By Larisha Paul
"I just don't want to be a failure. That's like my biggest fear," singer-songwriter Alec Benjamin says to MTV News on a phone call from Los Angeles. "I'm being very honest with you right now."
In the past six years, the 25-year-old has amassed 218 million views on his YouTube channel, with nearly 65 million of those coming from "Let Me Down Slowly," a vulnerable plea for a soft end to a relationship. (That song has also racked up over 353 million Spotify streams.) But he began more modestly, singing and playing guitar for fans waiting outside venues where Shawn Mendes and Troye Sivan were scheduled to headline. "Sometimes it's nice if you already have some familiarity with the music to get people behind you," he says.
Before Benjamin had even released his mixtape Narrated For You in November 2018, he had already embarked on tours with Jon Bellion and Hoodie Allen. Just a few months after the tape's release, Benjamin performed one of its cuts, "Death of a Hero," at one of the final shows of his sold-out Outrunning Karma tour alongside his musical idol John Mayer. "I just texted him and asked if he would do it, and he said yes," Benjamin says. "He's just like a friend, so it was just like you would ask any other friend to do you a favor."
Benjamin also appeared on Mayer's Instagram Live show Current Mood signaling how social media has fueled his rise. So far, it's led to opportunities working with Khalid and Alessia Cara, and as he teased earlier in July, possibly Sivan in the near future. Billie Eilish shared a brief ukulele cover of Benjamin's "Water Fountain," too, and a Bryson Tiller co-sign helped start his 2019 on a high note.
Considering all this visibility matched with the singer's alluring talent as a songwriter, it's hard to understand how Benjamin could doubt his ability to succeed. But his story is even deeper. What the numbers don't reveal is how in 2013, the Arizona-born singer moved to California, secured a record deal shortly after, created an album, and was promptly dropped afterward. So he started again from scratch.
MTV News spoke with Benjamin about the whirlwind trajectory of his career, how he secured a second chance at achieving his dreams, his new single "Jesus in LA," and more.
MTV News: Did you grow up in a very musical household?
Alec Benjamin: I didn't grow up around music. I discovered music a little later in life. I had always been interested in poetry but I didn't really think about it as something that you can really do for a living. I started to get into guitar at the end of high school, because I really loved singing. I wanted to accompany myself, so I learned guitar so that I could provide a backdrop for my voice without relying on other people. That turned into [not wanting to] sing other people's songs, and so that's how I fell into it. Sometimes I think it was an accident, but then I look back and I'm like, it makes sense.
MTV News: Tell me about your transition from Phoenix to Los Angeles.
Benjamin: I went to [the University of Southern California] for a year, then I dropped out of school. I got a record deal my first year, and then I got dropped by my record label. I did a ton of shows and started over again. I made a bunch of new music, and that's how I ended up here. I played a lot of shows outside of other people's concerts. I did pretty much whatever I could to build up a fanbase and keep writing music so that when the opportunity came around that I might get a second chance, I would be ready for it.
MTV News: What happened after that experience of being signed and then dropped?
Benjamin: I didn't want to give up. Since I had left school, I didn't have a Plan B. Trying to play in front of other people's concerts, playing on the street, going into open mics – just any opportunity I got to perform, that's what I did. In six months, I'd played 160 shows, and spent the first half of 2017 writing songs. I had one song that I had re-recorded called "I Built a Friend" that did really well. That got me the attention of a few record labels. The beginning of 2018 was when I signed with Atlantic Records and I started putting out my music. I had already written a majority of the mixtape that I put out. I started putting out a song every month or so, which is what I'm starting to do again right now.
MTV News: How has being a musician caused you to have to stop outside of your comfort zone?
Benjamin: Social media is not something that I'm traditionally comfortable with, and that's part of my job. I love it because it helps me connect with so many people in different parts of the world, and provided countless opportunities for me. It changed my life completely, but at the same time there are sides of it that I don't really like. I am a really sensitive person, and there can be one small thing that can ruin my day. You have to have thick skin, and I do, but at the same time social media can sometimes really be something that's hard for me to manage. That's one of the best things and the hardest things that I do on a daily basis.
MTV News: What has been the most surreal moment of your career thus far?
Benjamin: Getting to hang out with John Mayer at his house was probably the coolest thing ever. He found my music on the Internet and reached out to me. ... ["Death of a Hero"] is his favorite song of mine, I'm pretty sure. That's the song that he found that made him become a fan of my music. ... We have a lot in common. He's been a really great sounding board for me, and my career, just giving me advice.
MTV News: What is "Jesus in LA" about?
Benjamin: This song is just about moving out to California. I feel like coming from Phoenix, and wanting to make music, there's not the same amount of opportunity afforded to you [there] versus when you live in Los Angeles. I guess I always thought that I would find happiness moving out here. I suppose in some ways I did, but I came out here and I got dropped. I ended up finding out that the things that were really important to me I had already had.