“Woke up feeling good so I’m writing this song / That was a lie, I didn’t sleep at all.” That’s how Clara Benin matter-of-factly begins the song ‘Imposter Syndrome’. As a briskly plucked guitar line ascends into bright synths and feathery harmonies, she details being down in the dumps and plagued with self-doubt – but nevertheless persisting. “These days, I’m not liking myself / Do I just fake it till I make it? I’m afraid I never will,” Benin sings. “Life is strange but I’ll just ride it out anyway”.
‘Imposter Syndrome’ is track one of the Filipino artist’s emotionally articulate second LP ‘Befriending My Tears’ – a project that she started anxiously chipping away at the onset of the pandemic. It’s now out in the world, nearly a decade after her folk-acoustic breakout debut ‘Human Eyes’. So, of course, the singer-songwriter has been putting extra pressure on herself.
“I feel like there’s always tension inside of me whenever I write songs,” Benin tells NME as she prepares for her album’s live launch this Friday (September 22) at the Music Museum. VIP tickets to the 700-seater venue have already sold out and the 29-year-old artist is over the moon – exactly the opposite of how she felt starting the record. “I was feeling so insecure when I was writing this album. It’s been eight years since my last full-length, so I thought, ‘How do I do this? Does anyone even care? Will it still matter?’”
Benin grew up around songs that mattered to a wide set of listeners. Her dad (Side A’s Joey Benin) happened to play bass for a seminal OPM band (’90s pop earworm ‘Forevermore’ still remains a karaoke mainstay). Clara carved out her own path by penning folksy Joni Mitchell-indebted confessionals that intersected with the rhythmic guitar pop geekery of John Mayer. “My approach then was very bare and traditional: acoustic guitar, bass and drums. But I never would have picked up a guitar if not for these two musicians,” she says.
Benin went on to hone her craft at Elements Music Camp, the songwriting stable that produced alums like Reese Lansangan, Ben&Ben, and Bullet Dumas. Then after self-releasing ‘Human Eyes’, she shifted from acoustic to electric, dropping singles between albums and basking in slow, melancholy balladry in her 2020 EP ‘Fragments’. Benin also took time to collaborate with her peers, as in the hopeful lockdown anthem ‘A Day At A Time’ with Gentle Bones.
“Indie is very vast. It can be a lot of things. And I think I have also been a lot of things through the years,” Benin says, reflecting on her discography. “I really don’t want to box myself [in] as a girl with an acoustic guitar.”
“I was that killjoy kid the others would roll their eyes at: ’Oh, she’s crying again’. And I felt ashamed, that it was weak of me to cry”
On ‘Befriending My Tears’, Benin deliberated taking several songwriting routes. “Should I go with my real feelings or do I talk about something else? Do I tell myself it’s OK? Or should I tell myself it’s not OK? Because sometimes both are valid,” she says.
Benin manages all these self-interrogations at onces, processing them into tracks that articulate both sorrow and verve. “How long until I come undone / feels like I’m the only one trying too hard… Look at me I’m still alive / Kicking and screaming on the inside / Every second, every borrowed breath / A miracle in itself,” she sings in ‘Keep Still’. In ‘Darling I’ve Been There’, Benin offers empathetic relief to anyone in a slump: “I’m all ears and my judgment is love / I won’t let you get stuck in a rut / cause darling I’ve been there / So, get up, take my hand, let’s run.”
Most of the songs are “glimpses into her journal entries,” Benin says. Others are fictional narratives rooted in autobiography. In ‘Small Town’, for instance, she recalls her teen years in a tight-knit Bacolod neighborhood, where she imagines constant, painful run-ins with an old boyfriend. Details linger on throughout the record – the bristly sand between her toes, listening to Joni Mitchell on a midnight flight, crying in the car after an ex buys latte from a favourite café – diaristic details that hold deeper insights. In ‘Blink’, Benin sighs about a love-hate relationship with the beach, ultimately borne out of her inability to stay present and relax. She concludes: “In a blink of an eye / This could all be gone / So I take my time / And just have fun”.
“I do have a problem relaxing. I’m one of those people,” Benin concedes, grinning as she bobs her head yes. “I don’t know. Sometimes just telling yourself to take time and have fun is so simple but you have to constantly remind yourself.”
These moments of lyrical levity are paired with airy arrangements: breathy harmonies, melodic synths, and an overall production sensibility evocative of Phoebe Bridgers. “Sonically, I wanted the album to still comfort you in some way, even though parts of it are heavy,” Benin says. She was initially supposed to work with a sole producer (former collaborator Fran “theRingmaster” Lorenzo), but ended up enlisting three others to execute her vision: One Click Straight’s Sam Marquez, Tim Marquez aka timothy Run, and her partner, the multi-instrumentalist Gabba Santiago.
“I treated this album in a sacred way, and it got to where I want it to be with the help of people I trust. I’m happy with how it came out,” Benin says. “Listening back to it now, it’s not as heavy as when I was first writing it.”
“I wanted the album to still comfort you in some way, even though parts of it are heavy”
Despite the record’s title, Benin says she’s still trying to redefine her relationship with tears, tied as they are to notions of fragility. “Growing up, I was that killjoy kid the other kids would roll their eyes at: ’Oh, she’s crying again’. And I felt ashamed, that it was weak of me to cry, and I carried that shame with me.”
As she grew into an adult navigating life’s constant curveballs, Benin has taken on a different perspective.: “I think it’s important for everyone to have that little cry session maybe once a week if needed,” she says with a laugh. “Depends on your threshold, I guess. But yeah, that was a really big realisation for me in the process of making this album – that it’s OK to cry. We’re all trying to heal our inner child.”