Interview with Sia about writing hits (and more)

There comes a time in every budding pop star’s career where a choice must be made: continue making music for the sake of expression, or create radio-ready singles. That’s the decision that lies in front of Australian musician Eddie Benjamin, at least according to his roommate and mentor Sia, who knows a thing or two about writing hits. Benjamin first met his fellow Aussie through another Sia protégé, his girlfriend Maddie Ziegler. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their homeland and the relentless desire to make songs. Benjamin, whose first single is the low-key banger “Fuck My Friends,” now lives full-time on Sia’s L.A. compound, where he wows her on the regular with his supernatural music-making skills, an ability partly brought on by his synesthesia, the condition that allows a person hear colors. Benjamin, who is currently working on a full-length record with collaborators that include the producer Labrinth, connected with Sia a day after their joint performance for Americare’s COVID Is No Joke comedy benefit for a spirited conversation about fighting off sharks, musical genius, and the Harry Styles effect. — ERNEST MACIAS

EDDIE BENJAMIN: I’m so glad I got some time off.

SIA: Eddie, I know you because somebody sent me a video of you playing the upright to “Chandelier.” I thought, “Holy fuck. Who’s this little genius?” I put it on my Instagram, then a mutual friend introduced us. Turns out your mate is my surrogate daughter Maddie Ziegler. You’re my Australian son. You didn’t have your family in town when we met, and I was like, “Oh, I’m going to have to be your mom here.” I just got extremely protective, as I’m over Maddie. I was basically like “any deal anyone tries to give you I will research myself and make sure nobody’s going to take advantage of you.”

BENJAMIN: Yep, that would be right.

SIA: During that period, we wrote a couple of songs, which was quite the experience. You play every instrument like it’s your first, so that is savant-y.

BENJAMIN: Savant-y, oh my gosh.

SIA: Well I joke that I only hang out with savants. [Laughs] It’s kind of the truth.

BENJAMIN: Everyone around is geniuses, besides me.

SIA: You’re a fucking savant. You also have synesthesia right? Talk about that.

BENJAMIN: I do. I first read about it when I was 15, and something clicked. I was like, “Oh shit, that’s kind of how I see things.” I see colored numbers with pitch. I relate colors to certain pitches and notes. The 12 notes that we have in the musical Western world, I see certain colors to them, and it’s fun and also quite tiring.

SIA: Quite overwhelming I would imagine.

BENJAMIN: It can get super overwhelming if my brain is going into override mode.

SIA: You remind me of Labrinth because when I first started working with him, it was like herding cats. It’s a similar vibe with you. You have so many ideas that it’s hard to truly focus on one song without skipping over to another one in the middle. We’ll be watching T.V. and you’ll disappear for an hour and a half and just be like, “I wrote a song.”

BENJAMIN: That sounds like me.

SIA: That’s how I view you. You’re my little pixie son who is bright, awesome, humble, and a real dingus. You’re very silly in the swimming pool as well.

BENJAMIN: You know, I was just thinking about jumping off your roof.

SIA: You can do whatever you like. How old were you when you started making music?

BENJAMIN: I grew up in a household with countless instruments. I started playing guitar when I was about 12 and I fucking hated it. Then I saw Prince live, I went to one of his concerts which I’m very blessed to have done. I saw him slapping the bass and I’m like, “That is what I want to do.” I asked my dad if I could have a bass and he bought me one. Every day in the living room just practicing, countless hours. That’s when the love really started. I hated playing the guitar for some reason.

SIA: Because the tone isn’t right for your color system probably.

BENJAMIN: It’s just very bright.

SIA: Bass is the greatest instrument of all time. Piano and bass for me are it.

BENJAMIN: I enjoy playing guitar now, but definitely when I started the sound of it was not my favorite.

SIA: Now you’re the wang master.

BENJAMIN: I am. It’s true.

SIA: But you play the piano like it’s your first instrument. We did a little thing for Americare yesterday. You played the piano and I sang live. You didn’t bum up one note, and I only gave you three hours beforehand. Because you’re a savant.

BENJAMIN: That’s what happens when you can read music, you can do it very fast.

SIA: I remember when you first came over to my house in L.A. to play my piano. I was in bed right on the other side of the wall watching television on my ceiling, which is my favorite thing to do. Then you were playing the piano and I pressed paused, and I was just listening.

BENJAMIN: I remember that. Maddie brought me to the piano. I had no idea you were there. I was playing “It’s Time on the Elysium,” and you came out singing. That was the first time meeting you, and I was like, “Jesus Christ this is crazy.” That was a very L.A. moment.

SIA: You felt like family straight away.

BENJAMIN: Now, she comes into my studio and sings full melodies on a song. Then the song is perfect.

SIA: Yesterday you and I went into a proper studio down the road, all social distance and face masks. We cut the song for a DJ who made a million dollars. It’ll probably be your first million-dollar song. Just like what happened for me with “Titanium.”

BENJAMIN: Oh my god.

SIA: I’d like a little plaque on my house that says, “Thank you to David Guetta for this house.” You weren’t having fun in L.A. at first, right? You hadn’t found your people.

BENJAMIN: Moving to L.A. as a 15-year-old is very daunting. I’m quite a social person, I love to be around people who I really enjoy. When I met you guys I definitely felt at home.

SIA: Family.

BENJAMIN: It really helped me. Because being with your parents is really important, but finding a different family is the most important thing.

SIA: You learned the guitar, then you learned the bass, then what’d you learn?

BENJAMIN: Years of bass. When I say years, like three. That’s a long time.

SIA: Babe, most people take 15 years to learn an instrument.

BENJAMIN: I was talking to my manager about that because to me six months to a year is the longest thing ever. I’ve realized that is because it’s eight percent of my life.

