing new inspiration, a friend taught him how to DJ, which Benét says helped him get more attune to the desires of an audience.
“We’d DJ alongside each other and he’d play a track with a really good bassline and say, ‘What about writing a song like this?’” Benét says. “I’d notice that [even if] the song itself wasn’t very good, it had a good bass line and that’s what drew people back to it.”
He began writing once more, this time drawing from his jazz background and bringing in a cadre of musical friends to create a record more focused on live tracking. Songs like “Second Dinner” and “Girl of My Dreams” came quickly, each with its own charming quirks as a result of the new recording style.
“I did do a lot of jazz playing in a past life, and that’s all about live tracking. You do the take and that’s the take. If there are warts and some funk on it, that’s part of the beauty of that take,” he says. “It’s also a bit riskier; for my own artistic growth, I wanted to make the album with other musicians involved and not have a certain degree of control.”
But Benét was still unsure of where to take the record thematically. “I was worried that conceptually and lyrically I had painted myself into a corner with The Don,” he admits. Ultimately, Benét realized he could both draw on his experiences touring around the world and his regular life back home. Much of the record was informed by watching his friends and loved ones navigate the transition into their 40s, while the song “Reach Out” was based on witnessing international political polarization firsthand.
“I’d been to Europe a lot and seen just how separate people were. It was very right and left. And the first trip I did to America in 2018, I remember getting driven back by this super democrat, anti-Trump mom. She was basically saying, ‘I want to commit acts of violence towards Trump supporters.’” he recalls. “I’d been traveling so much and feeling that vibe and I wanted to figure out how I could write a Donny song about it.”
Elsewhere on the record, Benét wanted to follow up on concepts he’d explored on The Don. “You Don’t Need Love,” a track about the importance of self-acceptance in lieu of romantic relationships, may seem like a departure from his usual subject matter, but it’s actually a kind of response to his earlier song “Love Online.” The latter was written after Benét watched friends have “horrible experiences” on dating apps like Tinder, and so he wanted to pen a song that instead focused on internal validation.
While the instrumentals on Mr. Experience are deep and lush, they are rarely cluttered or overcrowded. Benét has tried to “say more with less” as his career has progressed, and spent much of the writing process for The Don stripping songs down to just their essential components. That technique is apparent on Mr. Experience, too, where Benét’s instrumental parts and melodies provide support for his thin vocals without overshadowing.
“The biggest limitation is my voice,” he says. “I don’t have a great singing voice, but if there’s conviction in what you do...you can write to bolster that.”
Benét is exceedingly self-aware, acknowledging that there is a clear performative quality to his sound and aesthetic. He refers to the music he’s been making for the last decade as “doing Donny,” and says that the initial idea came to him as something of a response to what was popular in Australia in the early 2010s.
“When I started to do Donny, the whole shoegaze thing was in. It was all these beautiful guys wearing their hearts on their sleeves and singing their emotions out,” he explains. “For me coming from a jazz background, what I was doing was almost an avant-garde take on this mid-30s, balding, chubby guy trying to get on stage and sing. It occupied a very weird space.”
He says music in his home country has a tendency to be “pigeonholed” and that it’s difficult to break through writing songs well outside the norms. It’s one of the reasons that Mr. Experience debuting at No. 26 on the ARIA album sales chart is a tremendous victory not just for himself, but for other idiosyncratic musicians down under.
Still, as Benét’s fan base grows, he knows there are going to be as many people scratching their heads as there are nodding along to his rumbling basslines and chunky synth riffs. He stresses that there’s no need to overthink it — if you vibe with Donny, just go with the flow.
“The first time I went to Germany, this 20-year-old art student asked me, ‘Are you serious? Is it all put on?’ I said, ‘Did you enjoy it?’ She’s like, ‘I need to know,’” he says. “I told her, ‘All you need to know is if you enjoyed it or not.’”
Grant Rindner is a freelance music and culture journalist in New York. He has written for Dazed, Rolling Stone and COMPLEX.