AS someone who dates an Los Angeles-based Australian film maker, US musician Benjamin Booker is fully aware of the cultural differences between the allied nations.
Particularly when it comes to gun control.
“I’ve had Australian friends I’ve gone out with and I remember one time somebody drove past us in a low-rider car, they were obviously gang members, and they spat in our direction,” the softly-spoken Booker tells Weekender from Los Angeles.
“This girl just walked out and started chasing them and I was like, ‘People have guns here, you can’t do that shit, you’ll get shot at’.
“It is weird for Australians because your interactions with people are different and you don’t think, ‘Oh, he’s carrying a gun’.”
The soul-rocker knows first hand the dangers of America’s gun obsession. Around Christmas 2015 he was randomly shot at while riding his bicycle in his local neighbourhood in New Orleans.
The frightening incident and a home burglary convinced the Tampa Bay-raised 28-year-old to flee the South for California, via a month-long retreat in Mexico City.
While in the Mexican capital Booker wrote the bulk of his politically-motivated second album Witness.
Musically Witness was a shift from Booker’s self-titled debut in 2014. It expanded on his blues and punk sound to embrace gospel and soul, as best heard in the title track that features legendary singer Mavis Staples.
But most importantly Witness was bristling with a political conscience. It represented Booker drawing a line in the sand. As a young African-American man with a public platform, he was no longer prepared to be silent about the racism and prejudice his community suffers.
The title track deals with the numerous instances of black men being killed by white police officers and has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I had to become more active,” Booker says. “Since the album came out I’m definitely more bummed out in general. The album came out last June and things aren’t great over here. I can’t say I’m positive, but I’m trying to stay positive.”
Is it hard living somewhere that you feel so negative about?
“It’s made it hard for everyone, It’s constant, non-stop all the time,” Booker says. “The only thing you hear about all day long.”
Despite Booker’s pessimism surrounding American society, his musical career couldn’t be brighter. Witness has been universally praised by critics.
The album combines the soul and roots of Ben Harper, the garage blues of early White Stripes and the croon of Otis Redding.
Not surprisingly, Booker’s eclectic sound has attracted a diverse demographic.
I can’t say I’m positive, but I’m trying to stay positive.Benjamin Booker
“One of the best shows we played recently was in Paris and there was a girl there who was seven years old,” he says. “It was awesome and adorable.
“There was also a guy who was 65 and he was telling me about how he went to punk shows in the ‘70s. It’s all over the place and I like that.”
“I think it’s weird at first when you start making music when you see the type of people that come to your shows.
“I don’t see what I have in common with these people, but after a while you realise it’s kind of beautiful that different people can relate to you and I think it makes me feel more connected to everybody.”
Two people who weren’t fans of Booker’s music in the early days were his parents. One of the first songs he wrote was Have You Seen My Son? about his mother praying for him after he left Tampa for New Orleans to follow his dreams in music.
Booker sings, “Saying have you seen my son?/He’s lost in the world somewhere/I pray for him every day/But I know he ain’t seen your ways.”
Thankfully, Booker says, those bridges have since been mended.
“Anyone who starts off in entertainment probably has the same problems,” he says. “Every parent’s biggest concern is they don’t want their kid to be starving on the street and homeless.
“I think they were worried about that. Once you start to play and making money and paying rent they usually come around.”
Benjamin Booker performs at Byron Bay’s Bluesfest from March 29 to April 2.