Even an alternative roots rocker as adventurous as Benjamin Jaffe occasionally dips his toe into the mainstream. But he really prefers to take a perilous plunge into the deep end.
He’s certainly not playing it safe by resuming a solo career with the 11 May release of Oh, Wild Ocean of Love. For the co-founder and guitar star of delicious duo HoneyHoney, this thrilling jump into the danger zone by Jaffe comes — just in case — with a life preserver in the form of a cable TV sitcom.
Jaffe, discussing his latest projects with equal delight on the phone while walking through the streets of Los Angeles in late April, suggested that his solo return — playing almost every instrument and handling all the sublime lead vocals — was more out of necessity than desperation.
His HoneyHoney partner, vivacious lead singer and multi-instrumentalist Suzanne Santo, made the first move by deciding in 2016 to record and tour with Butch Walker, then making her own debut album that he produced.
“I had this really, actually, tumultuous but stabilizing thing,” Jaffe said of the duo’s relationship. “And I liked that. I wanted that, and that fulfilled enough in me, so I wasn’t screaming out to sing. It was like, ‘OK, this feels good. This feels like I’m building something important. But then it turned out that this was, this move that Suze took first and then I took, has been the most stabilizing thing. You know, that was the choice. To confront the kind of individual path was something that we both needed to do in order to manage being around each other.”
A few minutes later, he added with a laugh, “She was right to take that opportunity. I think if she had tried to force HoneyHoney into it, this would have been a fucking disaster.”
Photo courtesy of the artist
Ten years after
A decade together with HoneyHoney left Jaffe and Santo at opposite ends of the same tug-of-war rope. While achieving some success with three full-length albums and attracting crowds of 300 to 600 people as headliners in mid-sized venues across the country, it was hard to overcome the disappointment associated with their third record. Aptly titled 3, it was produced by Dave Cobb and released in June 2015 on Rounder Records. Signing with such a formidable label brought initial promise that faded away quickly as Jaffe said decisions were made and money was spent without much of HoneyHoney’s input.
“We weren’t having an easy task into making what would have been our fourth record,” Jaffe said of the fallout with Rounder despite generally positive reviews. (HoneyHoney topped my list of Music’s Fantastic 15 of 2015 for the Huffington Post, with Favorite Group Interview, Best Duo of the Year and Best Concert of the Year, which was at Denver’s Bluebird Theater a week before their last release.) “It was just, we were fucking burned out from 3.”
Realizing the record “wasn’t a raving success” while maybe earning the label “a couple bucks” after making the hardest push of their career, Jaffe said HoneyHoney and Rounder mutually agreed to part ways. “It just didn’t move the way that we wanted, or they wanted,” he added. “We didn’t have a great relationship with them. It just wasn’t a really comfortable time; you know what I mean? …
“Every time we’ve been signed, I try and just sit down and talk to the people running the ship. And at least suss them out but, in a dream world, be treated like collaborators. You know, that’s what I wanted for so long and still want. I don’t think I would accept it any other way at this point.”
So Santo’s decision to play violin and sing on Walker’s 2016 Stay Gold, then make her own record was “absolutely the right thing to do,” according to Jaffe, who didn’t feel blindsided. But left to wonder about the future of HoneyHoney, he was forced to explore his next move if the band was no longer an option.
“When Suze did her solo record, that kind of happened quick. It was like, ‘Oh, shit, this is happening.’ And I scrambled around. I was like, ‘Well, I gotta do fucking something.’ Because … there’s all these kind of ecosystems of musicians,” he said. “Like people were touring … then there’s also people who are playing in other [people’s] bands. And then composers working for TV and film, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So those are all worlds you can kind of dip into. I just thought, ‘I’m not trying to do that.’ I’m not very interested in being in somebody else’s band right now. So I gotta build a community around myself.”
