First Look Friday: Sandy Benjamin Recalls the Past to Make Us Appreciate the Present on Debut Album

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First Look Friday: Sandy Benjamin Recalls the Past to Make Us Appreciate the Present on Debut Album
Photo courtesy of the artist

On Low Income Browsing, Sandy Benjamin uses the surreal nature of our memories to show us what we miss in the present by reliving the past with a new perspective.

Stop and take notice of where you are right now. Observe your surroundings, wave at a passerby, and wonder what brought them to the same place at the same time as you. Reflect on time. Only the scene you observe around you at the moment is so complete with detail. Memories of where you’re coming from, visions of where you’re headed — these are surreal, incomplete. The flashes of thoughts, feelings and images are less corporeal than the present moment, and yet these flashes — more often than not — drive us from moment to moment, where we pay a cost in our ability to be present. By painting a series of surreal vignettes from memories of his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, Sandy Benjamin uses his debut album, Low Income Browsing, to ask us to be more present. 

Low Income Browsing is a story of two people against the world, told through a series of voicemails and late-night conversations between Benjamin and his day one homegirl, Gigi. Together, the pair reminisce on an entire childhood spent together, from friends calling in sick to work to hang and summer festival nights never forgotten to the loss of his grandmother and cold nights spent without heat. Shifts between energetic raps and melancholy melodies relive the best of the worst times, but with the sepia tint of looking back on challenges overcome together. 

It’s not until near the very end of the project that the gnawing sense of melancholy weaving between the laughs and the memories of laughs comes into focus. On “Memories,” it’s revealed that even the conversation and shared reflections between Benjamin and Gigi are just memories. The once inseparable pair have drifted apart, and much of the album up to this point has been Benjamin trying to keep her spirit close by falling back on past moments where they felt the closest. It’s this mode of reflection that the album uses to magnify the way our moments change once they’re over, and encourages us to absorb all we can while we’re in them. 

We hold onto memories to keep alive the people, places and events that make us who we are. But the irony in trying to bring back the details we missed is that we risk repeating the same mistakes again, by not being fully present in the only moment that truly exists — this one. If not, we risk plunging deeper into the surreal layers of past and future that too often cloud the present. 

For our latest First Look Friday, we spoke with Sandy Benjamin about the mechanics of recreating memories with music, and peeled back the layers of his Inception-like storytelling. This interview, taking place in the present moment, has been edited for content and clarity. 

A lot of these songs from that storyline are told through the skits where you’re in conversation with Gigi. You’re reliving a memory or a shared experience with someone you’re very close to. How do you build from there until you’ve taken something so fleeting and abstract, and turn it into a song?  

Sandy Benjamin: When you have lived something and when you are really living in it and immersed in it, you become it. It was like the chords represented points on a map and those points were memories in the past. Pointing me right back to it are these scores that made me remember going to this carnival, or this time when we were doing this. If you haven’t lived it, you can’t get back to that point. 

When you make tons of memories, sometimes you forget a lot of things. So, these chords, that’s what allowed me to go back and revisit these memories and tell these stories again. 

There’s got to be something to the psychological process of that, too. Like, how music is tied to memory. Does the process happen in a way where you hear a chord or a melody and then that gives you a feeling, and you tie that feeling back to a memory where you had a similar feeling?

Absolutely. For example, the second part of [“New Day”], I use a piano and it’s this beautiful alternative song about getting pulled over by the police. We laugh about it now but it was very dangerous at the time. These chords, and how these songs sound sonically, are making these very scary stories sound beautiful. 

When you summon a memory, the way that you feel looking back on the memory isn’t the same as you felt during the memory, right? You’re a new person with new life experiences and you have new perspectives. How does that influence the feeling you want to bring out of old memories? 

When you’re living through something, sometimes you don’t realize the magnitude of that moment, especially when I’m talking to my friends about those times. You have to go through these things in order to revisit those memories and be like, “Oh man, we were too focused on trying to get to the destination.” We didn’t realize we had a good thing going. 

The only thing that matters is the memories you made with the people who you came up with and I really wanted to shine light on that. It adds an interesting element to what memories really are. Memories don’t exist, the past doesn’t exist, it’s gone.

Throughout the album, these memories shift between energetic raps and sadder reflections. To me, that reflected how a sad feeling can intrude on good memories when they’re associated with something that’s gone, like a relationship or a place. 

