Broadway-cum-West End smash hit Once, featuring songs written by Irish songwriter Glen Hansard, has made its mark on the world of theatre winning numerous Tony Awards and a Grammy. Now, residing in London’s West End and sponsored by C.F. Martin & Co., Once is winning the UK’s heart with lead guy and accomplished singer-songwriting, Declan Bennett, at the helm.
The press love to throw the term “multi-talented” around and stick it to every new artist they come across, but for Declan Bennett, it is actually true! Like so many acoustic musicians do these days, Declan released his first album himself, self-funded, on his own label. But Bennett wasn’t another singer-songwriter riding the wave of electronic media access that sees so many welcome additions to the acoustic fraternity – he was actually there when the whole phenomenon took off. Declan’s first solo album was released in 2004, and in technological terms, that’s several lifetimes ago. ‘What I found out pretty quickly when I started making music on my own was that I wasn’t making music for radio, and I didn’t want to write music for radio, I had no interest in writing music that would get me on Radio 1,’ Declan recalls. ‘My aim was never to make music like that. I realised that if I wanted to maintain my artistic integrity, it was going to be more fulfilling for me to get a label of my own, and put my music out myself. I did play some material for some producers and some A&R people, and they all told me that it was too wordy and that the choruses weren’t right, and, essentially, they were just telling me that my creative ideas weren’t right! I am all for collaboration, constructive criticism, and getting things to sound right, but I decided to just to go and do things on my own, it felt like the right thing to do.’
‘So, I decided to get a band together and make an album. I had no money, so we didn’t have the luxury of being able to go into a massive studio and record everything individually, so we went and recorded the whole thing in a live situation. That was nine years ago, and I listen back to it now and there are so many things about it that I want to change! It’s heading for its tenth anniversary, and I am considering having another bash at it, because I think as an artist you are never really satisfied with anything that you do, and that is what keeps you going.’
Declan’s career thus far isn’t what we’d have expected and, subsequently, his CV makes for some seriously diverse reading – it includes a brief stint in a boyband, before making he made his mark in musical theatre. ‘I taught myself guitar at school when I was about 14-years-old. I was having piano lessons, and I started writing my own songs on piano, but it’s not the most portable of instruments, so I picked up a guitar. I got very heavily into music, and into theatre at the same time when I was in youth groups in Coventry. I decided to move to London and see if I could make it as a musician. I was in a band, we were signed to Warner Music, and when I left the band, I was offered a role in Taboo, the Boy George musical in the West End. Doing that kicked off the whole theatre side of things. I kept up my music while I was doing the theatre show, and when it finished, I formed my own label Covboy Records and decided to release my own songs.’
And that vital first acoustic guitar? ‘It was a Yamaha, it was one of the CPX models, and I played that for quite a few years. It was about £800 and I bought it when I was 20-years-old. My mum was very supportive, she and I made a deal, she said: “If you save this much, I will put this much in for you” and that’s how I got it. When I moved to New York seven years ago, I bought a Takamine. When I’m gigging, my stuff gets quite intense, and I can really beat up a guitar, and the Takamine was crying a bit. I looked down at it one night and thought, I am going to get about four more gigs out of this, and then it’s going to break. Takamine are beautiful guitars, there is a lovely delicacy about them, so I decided I would keep the Takamine as my “home guitar” to write with, and I bought a Larrivée which is more robust for my kind of playing.’
Back to the present day, Declan is taking the lead role in the West End smash-hit musical Once, having already starred in numerous US Broadway shows including Rent and Green Day’s musical adaptation American Idiot. It will come as no surprise that Declan already has his sights set on realising his own musical project as a stage production. ‘I have been working on a project for a while now with Phil Griffin who directed all of Amy Winehouse’s videos, and he’s worked with Adele and the Kings of Leon. I spoke to him last year about straddling the line between band work and musicals, and I am interested in seeing how the two combine. So we did a piece in New York around my second album An Innocent Evening Of Drinking, and we are going to see about putting it on in London. I should have a double live album out soon and then the theatre gig version of the album goes out after that.’
Performing as an actor and a musician in a long running show like Once demands an entirely new set of skills and disciplines, and this seems like an ideal time for us to get some background information on just what is involved. The first thing Declan needed to get used to was the sheer physical and vocal stamina required to perform in eight shows a week for the initial run of Once, which is set for 12 months, and will no doubt be extended due to its critically acclaimed reception. ‘Vocally it was a stretch,’ he remembers. ‘I am a baritone, that is my natural range, and some of the songs are moving up into tenor territory. Hitting the top G and A notes are right at the top end for me. When I went to the first auditions, I did seriously wonder if I was going to be able to sing the songs in the show, especially with it being eight shows a week. So, when I came back from one of the rehearsals when I thought I really hadn’t done that well, I decided that rather than just giving up on it, I would see what was out there for me. I talked to loads of friends, who are singers, and I did some work with Mary King who is a voice coach here, and I went on YouTube, and there is loads of stuff out there on how to strengthen your voice. So now I have amassed this huge range of knowledge about being a good singer and working with my voice, and as a result of that my voice has gotten better as the show has progressed. I really am learning how to use my voice, probably for the first time. I started singing when I was 14-years-old, and now I am learning how to sing properly at the age of 32! If you open yourself up to the information that is out there, you can learn a lot about what you can do. The voice is just a muscle, and if you exercise and train it, like you would in the gym, there is no reason why you can’t add three or four notes to your range, and strengthen your voice, and not struggle to do eight shows a week. I remember when Adele had her surgery for her voice problems; people said it was smoking that damaged her voice. She said that although smoking certainly doesn’t help, it was talking that made the difference, and that is so true. We learn how to sing properly, but we never learn how to talk properly without straining the voice. I know now that warming down my voice after a show is as essential as warming up, and if I go out to a bar with friends after a show, I can’t sit there shouting above background noise – that is really going to do my voice some damage.’
