Toronto’s Justin Benlolo is a star on the rise. The 24 year old singer songwriter and his band BRKN Love are currently playing Canadian dates with Big Wreck and Monster Truck in what is a must see show for 2021/22. The band is also going in the studio this month to finish their sophomore album and have released a new single, Dead Weight. Justin talked with us at 519 during a break in their touring and gave us the lowdown.
You guys have a new single out, Dead Weight.
Yeah, just released that.
There’s a really clever video for that.
Thanks man. We actually threw it together really quickly. We had three days, literally, I mean, at the beginning of the video I turn to the camera and I say, “The label gave us three days to shoot this video.” That’s absolutely the truth.
We were in Atlanta and the label people call me and they’re like, “Hey, we’re switching the single.” because we had another song that was going to be the first single and they’re like, let’s do Dead Weight instead, you’ve got to get a video for us. I was like, “Oh, shit. Got to figure this out really quick.” and then me and my manager found this dude in Atlanta that she had known for a while and we ended up shooting it on the road on our last tour. Just really quickly rented an abandoned house and was like, alright, get a nice camera, let’s see if we can make it work.
But I think it turned out pretty good.
You just kind of roll with the punches on that one.
I’m so used to having the director give me a whole breakdown of what the scenes are all gonna look like ahead of time and then we kind of work together on what’s gonna work, what isn’t, if there’s a script, if there’s a story line.
This was just guns blazing, just showing up and hoping for the best and I’m really proud of that one.
Have you guys been touring recently, then?
We toured pretty much through July all the way up until October in the US. Then we just did Welcome to Rockville, the festival in Daytona and we did two one offs last week or something. I just got home two days ago. Now we’re just chillin for a bit and we do have some dates with Big Wreck and Monster Truck.
Before that you guys were ready to burst out on the scene with your debut album and then COVID hit last March. What was that like for you?
That sucked as much as it sucked for everybody. It was hard not to paint ourselves as the victim of it obviously because everybody had been screwed over. But, it felt kind of like we were robbed of a chance that we’ve been building up to the release of the record for a year at that point. We had done several tours back to back with only a couple singles released so we were gearing up for the big push.
Obviously nobody knew what was going to happen but we ended up putting the record out literally two and a half weeks before everything shut down. We were on tour at that time in Canada with Royal Tusk and I think the tour ended March 6 and then everything shut down a handful of days later.
I was surprised that people still checked out the album and it actually ended up streaming pretty well. I guess the upside of everybody being home all the time is that they had time to stream music. Everybody was actually sitting around listening to stuff so that was really good. But at the same time, we didn’t really get to tour or push this album that we had worked so hard to put together.
Ultimately, we ended up doing a deluxe edition of the first record because I was writing songs and what else am I going to do with all this time that’s been given to me? We did a cover of a Bishop Briggs song called ‘River’ that’s done so well for us all across the board.
We were able to breathe some new life into this existing record just so it can at least have a little bit of a push. Obviously when we did that we still couldn’t play shows or anything like that, things were still a little messy.
That’s why we just recorded some new stuff and it’s finally good timing. Everything’s opening up again. We’re playing shows again.
So we’re just kind of trucking ahead and seizing the moment.
Have you been able to record the newer material together in person? Your first album a bunch of it was recorded in a couple takes live off the floor, right?
Yeah, the first record we did it like that completely live off the floor and this new release, the first half of the record, I actually had to do remotely, I had to do it here in Toronto and then my band is in New York City so there was all this file sharing and all that kind of stuff that was super nauseating and annoying.
But we made it work.
It was kind of tough, I would have had them come up here but they didn’t have visas to come up here and then my visa ran out so I couldn’t go down to The States.
It was also peak lockdown in Toronto so you really weren’t supposed to do anything but we were able to still make it work.
We’re recording the back half of the album sometime in December after we do these shows with a Big Wreck and Monster Truck, so the boys will be up here for that.
Let’s talk a little bit about your musical journey, how it all started and came to be that you have a band in New York and you’re in Toronto. There’s an interesting story behind it all. You started playing guitar when you were 11, right?
Yeah, just about, if I remember correctly.
Did you have a lot of musical influence in your family, a lot of support that way?
I had an uncle who was a great guitar player and just all around great musician, great songwriter. He showed me how to play guitar when I was younger. That was the guy who when I was hanging around him, he showed me all the cool bands.
We used to ride down the street in his jeep when he would pick me up from school and he’d put on old KISS records, Foo Fighters, Black Label Society, Ozzy and all that kind of stuff, and he turned me on to all the rock music.
My dad loves funk and disco which I love too, but I got all the rock and roll from my uncle and I wanted to play guitar because of that.
I started singing basically on my own, nobody’s a singer in my family. I just started showing an interest when I was younger, especially when I was in middle school and I was kind of an attention whore.
I was like, alright, I want people to see me so I started auditioning for all these musicals. Slowly but surely I started getting lead roles and I was like, hold on a second, maybe I could sing. I just put those two together at some point, I was already playing guitar and then I figured out I could sing.