When losing good people — and they pass at a young age — you think things are going to last forever and they don’t. But with a little bit of imagination and tapping into another dimension, you can use these people to guide you through life. That’s why memories are so important. These stories and legends of lost family members, that’s how you live forever. You live forever through memories. 

There’s a lot of vulnerability on Low Income Browsing, especially with the girl, Gigi. But the history you have with someone is irreplaceable, and when that relationship is gone what happens to that ability to express vulnerability? 

When you lose someone, you shut down. This album was very therapeutic for me because I shut down for a while. The song “Don’t Ever Forget Me,” it’s about my older brother who passed away. I really couldn’t write about him for five years, but I was always trying to find a way. 

I know how he talked, we were so close. So, I just kept thinking for a while, “What would he say to me? If he came and visited me, what would he say about the day he passed?” 

What’s your process in figuring out what he would say to you? How do you make sure you’re not just picking and choosing what you might want him to say? 

I talked to people and I made sure I listened. When people pass away, other people that are close to them sometimes say things to comfort themselves. Sometimes you could even not have a good relationship with somebody before they pass away. Like, “We weren’t seeing eye to eye before he passed away and that’s how it’s going to be forever,” and it’s not like that. Forget all the small stuff. Forget the quarrels you had. He loved you because he told me stories about the times y’all shared. 

I had practice doing that in the first verse. The first verse is actually about my older cousin who’s in prison for life for a murder he didn’t even do. So, he calls from the jail and we talk and I make sure I listen. His thing was like, “I just want my story to get out there. I want people to know my story. I don’t want to be forgotten.” He heard that verse and he called me. He was like, “Man, how did you say exactly how I felt? How did you do that?” That was a reference for me to do the same thing with my older brother for that second verse. 

A while ago we talked about the woman in the video for “Codependent,” and how she doubles as a metaphor for your codependent relationship with success. I was wondering if there were any heavily layered metaphors like that? Maybe Gigi is a stand-in for the power to keep people and places alive in memory? 

That’s the ultimate question. I love to define my own perceptions of what I think things are, who I think people are, and to give this notion that people are beyond the physical. We can be surface all day but what does this really mean? I’m very excited to reveal what exactly was going on in this story in the near future. When people finally see what this is, people are gonna realize, “Oh, I do this all the time. This is the way I cope with things.” People have psychological issues from losses and it’s an amazing thing when we realize what we do every day to cope with this stuff.

We also talked about how you like to use surrealism in your presentation. The album ends with you waking from a nightmare and we look back on the whole thing like, “Was it real?” But the whole way we experience memory is surreal. It’s not like we literally watch a movie in our heads. It’s a constant flashing of thoughts, feelings and images, and that’s how we experience Low Income Browsing, too.  

That’s the reason why it loops and the whole thing starts over again. I feel like we do that a lot with our memories. I was just watching the new season of Atlanta, and [Donald Glover] and some of the writers were talking about like, “Is all of this even real? Even our reality right now?” Me, I believe none of it is real. These things can be manifested. 

But do we even have the time to sit back and analyze our surroundings and what reality really is? We don’t, and I feel like that’s why we create certain things. That’s why we created the concept of time. That’s why we created a system of money and you have to work all these hours. You don’t have time to sit back and be like, “What’s really going on? Is this real? Is it not like when we dream?” This is happening in a very surreal way.

In a lot of ways, dreams are also uncontrollable manifestations of feelings or thoughts that linger. You’ve got some kind of memory or trauma stuck in your head and you can try to suppress it, but it’ll come up in some crazy, surreal way in a dream. 

Some of that is captured in a film Jim Carrey did back in the day called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. They try to erase their memories but their memories are embedded in their souls. Not only do we have this very immense relationship with our memories, but even if they try to take it away, it’s in our DNA. 

There’s even scientific support for that. Trauma is passed on genetically. Even from a more philosophical standpoint of parents responding to something that scarred her in her life, without ever really explaining to their children where that trauma comes from. These things get passed on without ever really understanding them, and it’s like, “Is this shit real?” 

I totally agree, and it’s very important for us to really take that time. No one cares, so we have to take that time. We have to figure out what all of this means, and what our memories mean to us. Why do they make us who we are? 

I just want people to know that their environment at the current time — if they’re trying to get to somewhere — isn’t necessarily real. Their perception shouldn’t be inside the four walls that they’re in. It should be outside of that. It’s like, “Where is your mind, exactly?” I just want people to not be on autopilot. I want people to think. I want people to use their imagination more. I want people to create their own reality. We’re gonna build on that more, man. Low Income Browsing was a very good start.

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