It is always a touching experience to be able to speak with the best and brightest upcoming Canadian musicians, and our conversation with BRKN LOVE’s Justin Benlolo was no exception. The Toronto-based singer and guitarist recently put out a number of singles on streaming platforms with his band, and has disclosed the news that they are in the works of releasing a full-feature LP in due time. On the eve of a Canada-wide tour, Justin gave us his take on the band’s formation, ambitions, and the steps he took to get to where he is today.
Spencer Wells: What can you tell us about your musical upbringing and venture into the professional music industry?
Justin Benlolo: I’m 22 years old to start, a pretty young man, but at the same time I have been doing this for about 10 years now. I started playing guitar when I was about 11 years old because of my uncle – he was a great musician himself, and partly because of the band KISS. [They were] probably my biggest influence[s] early on in life. [The band] really put a huge influence on my guitar playing, still to this day, he’s still one of my favourite guitar players.
Every single night before I go to bed, I actually have a statue of Gene Simmons that sits on my night table, so… (laughs) I’m a KISS fan through and through. I definitely give a lot of what I do to them, they inspired me to play in the first place.
I started singing around that time too, I was actually really into musical theatre as a kid. Not the most necessarily rock n’ roll thing to admit (laughs) but that’s how I started singing – just doing school plays and all that kind of stuff. By chance I was getting the lead roles all the time, and then I guess I figured out, “Oh man, maybe I can sing.”
I was actually a guitar player first, and I found my voice through trial and error, I guess. I was always interested in the arts; always loved rock bands since I was a kid, just because of my uncle’s influence on me. And through the years as a young artist would, you try and make stuff, your own stuff; the quest never ends. I pick up my guitar everyday and I challenge myself to try something new. I was literally sitting down right before you called me, and I was trying out some jazz stuff because I want to expand on my musical vocabulary. Yeah, I mean now I’m an adult, but I’ve been doing this for a while. I guess I went professional when I was 17-18; when I went through my first management thing, started to work with record companies, producers – all that kind of stuff. I recorded this record about two-three years ago; it’s actually been in the vault for a while but because it’s been sitting - I’ve been dying to get it out. Up until this point I’ve just been working on my music. It’s been a long process, that’s for sure.
SW: Tell us about BRKN LOVE, and how the band members all met.
JB: So the way we met… I would say it was pretty organic; they all live in New York City and I currently live in Toronto. I have a kickass manager and she knows basically everybody in New York, and originally when I went in to form the band, this record was already recorded prior to meeting them. It was sitting around as something I made as a trio – I played the guitars, and all the guitars you hear on the record are the same in everything. I got two of my buddies to play bass and drums because I didn’t know my band yet. When the time came, my manager just made the connections.
We knew a bunch of guys that played on Broadway – my bass player was actually a Broadway bass player. He still plays on Broadway. We got a good recommendation from someone that she knew who also plays on Broadway. The drummer went to high school with the bass player, so that’s where we got Russell. Kyle was part of a music program at NYU – my manager knew the head professor in the music program and just asked him: “Hey, do you have any young kids who are interested in joining a rock band and can play guitar well?” He recommended Kyle, and it was pretty much set from then on. It's been great so far, but of course there’s a little bit of a disconnection because I’m here and they’re in NYC; but I still love being in Canada, living at home. This is where I grew up.
I did live in the states for a couple years; lived in LA for three years and lived in New York sort of on-and-off between the ages of 12 and 17. There’s been a couple periods where I would go back and forth. Through it all, I know I’m kind of biased but I love Toronto the best; I can’t bring it out of me to leave this place. Also, NYC is such a pain to get around. You can’t really make noise in that city; you gotta get rehearsal space, and then you got to get there with all your gear, which is another pain just cause of the transportation. So at least [in Toronto] I have a room where I can make as much noise as possible; I live in the suburbs so there’s no problems. And New York really isn’t that far away. If I want to go do something I can jump on a plane – it's just about 40 minutes. Or usually when we start our tours when we’ve done the US a bunch of times I’d just drive down, because I keep the tour van here. It’s a trade-off but it works, that’s for sure. And they’re coming up here soon, in a week or so, before we hit the Canadian tour just to do some rehearsing and stuff.
It's been great so far, but of course there’s a little bit of a disconnection because I’m here and they’re in NYC, but I still love being in Canada, living at home. This is where I grew up.
SW: When you guys started doing shows together, tell us how the band’s sound was formed.
JB: Well, thankfully it lent itself to my favour because I had played a bunch of shows with the same music with some other bands. Before I had found that band, a couple of my buddies in Toronto and I would go downtown and play some of the rock bars down there when we could get a gig. And I heard of hashing out some of the digital stuff and doing it live and changing around the arrangements so they’re not the same live. So with my friends I was kind of able to remold the tunes to become something else live, and that helped a lot because these guys are amazing and capable musicians, they think of things like that (snaps). I already had a very good idea of the way I wanted things to be presented live, so of course rehearsals are one thing - you can rehearse till you’re blue in the face - the real test is going out there and playing as many shows as possible, that’s how you really get better.
There were shows where they were still really good, because everybody is professional. Definitely not a mess I would say didn’t sound like a garage band right off the top, but through trial and error, just playing for a bit, especially after our first tour, played like 30 shows. After that run we were like, “We don't even rehearse anymore” just because we're so tight and comfortable on stage. At first it was a little bit rocky, naturally as any band should start. We sort of got the dirt off our boots, took a little bit of time. The arrangements stuff really helped a lot coming in and dictating where the songs are to go. Really helped off the top to have previous experience with other groups before meeting these guys, it lent itself well.