Pop: A day in the life of Eric Benet

Life has been tough on this soul singer - deaths, depression, creative block - but now, with a great new album, things are looking up.
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Cosmopolitan has asked Eric Benet to follow the example of Lenny Kravitz and consent to be one of its naked centrefolds. He's thinking about it. We're talking in Warner Bros Records' HQ in West London, ostensibly about his very good second album A Day in the Life, but what's really playing on his mind is the fact that his current European promotional tour has kept him apart from his daughter India for three weeks. Since the death of her mother, Eric's former girlfriend Tami, in a car accident five-and-a-half years ago, the child, now seven, has been raised by her father alone, in between his increasingly successful attempts to build a career as a soul star.

"She's the main reason why I still live in Milwaukee," he explains, adding that it is his own mother who provides the permanence that makes much of his pop life possible. "I record in Philadelphia... Los Angeles... play all over the world, but when I get back home I like to keep all the things that surround her as calm and uneventful as possible. OK, sometimes - not often - I have just taken her out of school for a week and done lessons with her just so we could be together. But, y'see, the older she gets, the more evident it is that she's the single most important thing that's happened to me."

These are hardly the words of the typical soul luurve god/ Wildebeeste clone, mainly because 29-year-old Benet is anything but. His may be the chiselled chin and hooded eyes that have of late reputedly caught the eye of the actress Halle Berry, but his approach to music-making recalls the more subtly introspective moments of Wonder, Hathaway and Gaye than any of his overtly sex- obsessed R&B contemporaries. And that's just the way he likes it.

"I guess it kinda puts my private life on the line a little," he muses, "but, hey, if you're a carpenter you know you're gonna hit your thumb with the hammer once in a while. It's an occupational hazard. The only way for me to express myself properly is to expose myself completely. Like Marvin, sometimes I put my business out on the street."

On his first album, True to Myself, released in '96, the song that most did that was "While You Were Here", a piece he wrote on the emotional and physical hole left by Tami's death. His father's demise from cancer, India's birth and then the dropping of his first band, Benet, by EMI Records after just one failed album, had already provided Eric with an eventful 18 months when Tami's accident put her into a five-day coma from which she never emerged. Benet sank into a two-year depression which only his relationship with his daughter prevented from verging on the terminal.

"It really was the hardest thing I've ever gone through," he admits. "Even losing my father, as traumatic as that was, didn't hurt as much because... well, at least when we knew he was dying we all - my mom, my two sisters, my brother - got the chance to say goodbye. Tami and I weren't actually together at the time she died - I was seeing India every weekend - but the feelings of guilt, remorse, bereavement, depression just took over. Hearing India call my name when I came home from work at the end of the day felt like all I had to hang on to."

During a period which he describes as "creatively empty", Benet worked shifts at UPS mixed in with a little studio engineering for local Milwaukee bands laying demos. Then, at last, his own musical ideas began to flow again. With his cousin George Nash, an accomplished guitarist, and buddy Demonte Posey, a keyboard player and programmer, he demo'd three songs and sent them to Warners. They signed him in a moment.

Unbeknown to Eric, his organic, Seventies-influenced soul style had happened to come along at just the time America's major record companies were looking for an alternative to the groove-heavy, jack-swing derivatives of Teddy Riley and Jodeci that had all but swamped R&B radio in the early Nineties. D'Angelo's Brown Sugar set came out when Eric himself was in mid-album. Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite launched shortly before True To Myself was put on the release schedule. So-called "nu classic soul" had arrived.

Benet's first single, "Spiritual Thang", was a top 10 R&B hit. While the album didn't break any sales records, it still figured on many critics' "Best Of" lists at the end of '96. Now, with Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill taking the last two Grammys for Best R&B Newcomer, and a flotilla of more instrumentally inclined black singer/ songwriters on the horizon - BMG's Angie Stone and Cherokee, Universal's Grenique, Sony's Frank McComb - and keenly awaited follow-up projects from both Badu and D'Angelo expected before the flash of the first millennium firecracker, the time may have come for Eric Benet. And the all-round strength and musical maturity evident on A Day in the Life suggests that he realises it.

"I got an album with Roy Ayers playing vibes on it, with Faith Evans and Me'Shell Ndegeocello singing on it, with producers like Wyclef Jean from the Fugees and Something For The People contributing to it... that some people are telling me is gonna win Grammys. If you'd have told me five years ago that I would even be in this business, let alone recording music that I could feel proud of, I'd have made you an appointment with a psychoanalyst. I got to be glad I stuck around."

Eric Benet's single 'Georgy Porgy' is released this week. 'A Day in the Life' is released on 3 May