Photo credit: Helga Traxler
Photo credit:
Liz Tormes
Photo credit: Helga Traxler
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Benjamin Cartel

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Benjamin Cartel is no stranger to making music that quickly connects with its listeners. That's something he's always excelled at, first with the substantial attention and acclaim accorded his duo Kaiser Cartel, and then, with a return to his solo career. To date, the latter has yielded two highly acclaimed efforts, an EP called Money and Love and a full length outing entitled Gothenberg, each of which helped broaden his reputation while underscoring his obvious ambitions.

"Benjamin Cartel's songs can often conjure the same subliminal tension as that of a Randy Newman or John Prine" - American Songwriter

With Cartel's upcoming release, Flickering Light, he moves the needle even further, opening up a sonic palette that not only reflects his expansive musical vision, but also reflects his attention to craft and detail through astute, articulate arrangements and a sound that's both stirring and sublime. Co-produced by longtime colleague Mike Cohen and recorded at Trout Studios in Brooklyn (home to recordings by Evan Dando and Joan as Police Woman) and Flower Studios in Minneapolis (which birthed records by The Replacements and The Jayhawks), the new album found Cartel intimately involved in every detail of the process. With Cartel playing guitar and drums, Cohen contributing guitar and Kieren Mulvaney anchoring the proceedings on bass, the results verify that fact that Flickering Light is easily Cartel's greatest achievement yet.

Then again, Cartel felt a decided connection to each of these songs, most of which were written and accumulated over the past few years. "When I write, I like to have a story to write about," he insists. "I often take my inspiration from things that friends of mine have experienced. Then I'll write the song from a first person point of view and create a lyric that's completely direct. Other times I'll take my own experiences and share them though a song. Either way, I see myself as a storyteller, and while the narrative may not always be completely literal, I do try to interpret the events with some imagination and put myself in the center of the song."

Clearly, he's succeeded. Every entry on the album was either inspired by a tale told to him by a friend or an encounter of his own. "I also like to write about movies, and again, make myself a character in the film. The title track, "Flickering Light," was actually inspired by the title character in Woody Allen's film, "Broadway Danny Rose."

Other songs find a radiant glow all their own, whether it's the quiet allure of the aptly titled "Sweet Ride," mellow and beguiling tones of "Down Now," the hushed harmonies and ELO-like embrace of "I'm Not the Man You Think I Am," or the beguiling embrace of "Tica." In fact, there's not a single song that doesn't connect with instant accessibility and a feeling of familiarity, even on first hearing.

Likewise, Cartel's lyrics take on a meaning all their own, allowing humor and emotion to find a common connection. "Tica" becomes an earnest love song that finds the narrator singing passionately about a love affair that's "biggerer and betterer all the time." In "The Jungles Eats Everything," Cartel describes jungle environs that eat "your clothes, your shoes, and "even the road right under you."

Suffice it to say, Cartel's always found a personal connection through music. His grandfather was a music teacher and introduced him to folk music traditions. Later, Cartel became enamoured with Miles Davis, whose music stirred his imagination. His interest began in ernest when he learned to play the saxophone while in elementary school. (He says he holds fond memories of playing along to Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" on his sax.) While still in his teens, he began playing drums and started a punk band with his brother, which later led them to afternoon gigs at New York City's legendary club, CBGBs.

He also made music for friends at local all-ages clubs, an experience which fired his ambitions even further. "What better way to play than to make music for your peers?" he reflects. "Once you get that buzz, you never lose it. Besides, I'm not sure there's anything else I'd be as excited about doing. Making music is empowering. I found it was something I simply needed to do."

While Cartel performed with a variety of bands during his formative years, it was his partnership with singer/songwriter Courtney Kaiser that gained him national attention. The two met at the club called the Knitting Factory in New York while their respective bands were playing, and they immediately found a common connection. They went on to record two albums and several EPs and toured extensively nationally and internationally. As Kaiser Cartel wound down, Benjamin decided it was time to take the next move, give up the drums and step to the front of the stage.

"I always felt most comfortable in the spotlight," he muses. "At the same time, I always liked being a band guy and a singer/songwriter. I liked painting pictures with my songs, creating an intimate narrative. I had enjoyed art school early on, so it was only natural that I turned to painting pictures with my music."

With the release of Flickering Light, Cartel is realizing that vision like never before. "I'm not trying to overwhelm anybody," he says. "To me, less is more. At the same time, I live and breathe what I do. There's nothing like a good catchy melody to convey emotion and inspire my enthusiasm."

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Minneapolis City Pages December 2015 (link)

"On his full-length solo debut, Benjamin Cartel traverses a precipitous path between crafty, hook-laden melodic pop and ambiguous, cheerily subversive lyrics slyly woven with dark portent. Great stuff, realized with plenty of ingenious Hitchcockian twists.”
- Minneapolis City Pages

"Cartel sounds like John Lennon playing Paul Simon songs.”
- Sound of Boston

"Benjamin Cartel is a singer with a strong commitment to crafting catchy, memorable songs.”
- Stereo Subversion

"The songs stand on strong guitar legs and fleshes out with Cartel's expansive vocals as he infuses slow-burning blues with elements of 1960s power-pop.”
- Pitch

“There's something to be said for music that just makes you feel good. In a world where bands are constantly striving for inclusion in the "edgy" category, the Benjamin Cartel stands out as a testament to the effectiveness of catchy hooks, well-played guitar and spirited compositions."
- The Deli

“One of the artist you have to see. Benjamin Cartel delivers straightforward, heartfelt songs that come from years of rocking’ roadwork”



February 11, 2015 (Brooklyn, NY) After a touring hiatus, Benjamin Cartel will be returning to Duluth to play a special noontime performance at the Red Herring Lounge on March 15th. Earning a buzz as one of New York City’s up-and-coming songwriters, Benjamin Cartel put his solo career on hold in 2004, the year he co-founded the indie folk duo Kaiser Cartel. Years later, that band is still moving along... and Cartel’s solo career has earned a new set of wheels too, thanks to an EP that bridges the gap between Wilco’s wry rock & roll and John Lennon’s classic pop.

Money and Love is Cartel’s first solo release. Like the musical influences that spawned it, the EP is a mix of old and new. Several songs, like the vintage pop/rocker “No One,” were written before Kaiser Cartel’s formation. Others, like the rave-up title track, are newer compositions. “Julia,” one of the album’s harmony-drenched highlights, was written somewhere in the middle. Cartel looked everywhere for inspiration: relationships, the road, even old Alfred Hitchcock movies.

The result is a recording rooted in honest, straightforward songwriting -- the sort of singer/songwriter fare that Cartel regularly performs at his solo shows, with nothing more than an acoustic guitar to back him up -- and dressed up with full, genre-spanning arrangements. It’s an album that builds a bridge between opposites: between old and new, love and loss, rock and pop, solo songwriting and full-band recording.