Kavanagh: Your first recording was done at the age of 17 (1974) winning an award -- Près de Paris at the Grand Prix du Disque for Folk Music at the Montreux Festival in 1976. How did that affect you, happening at such a young age?
Bensusan: At that time, I was like a train, going straight. I was learning fast and between the time I had stopped school to dedicate all my time to music (I was 16) and the time I made my first album Pres de Paris, just over a year had gone by. I had already started performing in Paris and the suburbs and also went on tour with the Bill Keith Bluegrass Band (I was also playing Bluegrass and my 2nd instrument was mandolin). With Bill K. we toured in Switzerland, Belgium and France. It is thanks to him that I could do these tours on my own the year after in 1976 and got to the attention of the commitee of the Montreux Festival who loved that album. I was of course very happy when they gave me the prize and I feel that it helped somewhat to have more credit in the business and more concerts, but it is so long ago and I was very young; my perception of things was quite different then. All this went so fast and was so natural that it was hard to take some distance. I sure toured a lot from then on.
Kavanagh: Your newly released CD, Altiplanos was made entirely in your home studio, but I couldn't find where your other CD's were made. Is recording in your home a new thing for you or have you done that before?
Intuite, my next to the last CD, was also recorded in my home studio. Even when I was living in Paris, in a small apartment, I was already recording lots of material, improvs, and rehearsals. Two solo tracks from the album Spices were recorded this way. The rest of Spices was recorded in a great studio in Paris, Studio Ramses, that I had in lock out. Wu Wei was recorded in Valenciennes in the north of France in a music school. Pres de Paris was recorded in the suburb of Paris, 2 and Musiques in Paris and in Normandy on a 16-track, Solilai in Germany. Now that my family and I live in an old farm one hour east of Paris, my dream came true and I put together a home recording studio with the goal to do all my solo work. So, I would not say it is a new thing but each project is a new thing, and in between them, there is always some new equipment to work with and new people to collaborate with, so it's always different. This is an ideal situation to record at home away from the pressure of spending hours in a studio with a producer who looks at the clock. At the same time, I like working in other studios too because there is a kind of emergency situation which helps to pull it out. But given the choice, I prefer to work at home at my own rhythm and be my first listener.
Kavanagh: Would you paint us a picture with words please; Describe your studio for us.
Bensusan: It is located on the ground floor, in a big room that used to be where they milled cereals using a huge stone wheel and a horse. The walls were built so that they would allow the horse to turn around the wheel. When we bought that old farmhouse, that room had been turned into a garage big enough for 3 or 4 cars. It was all open and in the winter, the cold entered and the first floor was hard to warm. There is now a big bay window that allows the light and the view on the big courtyard in front. There were no parallel walls which is ideal for sound. I just built a wall to split the space in two rooms and the smallest room became my control room. For Intuite, I used the big live room to play but for Altiplanos, I played in the control room, which was even quieter. I use a Mac G5, Pro Tools, Plug Ings, TC Reverb , a small Mackie mixer turned into a hub, Avallon mic preamps, Genelec speakers, a TC M4000 reverb, and Cad mics, Rod and other mics. The live room is painted white and has lots of azuleros (Spanish-Moorish ceramics). Soon, there will be pictures of the studio on my website. Dany Rallo helped with the sound and mixing.
Kavanagh: Advantages and disadvantages. Did you feel a comfort in your home not possible anywhere else or were there distractions? For example, did you record in your bedroom slippers but did you also remember when you used your sink that it needs fixing or things such as that?
Bensusan: That's a funny question. Your mind can be wandering in any place, any location and at any time. When I am in the middle of doing something, I try to put together all the focus required. Other logictic and domestic issues are always part of the wander of the mind. I write down what needs to be addressed so that I can forget it and leave it for the time when eventually these will be addressed. During Altiplanos, I worked at times 20 hours in a row, very focussed, time was an infinite material. It's only when I am in studio that I can be so focused. That's ideal and recording is definitely one of the greatest experiences for me.
Kavanagh: Do you think you will record your next CD in your home studio?
Bensusan: Yes, probably. If more musicians are required, I will record my solo parts in my studio, the rest somewhere else, and come back in my studio to work on the post production.
Kavanagh: Some of the tracks, like Slyva in particular, are very atmospheric. Does your studio have fantastic acoustics to achieve that?
Bensusan: This was recorded earlier when I was still living in my small flat in Paris, and yes, I had even then some great pieces of gear which allowed me to achieve this kind of sonic quality. It has been even better to mix it down in my studio some years later.
