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Eddie Benjamin is backstage at a Justin Bieber concert in Michigan. He’s wearing layered necklaces atop an Elton John ‘Big Picture Tour’ T-shirt scavenged from a vintage clothing store. He has the overtly excited expression of a Belieber who just met their idol for the first time. But in reality, ‘backstage with Bieber’ is business as usual for Benjamin who, prior to Bieber’s Ramsay Hunt Syndrome diagnosis, has been opening for the global star every night.
When Rolling Stone chats to the Australian artist he’s on date thirty-six of the Justice Tour and he’s just stepped offstage. Tonight, when he performed his single “Speechless” — an education in R&B classicism with woozy synths — he closed his eyes to bring the energy down. When he opened them again, Michigan’s Van Andel Arena was lit up with phone lights. “I was like, ‘Oh my god I’m in space’,” he says, eyes wide.
The singer-songwriter-slash-onstage-backflipper has been hard at work earning his place as one of the most exciting Australian exports to ever break America. That fact had never been clearer than at this point of the Justice Tour; crowds sang along to lead album single “Weatherman” verbatim, just weeks after its release. But, as is common with seemingly overnight success, the journey that led him to this green room couch was almost a decade in the making.
He had barely come out of childhood when he was performing at local jazz clubs in Sydney — his musician father in tow. Following the oft-travelled route of posting cover songs on social media (a few of which went viral but have since been removed) — plus a stint at Berklee College of Music and a few APRA AMCOS songwriting camps in between — the multi-instrumentalist relocated with his family to LA in 2019. And when he got an offer to join Sony Music in 2019, the major label helping to catapult careers of acts like The Kid LAROI, Amy Shark and MAY-A, he took it.
His collaborations reached lofty heights after his move to the US. His co-write credits sit alongside names like Meghan Trainor, Ryan Tedder, Shawn Mendes, and — thanks to an introduction from Trainor herself — Earth Wind and Fire. Then in 2021, the world received its first taste of just how global Benjamin’s music is with his Emotional EP, featuring “Diamond Eyes”, a collaboration with Australian music royalty Sia.
In conversation, Eddie Benjamin has a way of surprising you when you least expect it. In the midst of talking about his debut album — his team-up with Kid Culture (the Seattle producing-prodigy behind Bieber’s hit “Yummy”) — Benjamin reveals the toll that writing music has on him.
“When I make an album, I’m the worst person to be friends with,” he says. “Honestly, I’m totally hyper-focused. Like it’s awful. I’m just going to be completely real,” he adds, with an arms-spread shrug. “When I’m in ‘creation mode’ of writing my album, writing an album for me, I don’t know. I don’t want to be friends with you very much.
“When I make an album, I’m the worst person to be friends with […] I’m just going to be completely real.”
“Maybe this is… who knows,” he pauses, sounding as if he himself doesn’t understand it yet. “But I just am so vulnerable, honestly. And what’s a vulnerable person? They have a crazy amount of shields up. I definitely have that, because I’m being so honest with myself in that time period.”
That vulnerability has given the world album tracks like “Only You” (written for and about his girlfriend Maddie Ziegler), “All For Nothing”, and “This Place”, which came from such great melancholia that Benjamin almost didn’t include it on the record. Amid one extended spell of deep depression, Benjamin wrote “This Place” with Alex Salibian (best known for co-writing and producing Harry Styles’ debut album).
“I was not in a good little spot that day, I remember,” he puts it lightly. “I had a session that day and Alex is a really soft, quiet person and I kind of came into the room and just threw up this song.”
Musically, the song is a piano-driven arrangement that could rival Elton’s “The One”. Lyrically, it delves into the kind of deep pain only known by those who have felt the cavernous blue sinkhole collapse around them: “‘Cos I’m not really sure how to tell anyone / but I can’t bear this pain / I think it’s time to leave this place”.
“It was an awful session actually,” Benjamin recalls. “I should ask him about that. It wasn’t fun at all. I sang it. I remember, we recorded the whole bridge. The entire bridge. You know how it modulates up?” he adds, referring to the part at the one-minute mark. “I remember I recorded that and I was like, ‘Take it out completely, throw it away’. For three hours, that was gone. I was just in such a…,” he says, trailing off. “And then I was like, ‘Bring it back’. I was just in a very, very interesting spot.
“[…] I was fed up with existence. I just was not in a good place. ‘Oh, I’m trying to get out of here a little bit’ is the most soft way to put it.”
Looking back now, Benjamin is thankful he was convinced by his inner circle to put the track on the album. To him, processing his life through music while he’s living it is an artist’s privilege, and one he actively reflects on. He seems good at that; at understanding the weight of an experience and carrying that gratitude with him.
