The Los Angeles-based musical duo of Jack and Benny Lipson, twin brothers who write songs, make music and perform together and with friends as the band jackbenny, will make their New York City debut at The Duplex in Greenwich Village 7 PM Nov. 9. Their vibe is hard to explain. Think acoustic alt-folk with a pop and show tune twist on topics including (as the brothers say) “resistance, identity and happiness.” Their gig is called Happiness Is Trending: jackbenny Sings jackbenny.
Until now, the brothers have mostly played venues in Los Angeles — like the Hotel Cafe, the Bootleg and the Satellite, plus full acoustic sets in Portland, OR, and Moab, UT. A handful of their songs were also heard at the tail-end of a reading presentation of their 20-minute musical Miranda, Please! in September at Wyoming Theater Festival. There was also a trip earlier this year to Myanmar, which the boys chronicled in a blog post. Benny usually takes his ukulele along, so their songs were heard in the former Burma.
“In a compartmentalizing world insisting to preach fear,” the twentysomething Lipson brothers “strive to spread —a love of unconditional diversity over the globe.” That’s how the Bohemian brothers characterize their mission.
I first met the gifted pair when they were the two-man band of a workshop production of Mark Saltzman’s swell vest-pocket musical Another Roll of the Dice (with songs by Frank Loesser) at Wyoming Theater Festival in September. Jack was on piano and musical director and arranger, with Benny on bass. (For the Duplex gig, Michael Piolet will join them on drums.)
“The Duplex evening showcases about an hour of exclusively our original songs that unfold in a variety of styles, from traditional songbook to modern jazz to prog rock and more,” Jack told me. “We link this sonic range through the storytelling of tunes’ lyrics, all which tackle social/cultural phenomena like closeted queer identity, androcentrism, monogamy, and the constant barrage of ‘news.’ We believe if we do not actively counteract the favoritist, segregating narratives vomited today, we are complicit with their domination; while some peers are standout journalists — and others make beautiful posters and burn their bras at rallies — we find we can best contribute musically.”
My translation: it’s catchy stuff that makes you smile and think.
The Duplex Cabaret Theatre is at 61 Christopher Street at the corner of Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village. Get ticket information here.
Songs by jackbenny are available on Spotify, iTunes and most other streaming platforms, including YouTube. Searching “jackbenny” works in Spotify; “jackbenny band” or “jackbenny twins” works on YouTube. There’s also a jackbenny page Facebook.
In anticipation of their NYC gig, the brothers Lipson answered a slew of my questions about their music and their lives.
How do you describe your sound?
Jack Lipson: The inevitable query. We now describe jackbenny as a “musical theater band” or “project.” We focus primarily on storytelling, and create the music that serves those moments most faithfully. Since theater music covers myriad genres from legit to rock to (now) hip-hop, this usually entices the questioner to hear more.
Benny Lipson: Our sound is jackbenny. In the past I’ve used terms like Progressive-Pop; in today’s industry music climate, you can take any adjective and stick it in front of a genre and a music exec somehow understands it. Fluffy Punk? Smoky Nu-Wave? When we first began the project jackbenny, we agreed that no one style could represent our sound, so our catalog is an amalgamation of many styles. I believe more musicians would play multiple styles if 1) they were competent enough, 2) if they could find a marketable approach to many genres.
Can you point to content or subjects that your songs have in common?
Jack Lipson: The songs feel so inextricably connected to one another but now that I’m reviewing the lyrics I’m troubling to pinpoint what exactly that is. Media is usually selling us on how evil and despairing the world is, and our songs often strive to declaim that. One tune, “Happiness is Trending” outlines generalities regarding an upsurge in happiness in business-meeting argot; another “(Everybody Ought To Be) A Little More Like You” details the little yet positively indelible interaction I had with a server at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs. They’re songs arriving at inner comfort and happiness too: “The Only Person,” without spoiling the punchline, lists many kinds of professionals on whom we often mistakenly rely to change our lives, while “It’s Not Cool (To Be Cool Anymore)” — well, the title speaks for itself. More specifically we write tunes that pertain to arriving at queer identity, from angles of both pride and shame. I guess in summary the capitalist media hopes to foment sadness, solitude, and instability within you so you want (to buy) more things to quench the human quest for fulfillment; our songs resist this folly.
