Singer-songwriter Declan Bennett has appeared in several musicals in London and New York, including Rent and American Idiot.
He is currently starring as Guy in Once. He has released six albums, most recently record: BREAKUP in 2011. MOUTH chatted with Declan about pushing the boundaries of musical theatre and working on his solo material, whilst inadvertently sowing the seeds for a musical about Marvin Gaye.
MOUTH London: How is Once going? It’s been such a success story, as it was in America.
Declan Bennett: It’s going really well and we’ve hit a nice pace with it. We opened back in Dublin in February and opened officially in London in March, so we’ve been going for a few months now. There’s a really nice buzz about town about it, a lot of people have been to see it now and a lot of people have been back to see it again. People that come just seem to have a really lovely time and it makes them want to come back. It’s nice to see familiar faces and to know that the show has that impact on people.
…we were all a bit nervous…
ML: Did you foresee this success? What drew you to being part of Once?
DB: I’ve been living in New York for seven years and I saw Once in Downtown New York and how this lovely little show became this insanely successful Broadway musical and didn’t really play by the rules. It was just a simple, quiet little show that no-one thought was going to sweep up at the Tony’s like it did. We didn’t feel that much pressure to emulate that success but we crossed our fingers that a European audience would react to the show in the same way. I think for the first few weeks we were all a bit nervous but we opened and everyone fell in love with it, which is a real testament to the show. The show is so much bigger than the people in it or where it’s playing, it doesn’t matter. The story, the show, the music and the way it’s staged is such a powerful force of its own.
…a similar thread that runs through Rent, Taboo, American Idiot and now Once…
ML: Looking back at the musical theatre you’ve done, there’s no constant theme or type of music between the productions you’ve chosen. Is that a conscious choice, or something that happened naturally?
DB: They’re quite different and yet to me there’s a similar thread that runs through Rent, Taboo, American Idiot and now Once, in that whilst they’re musically different, the one thing they all have in common is that they’re all based in a world of music, either about a musician or written by a musician.
I think those shows are all very progressive types of musical theatre. When I first started Taboo, a show I loved, it felt like a real step away from everything else that was happening in the West End, down to the venue and the people working on it – it was a really special piece. I think after doing that show I got this bug where I wasn’t interested in Les Mis or Mary Poppins, those kind of shows that serve a purpose for a certain kind of person. They’ve just never really appealed to me so I made the decision subconsciously to try and seek out pieces of musical theatre that I thought were progressive and that were pushing the genre forward and trying to do new things.
…it’s hard enough doing the same thing eight times a week when you love it…
ML: To be a stage actor, you have to play the same role in the same production seven or eight times a week, so you must really love what you’re doing.
DB: Absolutely. People have asked me why I haven’t auditioned for something like Les Mis, but it’s hard enough doing the same thing eight times a week when you love it. I can’t imagine doing the same thing eight times a week if you’re just picking up a paycheck and trying to get to the end of the year. It’s really hard work and I don’t really operate on that level, I have to enjoy something and be creatively inspired by it otherwise I’d rather go work in a bar.
…I felt madly inspired by him…
ML: You’ve worked with some great names in entertainment and music; has anyone particularly inspired you?
DB: Billie Joe Armstrong was incredible to work with – he’s so committed and smashed every rule that was written about a musical. Coming from this extremely successful punk rock group, he was so heavily involved in the making of American Idiot – obviously it was all his own music. When he decided he wanted to be in it and came into the show for a few months, he was on stage with us every single night and that was fucking brilliant. You were working with someone who thought ‘I don’t care that I’m in a punk band, I don’t care this is a Broadway musical, I just think this entire thing is such an awesome expression of creativity,’ which was palpable in the theatre. I felt madly inspired by him.
He was also really great to me on an individual level; he used to come to a lot of my gigs when I would go play my music downtown after the show. One night he pulled me aside said ‘what are you doing with this music’ to which I replied ‘I’m kinda broke at the moment, I don’t really know,’ so he stepped in and financed the demo of my last album, which was incredible. He just put me into the studio and made it happen which was amazing.
…It has that old school, MTV Unplugged vibe…
ML: Tell me about the gig you’re doing next month for your latest album record: BREAKUP.
DB: So record: BREAKUP was the last album I released back in 2011 and I decided to re-record it. Originally, it was done with a full band, so I re-recorded it live and unplugged. I went into the studio, it was just me and another guy on acoustic guitar and me singing in front of a live studio audience and we recorded the whole thing. It has that old school, MTV Unplugged vibe about it.
