As Benny Sings, Dutch songwriter Tim van Berkenstijn has become world famous over the past fifteen years. He largely wrote his new album in Japan and the US, where fans and colleagues are in awe of his honey-sweet pop songs. But still, that new album does not contain the hit that Van Berkenstijn is passionately looking for day in day out.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: Takuroh Oyama
“I first came to Japan in 2005,” says Van Berkenstijn in his studio. It’s located right next to one of Amsterdam’s idyllic canals, roughly five minutes from the city’s central station. “Via Dox Records, they were already there because of the strong link between Japanese and Dutch jazz.” Dox had already released an album by New Cool Collective, followed by an album by Wouter Hamel, which was produced by Van Berkenstijn. And finally the music of Benny Sings himself. “I've been coming there every year since then. Just under my own moniker, that's how big it has become there." Usually Van Berkenstijn, who named his new album after the Japanese genre city pop, plays a kind of chic wine and dine show at the Billboard club where people eat while watching him. People are extremely polite, the applause is short. “I actually really like that. Another fun tradition: after the show, everyone buys a CD from the artist and a long line forms. Then you sign each CD and shake hands with everyone who was there.”
Another thing: after the performance, the artists get back to their dressing room by elevator. All the club's staff then gather on either side of the hallway to form a guard of honour. “Then you walk straight through those clapping people to your dressing room. You really feel like a real rock star.”
It is not only the Japanese public who idolize Benny Sings. On City Pop, Van Berkenstijn often joins forces with local musicians. With Sukima Switch, for example, who is described as 'the Japanese Steely Dan'. Or with Keigo Oyamada alias Cornelius, who in turn is 'the Japanese Beck'. “They are Benny fans,” the Dutchman chuckles. “For example, Sukima Switch had made a version of a song that I didn't release on an album yet. And that version just hit the spot.” Benny Sings is also catching on elsewhere. For example, Van Berkestijn worked together with the American singer Mayer Hawthorne and his Canadian colleague Mocky. Of course, Van Berkenstijn also has a regular group of admirers and musician friends in the Netherlands, but it is clear that his music is more successful overseas than here. “Although you hear the positive things faster than the negative ones, from abroad. In France, there was a forum a few years ago called 'Benny at the Pyre'. ‘Little Donna’, which is of course a slightly annoying song, was on the morning radio apparently. All those people with their morning mood took it very badly.”
Incidentally, all those collaborations are not necessarily something that Van Berkenstijn seeks out on his own. He attaches great importance to the art of doing it yourself: in his studio, there are instruments that Van Berkenstijn plays himself, from drums to guitars and bells lying around on the floor. “My tastes don't often coincide with other people's. I think a lot of things are ugly and I also like to work on my own.” So it is Van Berkenstijn's manager's job to "kick him outside" every now and then. “He says: 'Go and shake hands with him.' Or: 'So and so will come by in the studio.' Then I think: is that necessary? But in the end, super positive things always come out.”
For example, ‘Loving Is Easy', the mega hit that British Benny fan Rex Orange County had in 2017 with a little help from the master. Alex O'Connor (the man behind Rex Orange County) is the foreman of a new generation of musicians who have a poster of Benny Sings hanging above their bed. Right next to ones of Mac DeMarco and Tyler, The Creator. “It gives me a lot of confidence that this trend is there,” says Van Berkenstijn. “That you can make some happy music about fluffy feelings again. Totally unexpectedly, the zeitgeist just happens to pass by my street again.” That street is now inhabited by musicians who are in many cases almost twice as young as Van Berkenstijn, who is now 42 and has a family. On the moving 'My World' he even addresses his daughter, who has her mother's eyes: 'I know you're fast asleep now / dreaming of the big world / I'm gonna check upon you in a little while / my number one love.'
“Getting old is crazy anyway,” the Dutchman laughs. “When Alex was here in the studio, I didn't feel a day older than him. But I noticed from his behavior that it felt like he was talking to his grandmother. He was super polite, while I thought: dude, we can just have a beer, right? The only way I can deal with that is by continuing to make music myself as if I were a teenager.”
"I have the lighter and the bunch of wood in my hands and now I just need to find the perfect conditions to start the fire."
Still, Van Berkenstijn is involved with music in a way that is anything but childish. He mainly sees it as a profession, a profession that forces him to work hard day in day out, in which he is slowly but surely getting better. He's not a genius who just blows his own mind every day when a brilliant song hits him out of nowhere. “I’m not an expressive type, somebody who is inspired by the world around him. I'm not sniffing the environment and then letting my heart speak. I'm just working.” It just doesn't always have the desired result. "I have to write a hit and I can't."
The cat food commercial
Having a hit song or at least keep trying to get one in an almost compulsive way, that appears to be the driving force behind Benny Sings. “It is also becoming increasingly important now that the attention is getting bigger and bigger,” explains Van Berkenstijn. “If I write a hit like 'Somebody That I Used To Know' now, it will catch on anyway, because I really have more than enough listeners to form the starting point. I have the lighter and the bunch of wood in my hands and now I just need to find the perfect conditions to start the fire. That isn’t working out and probably never will, but that is my focus. I want to make something that resonates in the world.” Yet it is also important that his work appeals to Van Berkenstijn himself. That's why he doesn't just make a flat EDM song with an easy kick drum pattern. “That's not possible, because you have to love what you make. Otherwise it won't work. You must passionately go for gold and fail passionately. That's the only way.”
No, the hit is not on City Pop, Van Berkenstijn is clear about that. “But that's part of the job, toiling for days on a track. "I'm almost there, almost." Then it's done and it hasn't happened again." The Holy Grail, that's how Van Berkenstijn describes the hit that just won't materialize before his eyes. “Some people stumble upon it and can keep that trick up for three years – or sometimes even ten years. But then they lose it again. Then it slips out of their hands and they suddenly can’t do it anymore. You can only hope that it will come to you one day.”
Until then, there is no other option than to release albums without hits on them. And that's not that bad at all. “Because that song you made is pretty fun, you know. It's just not a hit. The search is frustrating, but in a fun and healthy way.” In fact, Van Berkenstijn dearly loves to be a failed songwriter. “That has always been my goal.” He mentions a film from the nineties of which he has forgotten the title. An important role was played by a failed musician, who was also a husband and a father. “He was making commercials for a cat food brand he hated. And that didn't work. I've always thought: I want to be that guy." In contrast to the film character, Van Berkenstijn is not frustrated about his career, or only in a healthy way. “You have those people who think they're geniuses, but the world just isn't cooperating with them. That is of course a misconception. I'm just glad I really am that failed songwriter now."
Van Berkenstijn has not always had that feeling, that he is a real songwriter. At first, he had no idea what he was doing. But over the years he's learned a thing or two, about chords, recording, lyrics and poetry. “That doesn't mean that the art gets better, but it does make me a better craftsman. John Mayer recently posted on Instagram that he liked 'Not Enough'. He didn't say that about a song on my first album. For songwriters, he really is a big God, so then I thought: now I can do it. I'm just a songwriter now. Just like the bakery on the corner has its bread, I have my studio here. In Amsterdam, overlooking the canals. My big dream has come true, it couldn't get any better. But now I have to make something relevant and nobody knows how. That is the big challenge that I fail so hard at every day.” Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.
City Pop komt op 22 februari uit. Op 11 april speelt Benny Sings in Bitterzoet, Amsterdam.