The first time I met Benjamin was in 2018 in a writing space at Sydney’s Studios 301. At this point, he was like a boomerang, splitting his time between Sydney and LA. More wide-eyed then, but still indifferent to the trappings of La La Land, he was telling me he went to a party at famed vocal coach Stevie Mackey’s house. Mackey’s clients Selena Gomez and Jennifer Lopez were in attendance. “I’m sure I’ll meet heaps of cool dudes,” Benjamin said of his plans to head back. “But there’s time for that.”
Four years, and plenty of ‘cool dudes’ later, his intentions haven’t wavered since that first chat. “I definitely have the exact same goals and the goals are set for the exact same reasons as they were when I was fifteen.” He smiles with that gap-toothed grin, an endearing reminder that LA Materialism and a desire for a Hollywood Smile hasn’t gotten to him yet — despite his burgeoning success (his song “Weatherman” has clocked over 20.5 million streams and was one of the most used songs on TikTok in the US).
That’s not to say Eddie Benjamin isn’t immune to some of the trade-offs that come part and parcel with a public persona. It was in LA where Benjamin met his girlfriend Maddie Ziegler, a dancer and actress whose profile was far eclipsing his own when the pair began dating in 2019; she slid into his DMs on Instagram. The pair’s inseparable union has meant his run-ins with paparazzi became unavoidable — an odd reality considering their young age.
One time, when Benjamin had travelled back home to Australia with Ziegler, they were followed home from Sydney airport. “I’ve never spoken about this, I don’t even know if I’m allowed to speak on this,” he stops to think, before shrugging. “Oh well fuck it, who cares.” He tells me that even though he and Ziegler had security with them, a photographer tailed them all the way back to his parent’s place in the Eastern Suburbs.
“I was like, ‘What’s happening?’ Then me and Maddie would walk to the beach, and later we’d go on our phones and there’s photos of us at the beach from five minutes ago, in Australia.
“[…] I try not to take it too seriously honestly. It’s definitely an intense part of it.”
Benjamin keeps his inner circle tight. His family, his sister Marlo, his parents Huey and Narelle — all of whom made the move to LA with him in 2019 — remain close, alongside Ziegler and a select few “industry friends”. And given the trajectory of his career, it’s a good thing.
“I have been lucky to see what maybe some bad decisions can get you while you’re doing this,” he says. “And you know, how your energy can be tangled in fifteen trillion different places.
“[…] I’m not getting smashed every night, like going crazy,” he notes. “Of course, I’m human. I like to have fun. But that being said, I feel like I have a good perspective of what’s going on around me.”
In a video posted to YouTube in 2020, Justin Bieber and Eddie Benjamin are seated side by side on a couch, singing an acoustic version of Bieber’s song “That Should Be Me”. Following the performance, in a cute display of the pair’s ‘jedi and padawan’ dynamic, Biebs offers Benjamin a few words of advice.
“There’s gonna be people who come around who want to just take, take, take,” he said. “And if you’re looking at the people who are just taking, you don’t want to listen to their opinion. You gotta listen to the people who are feeding into your life.”
Behind closed doors though, with cameras and lights turned off and neatly packed away, Bieber has been an open book for Benjamin. He’s shared with him the harsh realities of being a superstar who grew up and made mistakes in the public eye — all while remaining an idol for a predominantly female fanbase.
“[Bieber said to me], ‘Here’s where I screwed up. I let all this crap in and it destroyed all my relationships. Here’s what I’m doing now’,” says Benjamin. “I feel like a piece of advice I stick to is ‘keep your circle super close’.”
Nevertheless, Benjamin’s celebrity affords a level of access well beyond his ‘super tight circle’.
“Only You” was partly written in Miami and during an unplanned two-week stint in Mexico. After missing paperwork at Heathrow airport put Benjamin at a crossroad, he had two choices; quarantine in London for eighteen days before waiting weeks for his missing form, or re-enter LA via Mexico. He chose Mexico.
“I was really bored and I texted Alessia [Cara] and I was like, ‘I think you’d be great on this song’. […] Honestly, I wanted her husky kind of voice and someone who can do those kind of quick little pocket runs with me, and keep the tightness and sonic structure of that.”
The irresistible single blends R&B with perforated flute parts, poetry, and a vivid invitation into Benjamin’s heart. With such a slow-building pace and Alessia Cara’s intimate vocals, it’s probably the most romantic piece of music he’s ever written.
Near the end of the track, amid the sauntering strings, it features an Easter Egg for fans. It’s an audio sample lifted from a Four Corners segment from 1962 where Ray Taylor interviews Sydney-siders about the possibility of aliens. “I think it’d be an animal form, but I don’t think it’d be like us,” the interviewee says, leading us out of “Only You”.
When I ask Benjamin about it, not having found the exact source of the sample just yet, he inhales through a tight smile. “I signed a pact with Kid [Culture],” he says, finally. “I couldn’t say where that is from.”
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