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Didi Benami Interview (2014)
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(07 September 2014) After finishing American Idol's ninth season (2010) as a top-ten finalist, singer/songwriter Didi Benami stepped out of the spotlight and spent several years refining her craft and pushing into deeper emotional territory in her music. A near-lifelong singer who started songwriting as a teenager, the Tennessee-bred 27-year-old devoted those years to dreaming up songs that gracefully fuse folk, soul, and rock with an intimate emotionalism inspired by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks. Get further insight and read much more about Didi Benami in our exclusive pre-release interview. Didi Benami is the second Idol finalist we have covered. Check out District 97 (review) and Leslie Hunt (interview) for more.
Infused with a powerful melancholy—and shaped by such struggles as Benami's troubled childhood and the tragic loss of her best friend—the resulting debut album Reverie (self-released (USA), 2014) merges ethereal alt-rock with pop-perfect melodies, hypnotic guitars, heady beats, and Benami's stunning and crystalline vocal work. Also available as a digital download, the physical CD arrives in a simple cardboard sleeve.
"Throughout my life I've always turned to music to help me get from moment to moment, and so I try to write songs that will inspire or empower others that way," says Benami, whose gripping delivery of "Terrified" was ranked by E! Online as one of the top five Hollywood Week performances in American Idol history. Released independently and made in collaboration with Billy Mohler—a Grammy-nominated producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who's previously worked with artists like AWOLNATION, Kelly Clarkson, and Liz Phair—Reverie achieves that stirring spirit thanks both to Benami's poetic and boldly personal lyrics and a masterful voice that's at turns sweet and soulfully dusky.
Born in New York City and raised in Knoxville, Benami first began honing her vocal chops by singing at school events and in church choirs. At age fourteen, pained by the ongoing and damaging tension between her Israeli father and German-American mother, Benami moved in with her uncle and took on a minimum-wage day job to save up for college. Despite the upheaval, Benami persevered with her singing and took up guitar, eventually making her way to Belmont University, a renowned music school in Nashville.
At Belmont, Benami quickly developed a close friendship with a burgeoning songwriter named Rebecca Joy Lear. "I'd been writing poems a long time, but Rebecca motivated me to start writing songs as well," says Benami. The two soon became roommates and collaborators, but Lear's life ended in a tragic car accident later that year. "When Rebecca passed away, it devastated me to the point where I felt like I couldn't move forward with my life," says Benami. "It took me a long time to get myself back together and figure out what to do next."
Eventually, Benami put college on hold and went to Los Angeles, where she threw herself back into making music and began teaming up with a host of songwriters and producers. In 2009, she auditioned for the ninth season of American Idol and ultimately emerged as the tenth-place finalist. After making the rounds on the talk-show circuit, Benami disconnected from the media frenzy and took time out to cultivate her song craft.
"When I first started writing, I was writing the songs that people expected of me because I'm a blonde country girl from Tennessee," she recalls. But after dedicating herself to discovering her songwriting voice—and exploring a scope of influences that includes The Beatles, Motown legends like Jimmy Ruffin and Marvin Gaye, Carole King, Mazzy Star, and modern-day singer/songwriters such as Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson—Benami found herself with a greater sense of purpose and a sharper vision for her music. Some will hear allusions to Nicole Atkins, and others Eleisha Eagle, in her sound.
To help execute that vision, Didi Benami joined forces with Billy Mohler and set to work on her debut album in 2013. Collaborating with fellow songwriters like Jamie Drake, Billy Mohler, Annaliese Schiersch and Jason Gaviati, Benami brought Reverie to life by bravely confronting matters like Lear's death, her fractured relationship with her father, post-disillusionment, and the painful fracture of several friendships and romances in recent years. But while Reverie never shies away from plumbing the depths of loss and longing, Benami's songs endlessly radiate an infectious sense of hope. "My dream for this album is to somehow communicate the battle of both darkness and the light that exists inside as well as outside ourselves," she notes.
Opening with the quietly haunting "Trouble," the album instantly sweeps up listeners in its lush and breezy yet undeniably intense take on guitar-driven alt-pop. Although the album offers its share of love songs such as the sweetly playful "Heartstrings" and the swaying and sultry "Till I Find You," at its core are tracks like album standout "Lost at Sea," a piano ballad whose stark arrangement showcases Benami’s powerful voice and aching lyrics) and “Release Me” (a midtempo number whose moody guitar work and uneasy harmonies capture the darkly charged drama of her childhood.
Clearly Didi Benami's Idol experience provided many opportunities to experiment with a broad range of song styles. The experience is clearly evident in Reverie's diverse ten track collection. The album also features the self-empowerment anthem "Shine" and the post-breakup kiss off "Recover" and closes with “Hummingbird," a lilting and lovely piece that embodies the heart of the album for Benami. "'Hummingbird' is about feeling lost and not knowing what’s going to happen next, but finding strength and deciding to give it a shot anyway," she explains, pointing out that the song’s initial inspiration was an actual hummingbird she saw struggling to fly.
Reverie was financed with both out-of-pocket and a highly successful PledgeMusic campaign. The artist hopes to recognize and reflect on the darker moments of her past while moving forward into a brighter future. "One of my missions with my music in general is to keep Rebecca’s spirit alive, to honor what she wanted to do and inspired me to do,” she says. “At the same time I want my songs to help people deal with whatever they might be going through, and then take them to a new place where there's nothing holding them back from following their dreams."
Four years after Idol and three years in the making, Reverie is a fantastic project and a collection of diverse tracks that will propel Didi Benami forward once again. We hope that she will gather the resources to tour and promote this album to its full potential. Bravo!--Zach Hinkle in New York, NY and Russ Elliot in Boston, MA