I’ve just been doing that ever since I was 12 and trying to write my own songs. I’ve always been interested in writing original music.
Obviously, it took years to hone the craft and to get it down to a science almost at this point, but since I was a kid I knew that’s what I wanted to do. When I was really young I knew I didn’t want to be anything in the business world or be a doctor or whatever and I’m lucky that my parents didn’t push anything or have big, high expectations for me to be in accounting or whatever, they just let me do my thing.
They saw how passionate I was and I’m just really thankful that I have a really great family.
I know how I would feel if my 16 year old was saying, “I’m going to New York to pursue my music career.” How did that happen? Obviously, your parents must have supported you; they must have felt comfortable with what you were doing.
It’s kind of a crazy little run I had. When I was 11 or 12 years old, my dad is a businessman and an entrepreneur and he works with a lot of people, and I remember one night he had a dude over and they were doing whatever and he comes up to my bedroom and says, “Hey, you’ve got to come downstairs. You’ve got to play this dude a song.”
So I went down to his office with this other dude and I played him ‘I Remember You’, the Skid Row song, and I sang for him and I didn’t think anything of it. I was 12 years old and super cocky and went to bed and then a week later he calls my dad. He ended up being a booking agent on the side as well.
I didn’t know that and he’s like, “Hey, does your son want to open for Akon in West Palm Beach?” We were like yeah of course, that’s crazy. I’ve never played a show in my life and now I’m opening for Akon and that kind of kick started the whole thing.
After we did the show, Akon’s production team signed me to a production deal and I ended up making this record in New York City when I was 12 years old with all these big producers that were mainly R&B Hip Hop guys and we made bubblegum pop,
I was 12 years old so I can’t be really rocking anybody’s face off even though that’s what I wanted to do. Just through that there’s label interest, there’s all this stuff, because that was around the time Justin Bieber had just blew up and my name was Justin. I was also from Toronto and I was a little cuter back then.
We had interest from everybody, from Disney, Sony and RCA. Then I kind of shot myself in the foot because I was like, you know what, I don’t want to do this. I want to be a rock star; I don’t want to sing bubblegum pop. And just through the motions I met a country songwriter through that, who kind of took me under his wing and started mentoring me.
We just started writing all these songs together and we became very close and my parents became very close to them as well.
He kind of convinced my parents that I needed to move to the US and try to do this for real, because when you’re young that’s the time you know, you don’t want to do this when you’re too old or else it’s not so cool anymore.
We kind of collectively decided that I should drop out of high school and move to New York City first and my parents were like, yeah, cool, go ahead. I think they saw that this was a train and I’m leaving the station whether you jump on or not. And through New York we moved to LA, and I was in LA when I was 17 years old and I put my first real rock band together out there.
It was a different project, we had different kinds of songs, it was more like 80s rock, because I loved Hair Metal growing up and I loved the shredding guitars and the really high vocals and all that kind of stuff.
Then I got signed with a different band and I had to move back to New York because I got signed by a New York label. Coincidentally everything just ended up coming back to the East Coast and then through that, I decided that the 80s rock thing wasn’t really authentic to me.
It was kind of dated. I was a little too young to be singing about sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll so I decided to do something a little bit more authentic and I pulled more from the 90s, alternative grunge kind of thing because that’s really what I like, and what I’m attracted to. I’m a big Soundgarden fan and Alice in Chains guy and Nirvana fan and all those kinds of bands so all that led up to me writing and recording the first album three or four years ago.
We actually sat on that album for a year before we found a home for it because nobody wanted to take it on which happens all the time.
Now I have to get rid of my band in LA is the other thing because now I’m on the East Coast and I can’t make everybody fly over. They have girlfriends and families and all that kind of stuff and my manager, who I found through the label that I was on.
She helped me dig through the New York scene and find a band and then that label I was on actually ended up dropping me and I had to find another record label a couple months later.
My manager had all these connections in New York City so she knew who to call when the time was right and we just did the standard audition process and all that kind of stuff and then we just started showcasing and we ended up finding a home with Spinefarm Records. We’ve been with them ever since and they’ve been so great.
You definitely caught people’s attention back when you were very young; kind of put yourself out there to get in this position. A little bit of luck and a lot whole lot of talent, right?
I guess so, that’s the thing; you’ve got to be really lucky at the end of the day. You could be the most talented person in the world, but I have some friends that are killer, like just so good, but they just haven’t been at the right place at the right time.
That’s really tough for me to answer and people are like, “Well, what do I do? How do I make this work?” I don’t really know other than write good songs and believe in the music you’re playing, because really, I just got extremely lucky. Just being at the right place and having the right person find us.
It’s probably good that you didn’t take those opportunities when you first went to the states like the whole Disney thing. I think definitely stay true to your roots.
You played Aftershock a couple years ago, that must have been quite a thrill for you. And to have Geezer Butler on stage the same day that you were playing as well. Did you get a chance to meet Geezer?
