Brooke Bentham: How the South Shields star smashed writer’s block for her spectacular, devastating debut album 

Brooke Bentham has mixed emotions when she describes her debut album, ‘Everyday Nothing’. Whilst she cannot hide her excitement about its upcoming release, she’s also aware of the struggle it has taken to get here. She singles out one line from album standout, ‘Keep It Near’ to sum it all up. “Every day falls apart / It’s everyday nothing. That was the line which really captured what my life was like when I was trying to write the album,” Brooke tells NME over the phone from her London home. “I could no longer write; I was close to giving it all up.”

A woozy hybrid of grunge and shoegaze where the indie rock of Eric’s Trip meets the ethereal dream-pop of the Cocteau Twins, the song captures the creative slump the 23-year old Bentham found herself in after she graduated from university. Bentham was certain she’d write and release her debut album soon after her studies ended. The reality, however, was crushingly different. “I didn’t write a single song for the best part of two years,” Bentham sighs. “I had fuck all to write about.”

The contrast to the abundant output at the start of her career couldn’t have been starker. Alongside her studies in Popular Music at Goldsmiths, Bentham released a critically acclaimed single in her first year and two EPs during her second. She signed a record deal soon after and a string of festival bookings followed.

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There were heady comparisons to Angel Olsen and Yo La Tengo from critics and Sam Fender, who she met in her native South Shields at an open mic night, used her stripped-back, acoustic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In the Dark’ at his shows – he does tell everyone it’s hers though, she laughs. Yet after university ended, Brooke couldn’t translate any of her ideas into formulated songs.

“I was just lying in bed every day and just watching television. I couldn’t write and I felt like a piece of shit,” she tells NME. Bentham filled notebooks with snatches of lyrics and sketches of songs – but nothing more. “In my head, I was the most productive person in the world but my attempt at writing during this time never resulted in any songs whatsoever,” Brooke says. “I would write snippets here and there, but they’d be the same snippets over and over again. You have to have so much self-discipline to write songs every day and I just didn’t have that. I thought I did, but I didn’t.”  

Whilst Bentham has a tendency to be overly self-critical, her frustration stemmed from trying – and failing – to find a practical way to overcome her creative block. The tone of ‘Keep It Near’ is drenched in this frustration, especially when Bentham delivers the ambiguous line: “I left my mouth to become yours.” This isn’t an ode to a lover, she explains, but a reference to giving herself over to music entirely – and getting nothing back in return. “It’s my most vulnerable song because it’s about my relationship with music. It’s about me surrendering myself to the music entirely but then getting absolutely nothing from it,” she says. 

The reality of being a full-time songwriter was at odds with how she imagined it: Bentham soon started to feel something that resembled depression. “I felt very empty and very numb. There wasn’t a ‘sadness’ to it, there was a ‘nothingness’ to it, which I guess is what people say depression is. I don’t know if I would ever say I had depression, but it definitely felt like it.”

How did she get to the point of being able to write again? “Slowly. I managed to take myself out of it, but it was probably a year before I even started getting myself up and out of the house. I was just sick of it,” she says. The first step came when Bentham recognised that she needed to break the monotonous daily cycle she found herself in. Exercising and getting two part-time jobs in retail gave her day structure; gradually, her mental health started to improve. Reading poetry – she cites Sylvia Plath and Carol Ann Duffy as touchstones – also helped to keep her creative brain active. Soon, Bentham found herself once again appreciating the time she had to write again, rather than hating it. “It started to become a little bit more like magic again,” Bentham explains, although it was a while before the songs were eventually written. “They didn’t just fall on my lap. It took a very long time.” 

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Another issue, as she describes on the album’s 90’s leaning, grungy lo-fi single, ‘All My Friends Are Drunk’, was missing her South Shields home as she forged a new life in London. “I was looking back at who I was then and where I was at now and how much I’d changed,” she says. The song remembers the “Stir of the Tyne / after the Cumberland” – a reference to the pub she’d visit with her dad. 

Recalling her early influences helped her to find some direction again. She remembers her dad playing The Beatles around their home and her three older brothers played everything from the dream-pop of ELO to the folk of Bob Dylan and the cool Parisian electronica of Air. “There was no music scene in South Shields at all,” Brooke laughs. “Bands hardly ever really came to Newcastle, so it was really hard to actually get to gigs and hear music. I found a lot of music through the rise of Tumblr,” Brooke says, recalling how the forum led her to discover hundreds of musicians. “I think that was a big part of me kind of becoming my own musician and writing songs and things. I found artists like Angel Olsen, Sufjan Stevens and Yo La Tengo through it and it changed everything.”

Whilst getting to gigs may have been hard in South Shields, Bentham did find a place on the pub circuit playing open mic nights. It’s here where she met and became friends with Sam Fender. “We became good friends, gave each other advice and helped each other along, I think. When I first moved to London and started playing gigs, I looked to Sam for advice in terms of how to navigate it all.” 

Thinking back to the simplicity of her early gigging days also helped her rethink the way she was writing songs, but it was a meeting with producer and co-founder of The Coral, Bill Ryder-Jones that proved the biggest turning point. Helping her to persist with ideas rather than abandoning them, the two ventured into the studio over Christmas two years ago. Gradually, the songs started to appear and Bentham once again found her voice. “I’d never worked with a guitarist before,” Brooke says. “Working with Bill was exciting: he made it fun to make music again. He taught me to persevere rather than give up, which I think is what I was doing.” 

The breakthrough came after she and Ryder-Jones finished ‘My Baby Lungs’ which gave them the blueprint for the album’s woozy, Pavement-like aesthetic. “Bill and I made a playlist for each other before we started working together and that definitely helped. When I saw his list it definitely made me trust him more,” Bentham says. “We’ve got very similar tastes, but he introduced me to older 90’s bands who I didn’t know whereas I brought in more modern influences and we met in the middle.” Ryder-Jones introduced Bentham to Pavement and Eric’s Trip, with the latter being played in the studio often.  

Eventually, Bentham wrote well over thirty songs, her creative block well and truly smashed. After choosing eleven for the album, Bentham took the line ‘Everyday Nothing’ from ‘Keep It Real’ as the album’s title when it became clear that all the songs were a chronicle of an artist searching for meaning and purpose, of making something out of the everyday and nothing, of living in an everyday nothing herself. Now, she’s keen to keep the momentum going. “I want to have my second album written by the end of the year… now that I’m writing again, I don’t want it to end again.” 

Sam Fender invited Bentham to support him on tour this year, so too did Soccer Mommy – aka US indie hero, Sophie Allison. “I definitely have imposter syndrome,” Bentham, once again self-critical, says of both. Bentham also has another very famous fan too in the shape of Iggy Pop, who played her song on his radio show and singled her out for special praise. “It was so surreal listening to Iggy Pop say my name in his dead gravelly voice,” Bentham laughs.

“I’ve got two part-time jobs still and I’m keeping them,” Bentham says, still mindful of her need for routine. “I just want to keep doing music for me to keep myself going. I’ve stopped thinking of music as a job…I’ve got to have the mindset that this is still a hobby.” The moment she starts thinking of this as her job, Bentham starts to shut down creatively. “I think I’d destroy myself if I did that,” Bentham says. “I need the structure of something else everyday otherwise nothing would come. I’d be well and truly back in an everyday nothing.”

Brooke Bentham’s debut album ‘Everyday Nothing’ is out Feb 28 via AllPoints

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