Benny Lipson: Our music is definitely strung together by its lyrical content. We’d both played in local bands prior to writing together that had nothing to say in their songs. At least I couldn’t hear a voice. We’d traveled a lot together, read literature, met amazing friends across the country and understood we needed to organize our views of the world, and what better way than using music! The songs generally comment on how to be a happy, comfortable human while including everyone else’s happiness and individuality. Ten songs fit in the concept of the record “Happiness Is Trending” and others fit into an album not yet complete called “The Brainstorm” and a few fit into an EP we’ve ruminated as “The Queer EP.” Every lyric is delicately written to fit character, story, language while the music serves to illuminate that drama. And no slant rhymes.
When you perform together as jackbenny, who writes what?
Jack Lipson: We both write and both sing the songs in varying Jack-to-Benny ratios. Someone usually spearheads the lyrics and either continues to finish on their own, or we collaborate on additional verses and the melody/harmony. We always review each others’ work, and suggest mostly lyric edits, but Benny often checks that I don’t go too “out” in the harmony. We’re terribly tough critics and demand high precision of each other. As for singing, we generally sing the sections or entireties of lyrics we penned.
Benny Lipson: Most everything we write we collaborate on, though mostly one of us spearheads a tune. We’re both always open to suggestions from one another, often gaining excitement when an idea blossoms into a song. Sometimes we both sing, other times the tunes work better as solos, all based on the character and drama. Some new music we’ve written separately, but they’re still jackbenny songs and we share the songwriting credit.
In songs like “The Tremor Trembling Through,” I hear a little bit of the clean simplicity of Simon and Garfunkel in your songs — in a good way, not in a copycat way. Is that fair? What singers/songwriters do you admire and return to, as fans and consumers?
Jack Lipson: I definitely had a Simon and Garfunkel phase, and the comparison’s inevitable when two male singers sing in parallel harmonies. But I most idolize (in no particular order) Leonard Bernstein, Sondheim, Bacharach and David (and Dionne Warwick’s interpretation of their songs) and Kurt Weill, all who aren’t noted for the simplicity of their music — in fact, the opposite. However they mostly don’t convolute their work with complication for the sake of complication, but rather to support the drama; that’s for what I in general strive. The above quintet excludes so much that I love: dense classical like Britten and Barber, more traditional like Mozart and Schubert, a whole canon of musical theater writers from Kern to Jones/Schmidt to Herman, and pop acts Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, the Bee Gees (pre- and post-disco), and so much more that I didn’t mention by name or don’t yet love.
Benny Lipson: I, even more than Jack, admire Paul Simon as a songwriter, but I wouldn’t necessarily point toward him as our main influence. I continually return to Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Todd Rundgren, Joni Mitchell, Roland Orzabal (Tears for Fears) and Barry Manilow as my favorite pop songwriters (and Paul Simon). Past pop, lots of musical theatre writers throughout history impact me: Jerry Herman, Jule Styne, Sammy Fain, Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Stephen Schwartz, Anthony Newley to name some of my most-beloved.
What is your ultimate goal as jackbenny, and what is your ultimate goal and an individual artist?
Jack Lipson: jackbenny started as a rebuttal to all the pop/rock/indie projects we saw or played for in L.A. and music created today in general. We played most of the good bar venues here in a very raucous get-up-and-dance fashion, and we set to bring mindful songwriting back into vogue, a craft mostly dominated by mindless lyrics of abrupt, cliché clauses with almost entire emphasis on computer-generated entrancing beats. We’re still advocating for high songwriting, but when we out of necessity first transitioned to playing calmer, sitting quietly environments, we noticed how much deeper the songs’ poignant ideas resonated with the attentive audience. So we’re concerned now with sharing those songs as our means to combat the smothering conservative powers at large that stymie the equality we all know to be humanly true.
Jack Lipson: A heavy, heavy influence: I realize now that while other families camped or attended sports games together, we spent most of our time when not at home seeing shows, mostly theater. And when we’d go to a party as a family, or host — as we often did cast parties and show reunions [at which] the other guests hailed from the theater community— there was often a sing-for-your-supper component where I learned many theater songs. I learned how to hacky-sack and knit in the Sacramento Music Circus green room. Sometimes when asked, “What’s your ethnicity or heritage?,” I jest: “Musical theater.” But since there’s truth to all jest, the music and community tinted most of my family life and upbringing.