SIA: I remember at the beginning of my career I was just like, “What are you doing? The song is ready, put it out.” I had no idea about strategy. It takes three months until the radio’s playing your songs regularly.

BENJAMIN: I’m trying to grow my attention span in terms of waiting. I can’t do that very well.

SIA: Well, I know you can sit through an episode of Dave on Hulu.

BENJAMIN: Oh yes I can. What an amazing show. It’s fucking high art.

SIA: Have we been to the movies together?

BENJAMIN: I don’t think we have. But we have watched one unreleased movie together.

SIA: Oh, my movie. You’ve seen the movie that I wrote and directed starring Maddie, and did you cry?

BENJAMIN: I did. Very rare for me. When I watch a movie and I don’t get emotional, I’m like, “Can I feel emotion?” Seriously, I need a good hit. It was beautiful.

SIA: Thank you for saying that. I think that it’s definitely the best and hardest thing I’ve ever done. I started writing the script eight years ago, and it’s just about to come out.

BENJAMIN: The process sounded incredible. It seems like everything is thought out, nothing’s rushed.

SIA: Basically I tried to make it a movie that couldn’t be set in any city in any time so it wouldn’t age. Because I know myself and sometimes I will write a song and I won’t put it out for years. A good song doesn’t age, the production ages. You know that.

BENJAMIN: Producing and mixing the core of the song with the right sounds is so important. I’ve learned that from Mac Sabbath and Labrinth. A lot of producers come in and slap on certain sounds and drums and that’s it, but those two really take their time with the core of the song—the idea itself and the concept. I’m very grateful to be able to learn and take all their sounds and ideas off them.

SIA: Theft, it’s the only way.

BENJAMIN: I think all music is technically stolen.

SIA: Of course, nothing is original.

BENJAMIN: It depends. That’s such a dense argument. I’ve had that argument many times with composition professors from certain colleges. That’s a whole thing.

SIA: Only spirits are original. If you’ve got an original spirit, then people might gravitate towards you. That’s my scarf. You’re wearing my silk scarf.

BENJAMIN: I found it in my room on the floor.

SIA: Because I wrapped it around my waist when I thought I might wear it for that Americare thing yesterday, then I left it in your apartment.

BENJAMIN: I was going to walk in with your dress on.

SIA: I would have loved that.

BENJAMIN: Dresses can be awesome. Some of my favorite artists, like Prince, incorporate female energy and female styling in such amazing ways. If anyone doesn’t like that I’ll punch them in the face. Have you seen Harry Styles? The photoshoot he did, it was really beautiful. He wore a white dress, I think.

SIA: I did see, but that little chap has some moves because he’s got swag. He got me when I was like 35 or something, and he was 21.

BENJAMIN: Oh, what a legend.

SIA: I know, I got dizzy.

BENJAMIN: That’s amazing. Maybe he’s just a flirty person.

SIA: No, no, I’ve heard it from a lot of girls. He’s got the smooth moves because he’s a charming young chappy. But certainly I felt like I went bright red.

BENJAMIN: His style is incredible and he is fearless.

SIA: What are you afraid of?

BENJAMIN: In terms of big philosophical answers?

SIA: From big to small, all of it.

BENJAMIN: From growing up in the ocean as a kid, I wasn’t scared of sharks until about a month ago when I kicked one. I was surfing on the Gold Coast with some of my best friends. They’re called the Slab family, they’re very well known, they’re incredible surfers. I was at one of their beaches and it was very murky water and it was getting quite late, and I felt something breathe up against my knee so I kicked it and it was very wet, slimy, and rough.

SIA: Yes, it’s like sandpaper.

BENJAMIN: I saw this thing go, “Whoosh,” and go underwater. It was terrifying and I paddled back to the beach as fast as I could.

SIA: You are artistically fearless. I have that in common with you, but I do not have that in spades when it comes to my personal life.

BENJAMIN: I don’t really fear much for myself, but I’m very protective of people I love. Parents, Maddie, you, and really close friends. Those things do cross my mind and that definitely scares the shit out of me.

SIA: Are you planning to release new singles or any albums?

BENJAMIN: As you know, there are many projects that I’m very excited about.

SIA: You are constantly putting out stuff.

BENJAMIN: I played “Fuck My Friends” for you and you loved it and it was amazing. I think I was in Palm Springs and I went, “Okay, I need to go back and finish it.” Because I had just started playing it to certain people and my team loved it and my label loved it. It wasn’t all the way there, so I went and added that crazy outro.

SIA: That was what made it super-duper amazing. I’m happy you put it in. Fifty percent of the top 10 artists could write “Fuck My Friends,” but none of them could write the outro.

BENJAMIN: Wow. That’s an incredible compliment.

SIA: You’re the new jazz fusion. I know we talked about being afraid of straddling the line between art and commerce. I warned you about fame and how it can affect you, and I asked you: “What do you really want? Do you want to make interesting jazz records, or do you want to make cross-over pop records ?” It’s still going to be up to you at the end of the day. I basically threw every hit I had in the trash for the first four albums I ever made because I wanted to be considered credible. Until I retired and started songs for other people. I was like, “Oh, this can be trite, I won’t be singing it so I don’t have to care.” Then I ended up actually singing them.

BENJAMIN: My ambition is to change what we consider pop music. But honestly, that’s what you did. Your really huge pop choruses and your singing is unheard of in terms of skill.

SIA: If I get out of my way I can do something great. If I’m in my own way, then I may as well just do something else.

BENJAMIN: I feel so grateful to have tools and people like you that I can come to when I need help, or when it’s getting really overwhelming creatively.

SIA: I love you. I’m always here for you. I know you’re your mom’s baby, but I’m going to be asking permission if I can take on some kind of maternal role in your life.