No, all those like bigger guys had their own little sections or most of the dudes would pull up before their set and then after the set get back in their black Escalade and leave. It was really cool. We didn’t get to hang with a lot of the bigger bands but I got to see Tool that night, which was cool. We basically shared a stage with Tool which was unbelievable.
Just the other day we played Rockville in Daytona and I didn’t get to hang with these guys but I walked right by Randy Blythe from Lamb Of God. I saw all the Offspring dudes, they were next door at the next change room. It was pretty cool just to see that and be side stage watching Disturbed. It’s just cool being this kid from the suburbs of Toronto and now I’m side stage, basically sharing the stage with The Offspring, right?
The doors are opening for you now and that’s really your wheelhouse that music. You definitely have the alternative sound, but the rock influence is really in there too. Like Flies in The Honey, I love that song. I saw a video of you guys playing it in a club somewhere and you segued into War Pigs? It was the perfect fit.
Well, thanks, man. We’re huge Black Sabbath fans and it’s funny when we do that song live, so many people come up to me at the merch table after and go, “You don’t know man, the whole time I’m thinking these guys have to play Sabbath.” and then we do it. I guess people are already seeing the influence there which is amazing.
It’s nice when people name the bands that we think we sound like because then I think that means we’re doing the right thing.
You have a lot of songs written and recorded now then?
Yeah, the second record is pretty much almost done. We’re going to record it mid December right after we do these shows and then I’m not sure when we’re going to release it but we do have some singles that are already recorded that we’re probably going to drop incrementally across the next couple of months.
What’s the writing process like now? Your first album you wrote over two or three years in your teen years before you had the band that you have now. Does the band you have now take part in writing too? Are you guys a real unit now?
We tried to do that on this release but I guess the problem was that we were all at home and we were trying to do all this file sharing through Google Drive and Dropbox and then recording stuff and sending it to each other.
It just proved to be too difficult for me to handle because of the disconnect of not working with somebody in real time.
Something that could take four hours now was taking two weeks so I just kind of ended up taking the reins at a certain point because the label was pressing me and I was getting all this pressure to throw something together.
So I essentially ended up just writing it again in my bedroom just because it was so difficult to try and do the file sharing thing. When we get in a room together and the band jams, we can come up with a sweet idea in 20 minutes.
I’m not a good engineer, I’m not really good at recording myself. I let producers do that job for me. I feel like I’m kind of technologically deficient or something like that, I just don’t do it very well. I still write all my lyrics in a notebook, I don’t even type it out.
I still like to do all that kind of stuff so I ended up just writing the record myself again and you know, we’re gonna try stuff for sure.
We wanted to do the record together but in the interest of time, in the interest of just getting something together, I think I have to just rein it in and get it going.
Has you’re writing changed now from your first album written as a teenager? You’ve had a whole lot of life experience the last few years, has that changed your writing in any way?
Yeah, for sure. I find now I don’t question myself as much when I was younger. A lot of the process of writing that first album was getting good songs.
Beginning to write songs was really difficult because I was still trying to figure out the direction we were going to go and musically how I wanted to be portrayed, you know, the aesthetic of the band and all these kinds of things I was considering at the time.
There was still a large part that I was just discovering and that’s why it took so long, because I couldn’t really figure out what lane I was going into.
At this point it’s a lot more concrete. I know who we are, who I am, I don’t really have to dig anymore to find the sound just because I’m confident in whatever we do and I’m sure of the songs I’m writing.
For the first record I wrote 80 or 90 songs, a ridiculous amount of songs. Now because I’ve been doing it for a lot longer and sort of practicing, I find that songwriting is like playing tennis, the more you do it, the better you’re gonna get at it.
For this new release, instead of writing 80 songs, I wrote 10, and then six of them ended up being recorded for the first half because I don’t have to second guess what the sound is gonna be anymore. I know if I’m singing it and we’re playing it, it’s gonna sound like BRKN Love.
We took a few liberties on the second record; we’re trying to push the envelope just a little bit more.
We obviously can’t release the same record twice so even with that in mind and trying something a little different, I’m less fazed by it. I feel as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that people aren’t as pretentious as I thought when it comes to their musical opinion.
When I was younger, in high school, if somebody likes a band that you hate, you’re like, Dude, you’re a loser. You know, that band sucks. Blah blah, blah. Now my musical maturity, I don’t have to like the band that you listen to, you’re not defined by the music that you listen to anymore or even if you are, I’m not gonna judge you because of it, because it doesn’t really matter.
In high school I couldn’t stand hanging out with people who listened to One Direction or something like that, but now I don’t care.
I’m not as worried about putting something out into the world that might not be for everybody because if I like it, and that’s all that matters, I would just say I’m more sure of myself.
I think your best stuff is going to be created that way too. You’re not holding back on anything.
Yeah, and that’s how it has to be. If I like it and it feels right, I’m gonna do it. I’m not making music for somebody else.
I’m making music for me at the end of the day.
For more about BRKN Love, visit www.brknlove.com.