Benny Lipson: A tremendous influence. Growing up, Jack and I tagged along with our parents to soirees full of their theatre/show biz friends (somehow, everyone from Manhattan moved to the San Fernando Valley). At the time, I didn’t recognize how unique my childhood experience was compared to other friends my age — friends with non-artistic parents.
Was it inevitable that you would be performers/music makers, or did you once think you wanted to be a veterinarian or something?
Jack Lipson: It feels backwards and somewhat silly to claim that my parents were supportive if I didn’t go into the performing arts, since many of our artistic peers struggle to earn favor from their families. Sorta like that statistic that you’re more likely to support gay marriage if you know at least one gay-identifying person, my parents knew countless professional musicians and performers that they very easily nurtured mine and my brothers’ artistic pursuits. I started out loving animation, but once I learned the animators for my favorite cartoons drew 24 frames per second, I was overwhelmed. But for as long as I can remember really, my parents, their friends, and I knew that I’d be music-making in some outlet.
Benny Lipson: It was inevitable that music would be a part of my life, but in my late teens I thought I’d work in sports broadcasting. I attended a conservatory-like high school and was one of the most knowledgeable students in NBA trivia; I figured I’d make a career in broadcasting and always have music to relax with. When I started at University of Miami for undergrad, I enrolled in a couple electronic media/sports media classes and discovered [outside my arts high bubble] many people were far more passionate about sports than myself. I stuck my nose to music from that point forward.
Did your parents’ taste in music influence your taste in music, or did you reject their interests? What music was playing in the house when you were kids?
Jack Lipson: When I was just six-weeks-old mom agreed to another national tour of Evita, and the whole family accompanied her on the road for a year. I must’ve watched the show or rehearsals several times (I remember one production from the light booth); Lloyd Webber’s score, which I — biased — find his best, is no doubt a very atypical first musical/aural experience for a baby. When the tour finished, my dad played a Beatles album on the record player every night after I bathed, and once we knew every word of the Beatles we transitioned into Paul McCartney’s post-Fab-Four catalogue and then in general ’60s-’70s pop/folk-rock. As for musicals, at that time I mostly learned the shows for which either mom auditioned, like Mamma Mia!, A Class Act, and Hairspray — which she’d play in the car when carting me to one place or another — or the shows she did: Man of La Mancha, And the World Goes ’Round, Fiddler, I Do! I Do!, etc. Dad also played a handful of classical albums that moved him when he ushered at Carnegie Hall in the ’60s, mostly Tchaikovsky, but also “Pictures at an Exhibition” and some Hindemith.
Benny Lipson: Our parents’ taste totally impacted my taste. As young boys, our parents spun Beatles albums while simultaneously bathing Jack and me. When driving us around, our mom had cast albums on repeat when preparing or auditioning for a role. That music specifically is lodged in a part of my brain that can never forget those tunes.
What sort of musical training did each of you have?
Jack Lipson: I started classical piano at seven, which after a year I found limited and uncool; I liked songs and I wanted to sing along too. Benny and I found a new teacher, Gerald White, who taught both singing and piano, but less technique and more theory and experiential. I learned how to read chord charts, improvise accompaniments, modulate, make up harmonies, and Gerald first encouraged me to write songs. I concurrently learned mallet percussion in middle school to play in the percussion ensemble, and then migrated to drum kit where I played, along with piano, in the school’s big band (with minimal jazz instruction) and in the pit of Elton John’s Aida.
I graduated to a rigorous arts high school (L.A. County High School for the Arts) where I sang in choir and eventually played percussion in the orchestra. I learned more theory, orchestration, history, and dabbled a bit more in jazz. At the time the high school didn’t boast a composition concentration, but they did have a film scoring elective where I explored the “backstage” craft of writing, and now that I think of it, wrote a mountain of cues (where are they now?). I studied composition at UCLA where I learned more classical theory and history and a plethora of opera and art song rep. I took this real nifty composer-choreographer collaboration class too which exposed me to lots of dance music and choreographer jargon and process. The class, along with others in linguistics and poetry and literature, opened me to borrow vocab we use in analyzing one art form to elucidate another; I find this an important vantage you can’t gain by bleeding your fingers alone in a practice room nor surrounding yourself in totally musical environments.