…a real heavy concept of acoustic singer-songwriters…
ML: The album is one continuous piece of music split into tracks and it must be great to be able to perform it live, in the long form in which you wrote it.
DB: Exactly, that’s what’s nice about it, being able to revisit something. I recorded it in New York with a full band and I was really happy with the recording but there was something about coming back to London and doing Once and playing this acoustic singer-songwriter that got to me. When I started getting heavily involved in Once, I really started thinking about where I was in London before I left for New York; I was doing the whole underground acoustic circuit, back in the day when there was an open mike on every single bloody corner and there was a real heavy concept of acoustic singer-songwriters. When I moved to New York I moved away from that and became more band orientated, so when I returned to London and I was playing this acoustic singer-songwriter, I thought to myself that I really would love to revisit that album and strip it down and do it totally acoustic, as I’m doing in Once, where I go out every night with an acoustic guitar and singing. The two ideas went quite nicely hand-in-hand together.
ML: So playing your character in Once brought you back to more acoustic music?
DB: Exactly, yeah.
ML: It seems like there’s no stopping you – you’ve been doing musicals alongside your own music for quite a while.
…I always felt slightly uncomfortable doing the musicals…
DB: I’m still ploughing on, yes! There were quite a few years, particularly when I first got to New York, that I always felt slightly uncomfortable doing the musicals, being involved in theatre and then going home and writing songs, writing albums then going into studios and recording them, but still doing the show at night. There were two worlds I was bouncing between and it seemed like there was some disparity between the two.
What happened is the more I ticked over into my late 20s and early 30s I had a bit of an epiphany whereby I realised I was just going to do whatever the fuck I wanted – I don’t have to be one or the other. I’m just one of those people that operates on a level whereby if I’m creatively driven by something I’ll do it. I don’t care what form it takes – film, musical, album, live show – if it’s in me and I feel I need to get it out of me, then I’ll just go do it. The lovely thing about Once is that it has put the two worlds together and all of a sudden I’m playing an acoustic singer-songwriter on stage in a musical. That was my little pat on the back from the universe – almost like saying ‘it’s all good, you can do it.’
…I know first-hand what it feels like to be hitting your head on a wall…
ML: Do you identify with your character in Once more than in any other musical you’ve done?
DB: When I played Roger in Rent I was very close to that character because he’s another singer-songwriter but more on the electric side of things. But this is just so close to home for me; being a singer-songwriter, playing the acoustic guitar and my family are from Ireland so the Irish connection is there. Also the whole journey of Guy – I know first-hand what it feels like to be hitting your head on a wall asking yourself ‘why don’t people listen to my music’ and ‘is my music really shit,’ I’ve experienced that and still do, I don’t think you’re ever satisfied as an artist. So I definitely relate to him in that sense.
…I feel like I’m rediscovering British music…
ML: There’s so much acoustic talent in the UK at the moment, do you have a favourite artist or someone you’re listening to?
DB: I’m a massive fan of Olivia Broadfield – she’s a friend of mine and we started out together in Coventry and she went more into the electronic, Imogen Heap kind of music. Her lyrics are beautiful and she’s an incredible talent. I also really like Daley, who’s an acoustic-electronic musician. I feel like I’m rediscovering British music since I moved back from New York – I was there for seven years, I got back in January and I’ve been surrounded by Once since then but I’m doing my best to get out and see a few shows and gigs and keep myself immersed in music.
…that’s the only time I can listen to other people…
ML: It sounds like with Once and your own work, you don’t have enough hours in the day to discover other people’s music.
DB: That’s what the Tube is for! When I get down there I just stick in my headphones and that’s the only time I can listen to other people. I always kick myself that I should find more time to listen to other people and I fail at that a fair bit, but it’s difficult because I spend so much time creating things myself.
ML: Taboo was based on the experiences of Boy George, but if you could base a musical on someone’s life, who would it be?
DB: The easy answer is Amy Winehouse, but if I really thought about it, maybe someone like Joni Mitchell, she had quite an interesting life. Or maybe Marvin Gaye, which would be a brilliant musical. How has no-one done that?!
ML: You’ve just returned from seven years in New York, but where’s your favourite place to live?
DB: It has to be London. Coventry’s my home but London’s my favourite place on Earth. New York is an incredibly brilliant city, but it’s not London.
We couldn’t agree more!
Once is currently booking at the Phoenix Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0JP (0844 871 7629) until 31 May 2014. For more information visit www.oncemusical.co.uk. Tickets for Declan’s solo show can be purchased through his official website.
Parts of the interview were edited for brevity and clarity.