Benjamin Cartel

“Some people call my music dream-pop,” says Benjamin Cartel, a journeyman songwriter who’s never been afraid to blur the boundaries between styles. “I tend to resist being a ‘genre’ artist. I just want to make the best Benjamin Cartel music." 

Benjamin’s music has taken him across much of the world, first as a member of Kaiser Cartel — whose critically-acclaimed albums earned the duo a spot in the folk-pop revival of the 21st century — and later as an adventurous solo artist. Write At Home, his fourth solo release, marks a new chapter in his unfolding story, rolling classic pop hooks, indie sensibilities, 1960s influences, and his own brand of American roots rock into a sound that's at once fresh and familiar. 

Write At Home is an album about departures and new arrivals. Cartel wrote the songs during a period that found him leaving New York, where his family had lived for four generations, and moving to eastern Kansas with his wife and twin toddlers. For years, he'd been creating melody-driven music informed by his observations of the world around him. Relocated to a new area, he suddenly found himself in a vastly narrowed world, spending nearly all his time in the same household. His new songs reflected that changing perspective, revolving around themes of looking inward, establishing a home base, navigating the complex relationships between parents and children, and stumbling toward self-improvement. Together, those songs formed a series of vignettes — 10 little glimpses of life written by a man who relishes every little minute of it.

Recording the album during the Covid era required a departure from Cartel's usual routine. "Every album I made before Write At Home was recorded in one place with one group of people," he says. "I love the realness of that approach — the energy you can capture when you're playing songs in the same room." Unable to gather multiple musicians in the same place, he pieced together Write At Home's track over numerous months. A number of collaborators — including Mother West Records producer Charles Newman (Magnetic Fields), guitarist Ryan Smith (Soul Asylum,) lap steel player David Gould, bassist Ed Maxwell, and longtime bandmates Kieran Mulvaney and Mike Cohen — joined the effort, often overdubbing their contributions in isolation and delivering them via email. As a result, cartel's inbox filled up with recordings from Los Angeles, New York City, and Minneapolis. The end result is a record about home, ironically featuring performances from nearly all four corners of the country. 

Despite the new approach, Write At Home still reflects the diversity and drive that fueled Cartel’s career. He began playing music as a teenager, performing hardcore matinee shows at CBGB's as the opening act for The Descendents, The Exploited, Murphy’s Law, and other iconic groups. When Operation Ivy came to Connecticut on their very first East Coast tour, it was Cartel’s band that opened the show, becoming fast friends with frontman “Lint” (who went on to become Tim Armstrong of Rancid) along the way. “My high school hardcore/punk band, Zombie Squad, was known for writing a more melodic version of hardcore rather than the standard Bad Brains/Agnostic Front/Cromags kind of music that was coming out of the New York area,” he remembers. 

When he wasn’t thrashing behind the drums, Benjamin spent his free time in the audience, catching shows at The Ritz, Irving Plaza, and notorious nightclub The World in Alphabet City. “The first big-time show I ever saw was Husker Du at Irving Plaza, with Dwight Yoakam as the opening act,” he recalls. “That show might have jump-started my eclectic tastes in music. Watching The Replacements make their one-and-only appearance on Saturday Night Live as a young kid was my own version of watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I thought. ‘Wow, they’re crazy. They sound great. They just do whatever they want. I want to do that.’ I was also inspired by seeing Ramones, the very first Lemonheads lineup, and Social Distortion, and I used that inspiration to begin writing short, simple, catchy songs.”

Those early experiences as a performer and enthusiastic music fan helped establish his DIY spirit, as well as a resilient ability to roll with the punches. "I learned you don't have to wait until lightning strikes with a record deal to make music,” he says. “You can just get out there and play, break the rules, break windows, do it your way, and build your career yourself. That's what I've done ever since."

Fast forward to Write at Home, whose unique patchwork of sound — the horns and homespun acoustic guitars that punctuate "Calm Down"; the swooning steel guitar and heartland hooks that turn "Bad Ole Days" into a folk-rock anthem; the stomp-clap groove and pulsing synth-bass that give way to the lushly harmonized chorus of "Shut Inside" — marks a change from Benjamin Cartel's usual approach to the studio. At the album’s center, though, remains his career-defining focus on melody.

"A lot has changed since my formative years as a punk rocker, but the core of my music is the same,”  says the longtime Beatles fan, whose family tree includes several accomplished folk musicians and poets. “I enjoy creating songs that are simple, catchy, and memorable. I love hook-laden melodies. Maybe it comes from my family background, but I tend to write music that you can sing after just one listen. I am comfortable with that aesthetic. However, once you scratch a bit deeper, you'll find there's a lot more beneath the surface. There's a message and a slice of life's complexities to go along with those melodies."

Write At Home is a record that's both timely and timeless. An album that speaks to our modern existence yet sources its influences from vintage artists and classic sounds. For Benjamin Cartel, it's another slice-of-life observation — the latest chapter in a story that continues to unfold with each album.