Benny Lipson: I started piano lessons at seven with a by-the-book teacher, Julie Calvo. She was pleasant and lived close to our parents, probably why we started there, taught us fingering and scales and learned some classical pieces. After stopping piano for a year and change, I got back into it with someone whom I consider my most influential teacher, Gerald White. As an incredible pianist and even more incredible singer, Gerald compounded both voice and piano into a lesson without pounding technique. He secretly taught both Jack and me music theory and how music functions while we brought in tunes to play and sing at the piano. We studied with Gerald every weekend for three years, a true blessing that our parents afforded us that private training.
I attended arts high school with a focus in music where I received invaluable training. I sang in the vocal jazz ensemble under the direction of Pat Bass and became enamored with jazz as a genre and vehicle of understanding music. By junior year, I translated my self-taught electric bass skills to the upright bass and played in the school big band for two years, learning a great deal from the director Jason Goldman as well as the superbly talented peers I played with.
From there, I studied jazz voice and bass at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. Similar to the high school big band, I gained lots of music knowledge from both the faculty and the students at all levels of study (undergrad, grad, doctor). Based on this meaty paragraph, I am grateful for all the formal training I received. Today, Jack and I continue to study by intentionally listening to music (mostly musicals) as a primary activity. Often times we pick the needle up from the record to hear a song again, either because we missed a lyric or loved the tune.
When you were learning music, was there a specific goal you had? Like, did you say, “I’d like to conduct musicals,” or, “I want to write songs,” or “I wanna be a pop star”?
Jack Lipson: From high school on I just knew I wanted to write, in some capacity. At that point I wanted to be a Leonard Bernstein, simultaneously pop and academic — though the academics never forgave his pop sympathies — writing for the theater, ballet, film, and concert hall, and conducting all over the world, not to mention a respected lecturer and educator too. It’s a lil’ high-falutin’ so right now I just hope to write another musical/opera.
Benny Lipson: I’ve never had one strict goal, only to make a living writing and playing music I love. To me, setting strict goals can lead to unmet expectations, leading to sorrow and insanity.
Is there an example of a song you wrote together, and songs you wrote separately?
Jack Lipson: Benny wrote “It’s Not Cool (To Be Cool Anymore)” completely on his own, and ignored most revision I proposed. Of our limited online oeuvre, “It’s Almost Christmas,” was written exclusively by me, as all good Jews write Christmas songs. While Benny and guitarist Chili Corder wrote the music to “The Tremor…,” we collaborated on the lyrics — I wrote my harmony line too!
Will there be any brand new songs debuting in NYC? Are you writing anything new?
Jack Lipson: There’s at least three totally new songs that we want to share, and a handful more that’ve only appeared publicly once to thrice. We’re playing mostly to virgin ears in New York, and want to ensure to include the songs that have endured as staples throughout the band’s 1.5-year tenure, but I do hope to play at least one newbie!
Do you ever perform covers or is your songbook all original?
Benny Lipson: For our upcoming show in New York, we’ll only play originals. However, there is a short list of songs that have entered the jackbenny songbook not written by us. Those songs are: “The Night the Carousel Burned Down” (Todd Rundgren), “Time And a Word” (Yes), “Chiquitita” (ABBA) and “Freedom” (Udell and Geld).
You wrote a 20-minute musical called Miranda, Please!, which has had various reading presentations, including one at the 2017 Wyoming Theater Festival. What inspired it?
Jack Lipson: There was a local competition for a 10-minute show, and I heard this wacky story from my friends about Amanda Bynes getting lost in Buffalo, New York, claiming she wasn’t in Buffalo at all, and it seemed short and silly enough to musicalize in 10 minutes. Collaborating on the music, lyrics, and book, we soon discovered otherwise, and after we lost the competition it blossomed into a piece twice as long. It could stand alone, or we could stumble on another celebrity tale with which to pair it, or we could pair it with the backstory of its supporting catalyzing character…but I’d prefer not to fish more out of the story or create more shenanigans for her in Buffalo.
Benny and I think it would work great as a recorded video short, and most consumers today seem to favor art in briefer sketches. I learned so much from the process and its three iterations that I could be content to stow it for a while. In the future, perhaps a YouTube or manuscript archaeologist can unearth it as a rare, early Lipson collaboration and the songs will end up in a revue of unused, aborted, and stand-alone songs of ours.
