Laura Benitez’s new album, With All Its Thorns, is an autobiographical collection of loving, open, vulnerable and ultimately heartbreaking songs. With her delicately distinctive voice, Benitez pulls from traditional country music and brings the sound to the present-day.
Benitez tours and records with her band The Heartache, which includes Bob Spector on acoustic and electric guitar, Ian Sutton on pedal steel, Mike Anderson on electric and upright bass and Steve Pearson on drums. Benitez contributes lead and harmony vocals and acoustic rhythm guitar, and for the album brought in Billy Wilson on accordion, Steve Kallai on fiddle and Jim Goodkind on harmony vocals.
“What I love about this record is how much more relaxed and confident we are as a band,” said the artist. “It’s so great to be able to stretch out and take risks. We’re still very much a classic country band, but we’ve incorporated more textures and colors on this record, bringing in Cajun and Mexican influences with the accordion, adding fiddle and upright bass, and stripping things down to all acoustic for the songs that need it. We’ve grown a lot as a band and really expanded our horizons on this record.”
With All Its Thorns marks Benitez’s 3rd record. For Duty or For Love, released in 2010, was her first album, then in 2014, she released Heartless Woman to great critical acclaim. Lonesome Highway praised, “Her tight and focused band play country music with a view to the past and an ear for the future. This is identifiably country music…” Backroads Bluegrass speculated, “If I closed my eyes, it is very easy to smell the cigarette smoke, hear the clink of longneck bottles and the scraping of boots on wooden floors. This is ‘real country’ with no frills.”
Known for story songs involving clever lyrics, Benitez kicks off with the swinging Cajun influenced ‘Something Better Than a Broken Heart”. “This song rose out of a conversation I had with my friend, Doug Tieman, who ended up giving me the idea for the song,” she explained. “He was talking about how you always think you’re going to get something besides a broken heart out of a relationship and I really identified with that. It’s that question you have after a relationship ends, that ‘What was it all for?’ feeling.”
The song “In Red” was inspired by Benitez spilling red wine down the front of her own wedding dress and thinking that white was a pretty impractical color to get married in. The line “I Should Have Married You In Red” came from that moment. “It stayed in the back of my mind as an idea for many years,” she said. “When it finally became a song, it turned into the murder ballad/revenge fantasy you hear on the record.”
The arrangement for the song, “Ghostship” is spare and simple, so as not to distract from the story. Last December in Oakland, CA, a fire broke out in a warehouse known as Ghost Ship. It had been converted into an artist collective and at the time of the fire was hosting a concert. A total of 36 people were killed. “The Ghost Ship fire hit the Bay Area arts community very hard,” Benitez remembered. “I have played underground shows and attended underground performances many times, and I felt it could have easily been me, could have easily have been any one of us. I wanted to testify to my own and my community’s grief and anger over the tragedy, and to say that those who died have not been forgotten.”
From the twangy rockabilly number, “Whiskey Makes Me Love You” to the conjunto-style “Almost the Right One/Casi Mi Cielo” then the sweet acoustic “Why Does It Matter”, With All Its Thorns wraps up with the bluegrass-style “Nora Went Down the Mountain” about a wife who leaves her husband without warning, never to return.
With the exception of “Something Better Than a Broken Heart”, all songs were written solely by Benitez on her acoustic 1996 Epiphone Excelente. “It was given to me as a gift by my ex-husband, which is a great way to get a guitar if you’re going to write country songs!” She joked. “There are nicer guitars out there, and no doubt better-sounding ones, but it was very important to me that the guitar I used to write every song on the album be the guitar I played when recording them.”
As a member of the country cover band the Cottonpickers in the mid-2000’s, Benitez began writing songs. “I had no idea when I started if they would be any good, but after a few months I was writing songs that I liked and believed in,” she remembers. “I was afraid to put them out into the world—I would nearly pass out every time I sang one for friends or at a jam. It really took the sudden break-up of my marriage to get me to form the band. I was so sad and angry at the time that I just forgot to be scared.”
“I think I have a unique perspective as an artist,” Benitez observed. “I’m a woman of mixed race in a world that wants you to be one thing or another, working in an industry that’s still very much a boy’s club, and I’m also a West Coast city dweller singing roots music. As I’ve gotten older I am much less afraid to tell my story as I see it, and I think that shows in my songwriting.”