Kavanagh: It sounds like you had a good time with that one. Was it experimental for you?
Bensusan: Yes. It was one of those improvs. which were recorded and which I listened to at a later time.
Kavanagh: Are you the whistler we hear on Altiplanos?
Bensusan: Yes, I am.
Kavanagh: Your previous CD, Intuite won multiple awards. A hard act to follow?
Bensusan: Not really. Intuite is history and I did not attempt to do a new Intuite. When writing the material for Altiplanos, I used my experience and sensations of what worked on the previous album, just in order to not repeat myself and not use any systematic approach. I don't like to stand still and my best achievements are yet to come.
Kavanagh: You are true to yourself and do what you want to do - quite possibly regardless of what your fans think. But as a matter of interest, do you have knowledge as to whether you have strongly divided camps of fans who want only albums where you are more, as you say, "a purist" and other fans who are receptive to all your creativity - openly receptive to hearing you play with any tools that catch your fancy like the old TC Electronics 2290 delay unit?
Bensusan: Yes, I have heard of comments, critics but as you said, I need to be true to myself and do what feels right to do, that's the only way I know. In the past especially when I used to play with lots of electronics, I had criticism from people who addressed their concerns to me, some very constructive and some very negative. I heard them all but still had to persue my story regardless. This is not stranger to the fact that I hardly use anything today and let the naked guitar speak more openly, just an EQ, a reverb and a volume pedal + great mics when performing live. I feel the rapport with the music reaches the audience in a more direct and deeper way. But I still like electronics and maybe in the future.... The same applies to my vocals; some people love my vocals, some don't, especially when I sing words. Both, criticisms and congratulations help me to be a better singer but I am still going to do what feels right for me.
Kavanagh: I know for a seasoned guitar player, the guitar is very much an extension of the person. Would you say that for you, singing is in any way more emotional or catharthic than guitar playing - your voice being presumably even that much more a part of you, or are you so comfortable with your guitar that it truly is as much a part of you as your own voice?
Bensusan: I need to sing and this has always been a more direct way to express my inner mood. I was singing before I started to play guitar, accompanying myself on piano. I use the vocal when I think this very colour is required. Other than that, if the guitar "sings", the vocal is not necessary. Lots of my material has been first initiated on the voice before becoming an instrumental piece and could be revisited at any time and become a song again, such as "Nice Feeling", "Wu Wei", "If Only You Knew", "Nefertari", and "Scarabee".
Kavanagh: How does Garlic, your dog (and "organic doorbell") respond to your music? Is he much of a critic?
Bensusan: Garlic is now 14 and I believe he has very good ears and great taste.
Bensusan: He was raised listening to my playing and other music in my home includings all the Rap that my son is listening to, and watching my wife dance. He belongs to a club of dogs whose "parents" are artistic and is often consulted to give his opinion. There have been many times where he came with me to concerts and sat next to me on stage or in the dressing room. His first concert though was Joe Zawinul and the Syndicate in Paris. He was 3 months old and was hidden in the inside pocket of my jacket. His heart was bipping vividly.
Kavanagh: Is he allowed in the studio during recording, or would he make a mess of things?
Bensusan: He is completly allowed in the studio and knows how to behave and shows a zen attitude at all time. When he barks because he heard someone ring the doorbell or he knows that one of us is coming back home, I just interrupt the session and resume it later.
Kavanagh: You started out on the piano but preferred the guitar after some negative experiences with piano training. If you find your self in a room with a piano now, do you gravitate toward it ever, or are you indifferent or even repelled by it?
Bensusan: I am not indifferent but I know how much of my skills I have lost by not playing it for so long, and that sensation alone takes me away from it. This being said, I bought one about 5 or 6 years ago because I had a comission for a 200 member choir and found it very useful even though the technique wasn't there any more. I still fool around with it at times and find ideas. It's also great for visitors who play; then they know they are in a good house.
Kavanagh: And what about the mandolin? You played at one time with Bill Keith Bluegrass Band. Do you pick it up now again these days?
Bensusan: I completely stopped playing the mandolin a long time ago and sold the Gibson A5 I had. When I think about it, it's like it was a past life experience, very beneficial but a bit off now. It was great to go on stage then and take an improv. in every song or just about. I am using this experience and vocabulary today.
Kavanagh: Aside from the obvious fantastic manual dexterity you must have developed from so much playing, do you feel you were born with any special advantages, say as a world class sprinter would have long legs, that have helped you with your development as a guitar player?