Benny Lipson: After three readings, what’s best for the show is still undecided. Composing the piece was an amazing learning tool for writing a full-length show; I feel much more prepared to write another show after tooling and retooling Miranda, Please! Jack and I both collaborated on the music and lyrics for the whole show, similarly pioneering songs on our own and checking in on them with one another. Jack, however, wrote all the piano arrangements.
You guys live together in L.A. I picture a rambling ranch house with musical instruments, lots of healthy food, a pool and a view of mountains. How wrong am I?
Jack Lipson: The ’20s-pueblo revival home in a working class neighborhood outside downtown L.A. is hardly rambling…but indeed filled with a variety of instruments including a white grand piano, upright bass, a half-dozen other plucked string instruments, and a drum kit including a chime tree I affectionately call “magical guy.” I like shopping at the local farmer’s market…
Benny Lipson: Our kitchen is kept healthy, thanks to Jack. You can see the mountains, but sadly no pool. Maybe I’ll invest in a hot tub for the future. We’ve got pomegranates, figs, avocados and lemons growing in our backyard. Loads of sheet music and vinyl records.
What is the average day like?
Jack Lipson: I try to fill every day with learning. I play the white grand, mostly reading and singing scores of musicals, and read plays or musical theater memoirs…I’ve gotta return to novels soon. Benny and I collect vinyl and fortunately my favorite music frequently lands in the 25-cent-to-one-dollar pile, so I listen especially while I’m cooking and eating. I work just enough to frugally cherish my “rambling” free time, but as it happens all my professional engagements are musical…so there’s never a dull day!
Benny Lipson: One of the many blessings in my life is I rarely need to set an alarm. I generally like to wake up and stretch (trying to stay young for awhile). After that, no day is quite average. I’ll play and sing through songs at the piano mostly every day. Some days are writing heavy, some days are listening heavy, some days are playing heavy, beach days, physical health days, reading days, dumb-young-twenty-five-year-old-activity days. That freedom is important to me. Playing bass for the L.A. premiere of the musical Cagney eight shows a week this month provides structure that also feels good for my health and productivity. I think I’m still developing a routine that works for me professionally, artistically, and socially.
What are you currently working on together, or separately?
Jack Lipson: I’m writing new songs always, especially now to beef up the jackbenny catalogue, as the producer of the Wyoming Theater Festival is considering to develop a staged revue of our tunes. A friend wants Benny and I to write the music to a movie rock-opera about Margaret Cavendish, a 17th-century British royalist who published many novels, plays, and pontifications upon natural philosophy all in her own female name, and I’ve been researching her life the past two months. Benny and I also have an idea for a musical comedy in which a passionate yet less-than-knowledgeable teacher guides a junior college’s shop class in making ultimately injurious sets for a school production, for which I’ve written half a song and drawn an outline. I made plot index cards for a short opera about a terribly squeamish young adult who, as the final component of his routine physical, visits the office’s new phlebotomist, who speaks highly vividly about blood and continues to discomfort the patient to frantic anxiety. I’m gonna start diverting attention to writing more on my own, as I’m considering grad school for composition, for which I’ll need a convincing solo portfolio. In January I’ll teach the music to Candide at my high school; I’m passionately eager to participate in the worldwide celebrations honoring Lenny’s centennial.
Benny Lipson: I’m currently playing bass for Cagney, about the actor James Cagney. Spending lots of time with one show allows me to plunge deep into all the devices used, helping me develop the skill of writing a show.
Do you ever worry that your jackbenny brand will confuse a consumer who is aware of the late comedian and actor Jack Benny? Has that question ever come up?
Jack Lipson: Friends around our age hardly notice the reference, and an older generation usually meets the intended coincidence with a respected chuckle. We stylize it differently, all lowercase and one word, but search engines are quick to correct assumed typographical misgivings…maybe upon higher search traffic in the future the computer’ll understand the distinction. I think it’s a suitable nod to an era of art that heavily influences our sound.
Benny Lipson: The parallel will continue to confuse and humor many. Uploading music to Spotify rendered a new conundrum when they placed our music under the comedian, as if he had a new release 40 years in the grave. However, friends will send us his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame aghast, unaware of the comedian.