The Authenticity Of Grandson

The Canadian-American singer/songwriter opens up about the inspiration behind his debut album, “Death of an Optimist, ” and his longtime relationship with cannabis.
The Authenticity Of Grandson
Courtesy of Shore Fire Media

While most know Jordan Benjamin by his stage name—the critically acclaimed singer/songwriter, Grandson—it’s his true self he tries to communicate to audiences and fans. “Being authentic is so important to me now because I spent so much time being inauthentic. I feel when fans meet me, they really do meet me. I don’t hide much of myself from them and I’m not putting on a front.” Over the course of our Zoom call, Jordan reveals further insights into his mind and being, detailing his path to finding music and how cannabis has shaped his life and career.

Growing up in Toronto, how did you initially discover music?

Jordan Benjamin: My father had a career in music before choosing a different path that was a little more consistent as far as his ability to provide for his family. Yet he always found some way to retreat into music as a kind of reprieve from the day to day norm. Sometimes after dinner he would “walk the dog” and then go directly to the music studio in our basement and close the door all night. Early on, I was kind of inundated with music being around me and that the expression of the self through music was something that was important.

I remember getting gifted on my eleventh or twelfth birthday “Zeppelin IV,” “Dark Side of the Moon,” and “The Best of The Who.” My very early influences were classic rock, but after moving to a new neighborhood, those influences became hip hop and smoking pot. I started getting stoned and obsessively freestyling and rapping in the back of class, trying to earn the admiration of older schoolmates and became really competitive with it. Freestyle was something I could make totally mine. I’m the youngest child and I think the youngest tries to cement themselves in some way as being different from their siblings. My older sisters were both very successful academically, both straight-A students, and were well on their way to any university of their choosing. Whereas for me, it started to become obvious that a conventional path wasn’t going to make much sense. Eventually I made peace with the fact that I probably wasn’t going to graduate and I started to—with my high school buddies—put together an idea for how to get my music career started. I began producing my own beats, which coincided with a really important four-month sabbatical from getting high.

What prompted the pot sabbatical?

Jordan Benjamin: Weed has been an important part of my musical journey that I can’t untangle. I’ve been getting high since I was twelve years old, and if it weren’t for weed, I don’t know if I could have sat and studied music for hours on end the way I did. If I get stoned—as long as I’m in front of something that’s relatively stimulating—I can just lose myself in it. The way some people talk about Adderall affecting them, that was me with creativity and getting high. But I had a couple of friends who reacted [to cannabis] much differently.

Some of my friends were taking acne medication—myself included—which you’re really not supposed to drink with or get high on. We didn’t take that all too seriously, and unfortunately there were all kinds of psychoactive effects that a couple of my friends experienced in the form of “episodes,” or these bipolar, schizophrenic breakdowns. One friend went missing for a while and it was really traumatic for all of us. At the same time, I wasn’t going to class much, the girl I was seeing was with somebody else, and it became this moment where I could either continue to indulge in this “woe as me, I’ll never be as good as my older sisters” mentality, or look at things as a catalyst for a new chapter of my life, and maybe one day even be grateful for the “setbacks” I was experiencing. So for the first time, I really focused on making music, which was the only thing no one had to force me to do.

So in a weird way, weed helped both show you—and keep you on—the right path for you.

Jordan Benjamin: At sixteen, my parents sat me down and said, “We’re done trying to be the bad guy with smoking pot,” and my dad revealed his “dog walks” were actually him getting stoned. In giving me permission [to smoke pot], it also reinforced that there is shit you should stay away from. It was one of those things where as long as I upheld my part of the bargain, I could have friends over and get high in the backyard. It saved my relationship with my parents at a time when I thought they were just another authority figure trying to keep me down.

How did everything lead to the formation of the Grandson project?

Jordan Benjamin: I got my shit together and managed to go to university in Montreal but still hadn’t figured out what I was there to do. I was struggling with the question of, “What the fuck am I going to do with my life?” Around eighteen or nineteen, it dawned on me that while I couldn’t sing like the best singers I was a fan of, and while I probably wasn’t going to cut it rapping like my favorite rappers could, there was something about my particular relationship to music—and to the world—that I could find some sort of lane for.

I ended up moving out to Los Angeles in the beginning of 2014 after being signed off a music video I’d posted online. Ultimately, I wasn’t really wasn’t getting a ton of traction, so about two years later, I signed with a new manager. He asked me, “What do you want to do? What did you come out to Los Angeles to accomplish?” I said, “I want to shake people up and find a way in which I can reinvent myself and talk about things other than getting stoned and trying to get laid.” And he said, “Well, then let’s go do that.”

I was then introduced to guitarist Kevin “Boonn” Hissink and we just clicked. He’s from the Netherlands and is fifteen years older than me, but we’re similarly sensitive. Outside from being an extremely talented virtuoso, he provided me with the encouragement that I needed to hear at twenty-three years old. We started creating demos and ended up bringing them back to the label who had originally signed me as a rapper, explaining that the project was different. They put out a few of the first songs but didn’t really get it and ultimately dropped me. So we were searching for it for most of 2016 and 2017, but then I made “Blood // Water,” and all of a sudden everyone understood what I was trying to do.

You finally just listened to yourself and started to lean into who you were and are.

Jordan Benjamin: I think it’s important to remind kids I was twenty-three when that song dropped and I started making music full-time when I was nineteen. Things just take time, and in this era of instant gratification, it’s hard to reinvent yourself. It’s hard to fail. 

I was so, so scared of admitting defeat. I had moved to Los Angeles to be the next “something,” like the next Mac Miller. When I finally was able to be honest with myself, admit that that was not something I’d accomplished—nor what I wanted anymore—things became one-hundred-percent more clear. My manager helped remind me that nothing I had done previously was “wrong.” He reminded me you can do everything right on paper and still come up short. Knowing that, knowing I was out of money and only had six or seven months before I’d have to go back to Toronto, he asked me what I could create that I would be really proud of, regardless of what people would fuck with or not. Like, “What do you care about?”