Bensusan: Not really. I don't know. I think playing the piano early in life, really helped my manual dexterity as well as my inner musicality and sense of harmony. Other than that, I feel it has been at times an exponential experience which grew on me. I also know that my parents have always loved music, it was always there and I am sure this contributed to it. My son who is 12 feels the same today, he sings really well, has a great ear and is a natural dancer, so maybe it is in the genes as well and that helps.
Kavanagh: On your website, you've given a directory of some of your favorite CD's and artists; This list could keep those wanting to give them all a listen busy for some time! Was it a struggle to name these favourites and how current is it?
Bensusan: No, it was not a struggle. It is a very straight forward and spontaneous move and it's not as current as it should be but will be soon. It's great to share with more people the music and musicians who have really touched me.
Kavanagh: Do you often listen to live music these days?
Bensusan: Not very often alas. But last week, I was at the Vienna/Lyon jazz Festival in France and listened to a duet with Gary Burton and Chick Corea and was moved to tears. My son was working behind the stage at the catering for musicians and journalists and he got too the chance to listen several concerts. It's a matter of time and opportunities. If I play in festivals, I listen to other performers after my set. Before I perform, I need to stay in my own world. The other thing is that I try to spend the most time left I have to make progress and give birth to my ideas. That requires time and dedication. There is not much time left after that.
Kavanagh: Many people prefer live CD's to studio recordings because they regard them as more spontaneous. But it can be spontaneous in the studio - Van Morrison's Astral Weeks being one example where people had virtually no time to prepare and everything was done without a lot of repeat work. Would you tell us your thoughts -- as applicable to you -- about spontaneity in the studio versus spontaneity in front of an audience.
Bensusan: Well, you cannot stop and start again in front of an audience, you have no net. That danger of failing contributes to the beauty and purity of the live concert. Adrenaline and stimulation are so unique when performing live that it makes you encounter some very strong emotional experiences. I think it would be wrong to look for that same energy in a studio, these are two radically different experiences and contexts, although I feel that the lack of fear and possibility to start again or to chose the very best moments can also contribute to playing a freer music, very spontaneous and fearless. When in the studio, what helps me to make choices is the simple fact that I know that everything I record solo can be performed solo live, that creates a certain harmonious confidence and momentum.
Kavanagh: And what about the energy factor? What feeds your energy in a studio setting?
Bensusan: The simple fact to be the very first one to listen to the recorded music and work on it as a material renews the drive. Deadlines are also an important factor in the creative process. All these help to canalise the energy. But sometimes, the energy is down and the music still there, vivid, loud and clear. On Altiplanos, I worked at times very long shifts and I was not always sure where the energy was coming from.
Kavanagh: A musician is in many ways nourished by an audience right? The crowd gives him or her warmth, enthusiasm and encouragement. But energy flows at least two ways, and I'm certain a crowd can also drain. How is your energy affected by a crowd and has your ability to use your energy wisely changed as you've matured?
Bensusan: I have come to the conclusion that a performer should never expect a crowd to give him or her anything to help the show to be pulled out, and that he or she should be the first one giving and let the crowd receive. Equally, it would be inadequate to base an entire performance on the energetic process, thinking that because you have lots of energy, this will be enough to take the audience with you. I have seen energetic performances competely empty of music, and the good thing is that the audience can-at times- make the difference. I believe it's easier when you have a very enthousiastic audience right from the start, that helps but that could also take you in a wrong channel. I have lately experienced crowds where it was all inside, where the applauses were short but the silence strong during the performance and the CD sales very strong too. That helps to not take it personally when apparently a crowd is "cold" and helps you keep on giving as much as you can with serenity.
Kavanagh: I've heard a saying "With each language you speak, you think a little differently." Does this theory also apply to music - singing or even to playing an instrument?
Bensusan: Yes, it really does. Each instrument constitutes a path to music and what's touching is how you tame it in order to let the music speak and let the instrument fade behind it. You can also enter the music though different musical idioms and vocabularies, which ultimately will all contain a seed of musical essence within which you could then use for any other musical experiences and renditions, showing the humanity through it.
Kavanagh: Where, in your opinion, are the best places today to hear music in Paris or elsewhere in France?
Bensusan: There are some good clubs in Paris where you would hear great jazz and world music: the New Morning, the Sunset, le Baiser Sale, but also plenty of summer festivals all over the country, depending in which part of the country your travels take you to -- good clubs in several cities. We also have a very good art centre system which is mostly subsidized, (and not necessarily financially profitable) and lots of good music can be found there. The state also funds lots of different projects, commissions and art festivals. I believe that 1% of the national budget goes to the arts. It looks small but represents hundreds of millions of Euros. That helps.