Benjamin Jaffe is reintroducing himself as a solo artist. “Like an overture,” he said. “I used to call it the do-overture.” / Photo courtesy of the artist
Jaffe, who did make a guest appearance with Ruby Boots at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater the night of this interview, almost felt like he was 19 again. Back then, he worked on his first project called Black Tie Society with Todd Averback (aka T-O Double), a producer and engineer who later collaborated with Santo, then introduced her to Jaffe at a Halloween party in 2006. Jaffe remembers those days as a solo performer in L.A. when “I used to get so nervous I would throw up before shows.”
Almost 33 now, Jaffe relied on other musical comrades he had come to know over the years such as (“real pro sideman guys”) Howard Feibusch (whose band Howard has released three albums) and Erik Kertes (working with popular mainstream acts such as Shakira and Michael Buble). They share producing credits with him on Oh, Wild Ocean of Love (Diamond Family Records). The wonderfully weird 10-track collection of funky sounds, risky moves, romantic notions, intriguing transitions and mysterious lyrics (don’t that feel good to say, finally dropping that weight down / sweet like honey but it tastes different now) was basically recorded in a week, with most of the finishing touches added in August 2016.
Though he expresses no particular connection with — or fandom fondness for — artists like the Who or Todd Rundgren, elements of their daring work can be found on the first two numbers — the 41-second “Conversation Piece” (check out the intro to “Armenia City in the Sky” on The Who Sell Out) and “Everlasting Piece” (deep blue-eyed soul that feels like it belongs on Rundgren’s best (and mostly unheralded) ballads of the early ’70s.
Asked if he considered himself to be a romantic, Jaffe laughed, wondering if musicians of that ilk still exist after Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley departed.
“I can’t tell if that part of me is withering and dying yet. (laughs) I do … I mean … it’s been like a long process of slowly … I’m moving more away from those kind of feelings but I’ll definitely recognize them, where I used to just take them as, I don’t know, truth or reality or whatever,” he said. “Basically, I didn’t come at it from an inquisitive place, I just felt that way. I mean, I love that kind of … I love romantic music, for the most part.”
Of course, his truly original record includes much more than declarations of affection and defection crossbred with a wild imagination. There are colorful aural collages filled with the distorted voices of his “super-supportive” parents Marc and Vivienne Jaffe, Bahamian folk, old-timey country-western, and an effectively weepy pedal steel played by his friend Drew Taubenfeld on “Susan the Cat,” which is, Jaffe promises, about a one-eyed feline that “really made me laugh.”
Describing his record as sort of a mixed tape that feels “like a continuous piece,” Jaffe hopes it serves as a reintroduction to his solo career. “Like an overture,” he said. “I used to call it the do-overture.”
What followed its completion were a few solo shows and supporting gigs that animate this experiment in terror by its madly inventive creator.
After playing this March in southern Louisiana, where concertgoers confused him with the other Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (hence his decision to go back publicly to his birth name Benjamin), and opening for Dead Horses in the Midwest, Solo Ben said, “It was like I’m taking a dinghy out and trying to cross the Atlantic Ocean. … It’s like refreshing but also very daunting. … I’m really kind of having to build up from the bottom. … Obviously, I have the network that we built from HoneyHoney and a lot of friends, but as far as like a fan base, it’s not really there. So I’m just like slugging it out again. …
“There’s almost been guilt I felt over the years at not having played like the pitiful bar gigs to six people who aren’t paying attention to you. I haven’t really done much of that … you know, as a frontman. So I kind of got a kick out of it a lot of the time. I’m not saying I’d want to continually do it but I think it’s an important experience.”
Yet, while Solo Ben enjoys “waking up that part of me that expresses me” and singing what he calls his “me songs,” HoneyHoney Ben seems more suited to be a team player — as long as he can share the coaching reins, too.
“I love being part of a team. I really do, and that’s maybe the hardest thing about this solo thing is that I don’t really like not having a partner,” he said, all the while knowing he never wanted to prevent Santo from going her own way. “But it doesn’t have to be a musical partner, that’s the thing. I need somebody in the trench with me because I don’t like to be alone all day, every day. But this record, it was kind of like, ‘OK, fuck, this is why I got into this.’ Because I like painting and I like choosing my colors.”