Even when I was at my most irreverent, I was surrounded by family and other people who believed in me and who encouraged me to “figure it out.” Because of this, I decided to not only make music that took itself seriously, but to try and provide people the feelings of encouragement that my parents and siblings provided me that I had taken for granted my entire life. My job isn’t to make labels or my manager like me, my job is to build a relationship with people who are going to support my music. My job is to give other people the same encouragement and reassurance that I received, that they’re going to figure it out, and that they don’t need to be complete to be here. That’s what the last three years of my life have been about and it’s been a lot more fulfilling.

The more you’re being fulfilled by being yourself, the more people are benefiting from it.

Jordan Benjamin: It’s as ironic as it is profound. You don’t have to change the world to change someone’s world. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to build this into my work through my podcast XXWHY—if you go about finding your “why,” finding the thing that makes you tick the way that music does for me—you’ll find your best friend, your sense of identity, and something that people can’t take from you. It will be worth pursuing regardless of the expectation you might have for it and regardless of the expectation society might impose on you to have. If you go about being your truest self and expressing your opinions honestly—as long as they’re not infringing on anybody’s right to exist—you’ll inevitably be a happier, more purposeful person.

In terms of purpose, what’s the purpose behind your fund—XX Resistance—and what message does it help amplify?

Jordan Benjamin: At the very beginning of the Grandson project, I wanted to make sure that the topics and themes we explored were reinforced by the things we were doing outside of your headphones. The question then became: do you pick one cause and funnel all of your attention to it to try and make the biggest impact, or do you make it a more wide-reaching mission? I wanted as many people who support Grandson to feel represented.

How it works is my family and I talk about what’s going on in the world, what fans seem to be messaging me about, and we pick different organizations to promote and to amplify. At meet and greets in the past, we’ve had representatives from organizations like the Sunrise Movement to talk about climate change, we shot a music video alongside Campaign Zero which seeks to eliminate lethal police brutality here in America, and just this year we were able to raffle off memorabilia from a music video I shot in June to raise $10,000. We gave to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp, to Doctors Without Borders, to Music Cares, and to Head Count. Obviously there’s hope that the money we’re raising will make a difference, but realistically a $2,500 donation isn’t going to end police brutality and it’s not going to stop climate change. It can, however, be a symbolic gesture to a fan to show that the process of participating in advancing progressive values is as simple as taking action.

I’ve always wanted Grandson to be this idea that you can put on the denim jacket and you, too, are Grandson. With my new album [“Death of an Optimist”], I introduced the antagonist—the very system you will find yourself up against—the saboteur who kept me apathetic and lost in a cloud for two years because I was scared to confront the realities of what I wanted to accomplish. That’s the mission of the fund.

What would you say is the “mission” behind your debut record?

Jordan Benjamin: I’m very interested in exploring the nuance of why I feel what I feel. This album talks about hope and it talks about optimism, subjects that are a little less clear than if I wrote a song titled “Fuck Trump.” I have these conflicting goals to be honest and to be real, and to also be really successful and have my messaging amplified in the biggest way.

But the album demonstrates that they don’t have to be conflicting goals. You’re taking issues that impact people on a daily basis and infusing them with music in a way that works.

Jordan Benjamin: It’s definitely something we try to do and it’s something that is not by accident. We are very, very deliberate and I work very consciously at trying to make sure that my output is honest and that there are these breadcrumbs where you see me in it and you see how I got here.

When I would listen to Rage Against The Machine in high school, they felt otherworldly. Tom Morello was a Harvard graduate and you just think, “Man, these guys know something I don’t.” Zack [de la Rocha]’s piercing glare…he never broke that character on stage, and I don’t know if it even was a character. I am trying to give those same motivations to people, but with an honesty of my own shortcomings and my own doubt. A lot of times I really doubt if I am making a difference or if any of this matters, and I can be very cynical. So I try to explore that cynicism instead of hiding from it. Donald Trump has been president for my entire time making music [for Grandson], so how can I realistically move forward with this steadfast reassurance that everyone else is wrong and I’m right? I started questioning that, and it’s been a process I’ve tried to have represented in the album instead of merely being a collection of protest music.

How do you appropriately balance your pragmatism, optimism and cynicism?

Jordan Benjamin: It depends on the day. I think it’s about continuing to move forward in spite  of fears, not in absence of them. You’d drive yourself crazy trying to explain away why not to be anxious, why not to be skeptical, why not to be worried that all of our hope and all of this work is completely futile. At the same time, I do believe we all have a responsibility to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, and to try and not be part of the problem.

When the record abruptly ends on “Drop Dead,” it’s because that’s what my brain looks like. I just go back and forth over and over again until I say, “Fuck it, I’m done with this.” And that’s kind of how the album is as a whole. It’s conflicted.

Part of listening to our inner authenticities is knowing that it’s okay to be conflicted, it’s okay to not be okay.

Jordan Benjamin: Communicating that messaging doesn’t really work within a twenty-second TikTok video, but I do think it’s necessary to give people permission to sit in that ambiguity and to not let it paralyze them. Allow it to be confusing. And while it is confusing, I don’t think the answers we seek are an answer for it all. That’s how people fall into anything from organized religions to pyramid schemes, when you go out looking for this “thing” that’s going to make it all make sense. It’s a much more worthwhile endeavor to try and be able to sit in “it,” in its imperfections and love yourself through it and be proud of the steps you’re taking.

Follow @grandson and check out his debut album “Death of an Optimist” now available everywhere

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