From vocals to guitars, Declan is delighted to play Martin guitars every night. C. F. Martin & Co. is the official show sponsor. ‘Yes, all the instruments, the guitars, mandolins, and banjos are all supplied by Martin. I have got four of them, the D-28 model, I have one in standard tuning, one in open E, and one in DADGAD, and one spare for the different songs I do throughout the show. The guitar parts were fine for me, easy to learn because they are similar to the stuff that I do in a lot of ways, so they came to me quite naturally. I have physical therapy once a week to prevent any repetitive strain injuries creeping in because there is a lot of physical effort from playing a guitar for so long every day. Touring musicians get a break every few nights, we don’t,’ he affirms.
The thought of playing and singing the same songs in the same order for that length of time gives rise to another interesting aspect of musical theatre’s differences from standard gigging – concentration levels. Not that you don’t concentrate when gigging, but there’s some room for movement. Unlike a touring group, the players in Once play the same songs, in the same order, in the same place, for months on end and even with the best willpower in the world, a degree of familiarity could easily slip into a routine, which can lead to a lapse of concentration. ‘It depends on the song, and how difficult the song is,’ Declan explains. ‘If it has a few tricky chords, or the rhythm is awkward, you tend to concentrate more. There is a song called ‘Sleeping’ in the show’s second half that has just four simple chords to it, and it is structured in an unusual way, it is not just verse/chorus, and so on, and that is one song where I can lose it and my mind can wander a bit. It doesn’t help that I am up on a balcony and I am not near anyone, so I tend to drift off into my own little world. If you are doing eight shows a week, and you have a contract for a year, that is a lot of shows. I’m not going to sit here and say it’s different every night, and I change this or that, because that is simply not my reality. You can’t change things because other people rely on cues and things going the same way, so everyone knows where they are at any time.’
‘There are nights when you walk on thinking: “I can’t believe I am doing this again” but that is where the real steep learning curves come into play. You learn the disciplines that make a long theatre run work properly. You learn the real skill of acting and singing the same material over and over again. You learn to settle into it, and find the space where you can work properly without any sense of repetition coming over to the audience. We are very lucky that our musical director Martin Lowe has given us loads of leeway. After the first night he told is that nothing is set in stone, and we can experiment. He told a story about going back to a musical that had run for years and years, and the music was just lifeless, because the musicians weren’t given a chance to do anything except play the same way every day, and then go home, but Martin was adamant that was not going to happen to us. ‘You have to keep it within limits, there are 11 of us on stage playing instruments, so you can’t go too far away from what the others know and expect. But it’s the same with any band, you play a lot, you get to know each other, you build up a subconscious communication, and you start to challenge each other, but with enough respect not to throw in a weird solo in the middle of the show, or come on with a different guitar or something!’
Declan has been careful to maintain the parallel strands of his career – musical theatre and work as a recording and touring musician – but he has been busy recording a new album, although promotion and live shows is a little tricky right now. ‘I am not really able to do any promotion with gigs because I am tied to London in terms of location, doing eight shows a week, so that leaves me with no free time at all. What does happen is, during the course of the run of the show, I am allocated an agreed amount of time off, so what I will do is arrange to take a week or so out, and arrange a tour in that period. The great thing about the internet is that it is easy to keep new stuff out there when I am not able to physically get out and play shows. Most people doing an eight-shows-a-week run use their two weeks off to catch up things like eating and sleeping, but I am going to go out on tour. I think eating and sleeping is so overrated! Seriously, though, the show is pretty taxing on me and I do have to rest properly and look after myself.’
Declan’s almost double identity does have a potential downside, though – people who see him in Once might assume that he’s solely a musical theatre performer, and no longer plays his own material. Likewise, people who see Declan out on tour with his own music could equally assume that he has dropped his musical theatre work in favour of that. ‘It is something I used to worry about,’ Declan confirms. ‘But I think of myself as a singer and songwriter, and the theatre work I have been able to do has been as a result of being very closely connected to music. When I performed in Rent, I played a singer-songwriter, and when I performed in American Idiot I was working with Green Day, and now I am playing a singer-songwriter again in Once. The two have supported each other. Now people see me in theatre, and go to my website, and see I have albums, and other people see my own gigs, and then realise I am in a theatre show, so they come and see that. I realised that I don’t have to be one or the other; I can work on what I want to do to be creative, and not be pushed exclusively into one area or the other. You have to follow your heart and do things that resonate with you, don’t be afraid to experiment. If people want to stay doing the same thing, that’s fine, but you don’t grow that way. There’s no point playing it safe, you don’t get anywhere doing that. There are a lot of musicians who are moving into musical theatre, Sting has got a musical on the way, the Decembrists have written one, Regina Specktor and Tori Amos each have a project they are working on, so popular music and musical theatre are coming together, one is feeding the other, which I think is great. Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day took the idea to turn American Idiot into a theatre show, and be in it, and then take it to the Grammys, and good for him. Just don’t be scared to try things. I look up to people like that, and think I aspire to achieve things that they have, otherwise I would end up constantly trying to write music to be played on Radio 1.’
Declan is starring in the West End’s production of Once. Tickets can be bought from www.oncemusicallondon.co.uk
Words: Andy Hughes
Photography: Carsten Windhorst