Benjamin Jaffe and Suzanne Santo form the alt-Americana duo HoneyHoney / Photo by Marina Chavez
Funny side of fate
Do two singles going at it alone paint a prettier picture than a double-barreled blast from a little toy gun, though? Fate acts in strange ways and must have wanted to somehow, someway keep HoneyHoney together, despite the long odds facing them.
They had singer-songwriting credentials, undeniable charisma, bubbling (and sometimes combustible) chemistry, rock-solid musicianship and a kick-ass live act to match performers who became, for whatever reason, more popular draws. Jason Isbell, Margo Price, and Grace Potter were just a few who transcended the alt-Americana world (thanks maybe to a few music awards, late-night TV appearances and better record sales). HoneyHoney ran out of gas trying to keep up and wanted to know what it would take to get ahead. A hiatus, though, had the potential danger to develop into something more permanent for a splitting image.
“But it’s so weird what happened,” Jaffe said, “because the second we took a break, the second we were like, ‘You know what? We gotta just step away from this. Let it breathe and see what happens,’ we get this call, that’s like, ‘Hey, you want to be on this TV show?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God! OK!’ ”
The show was The Guest Book, a zany half-hour series that debuted last summer on TBS and became the highest-rated new comedy on cable. A music supervisor working for series creator Greg Garcia (My Name Is Earl, Raising Hope) wanted HoneyHoney to record the show’s theme song, along with 10 covers that they would perform to wrap up each episode.
Jaffe asked if they could contribute some of their own songs, got the approval and he and Santo will return in their same roles for Season 2, which began shooting in the first week of May.
“So that’s kind of kept us working together in a way that we … I don’t know,” Jaffe said. “I don’t know what would’ve happened if it wasn’t for The Guest Book.”
The good news is that HoneyHoney will tour together this summer and there are tentative plans to eventually make that fourth record, though another strange twist of fate could get in the way.
Meanwhile, Jaffe, who plans to start working on a second solo record after the tour, said everything’s “good” between him and Santo, whose 2017 release Ruby Red landed on my top 17 of ’17 list.
“It’s an amazing record,” said Jaffe, who played electric guitar and sang harmony on some HoneyHoney songs when Santo’s first solo tour ended with a couple of Colorado shows in January. “I thought there’s no reason why that record wasn’t up with anybody else’s record in the Americana world or anything like that. That’s something that kind of leaves me scratching my head sometimes.”
I addressed that subject in a PopMatters article after seeing Santo and Price play in the Denver-Boulder area around the same time. Santo gave it her all at Globe Hall in Denver, but the turnout on a cold Sunday night was disappointing. Price played at packed venues in Boulder and Denver on successive nights in February.
There’s no question who Jaffe will always be itching to see.
“So Suze does her record and I just think, ‘OK, this is a record with … it sounds great,” he said. “She sings the shit out of it, she’s beautiful, she has all these kind of elements where people over the years have been like, ‘She’s a star.’ And for whatever reason, it’s like, I guess not enough people picked it up. But I’m being kind of narrow-minded. Like who knows what’s gonna happen? It still could happen. Absolutely. At any point. For anybody who’s making good stuff. But I’m just kind of like, ‘Jesus, this is kind of what you people are are looking for.’ ” (laughs)
That sounds like a voice of reason, believing there’s safety in numbers, determined to keep everyone on board while the boat is still afloat.
Godspeed, HoneyHoney, no matter which route you decide to take.
Michael Bialas is a journalist and photographer who enjoys writing about entertainment and sports for a number of online publications, including PopMatters and No Depression. Follow him on Twitter: @mjbialas
Benjamin Jaffe’s music video for “Dominator,” from his new album Oh, Wild Ocean of Love: