Justin Benlolo remembers his first song clearly. Instead of it being about teen angst or first love, it was about summer camp.
“I used to do sleepover camps when I was younger, so I would be away for like two months in the summer with all my friends,” he said.
“And I was like, ‘Man, you know what would be really cool? Everybody would think it was super sick if I wrote a song and played it,’ you know? And it worked.”
These precocious beginnings make sense. Benlolo was always a showperson, a classic-rock obsessive who grew up performing in musical theatre and idolizing the rock stars his musician uncle introduced him to.
“He wasn’t a singer himself, but he showed me enough bands that made me sort of in awe over the rock star thing,” Benlolo said.
Benlolo described his own summer camp song — a lightweight fare about tetherball, hanging out with friends and childhood bliss — as a personal turning point.
“I was like, ‘Wow, if I can write a song, that means I’m a real musician now,’ you know? Not just a guy who plays for fun,” he said.
That hopefulness can be heard pumping through the furious, classic-rock-biting music of Brkn Love, the self-titled debut of Benlolo’s band. The record pays homage to the rock heroes of his youth and to the sounds that ignited his childhood passions. Recorded live-to-tape with producer Joel Hamilton, the stories on Brkn Love go far beyond his summer camp beginnings.
“I would say it all comes down to self-expression. I just wanted to have an outlet for things that I can’t say in everyday conversation,” Benlolo said.
“Things I probably should be telling a therapist, but I’m just telling the world,” he added.
The record’s personal storytelling is accentuated by its raw production — a new way to look at music for the typically meticulous Benlolo, who had previously spent hours re-recording takes and agonizing over his performance.
“My problem is that, when you go down that rabbit hole — you end up doing [approximately] 20 takes — and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Fuck, is the 20th take really that much better than the second one?’” he said.
The live-to-tape method helped him focus on capturing the energy of his live shows, its limitations becoming the record’s greatest asset.
“There’s no going back and fixing it — I mean, sure, you can, but then you’ve got to cut up the tape and tape the tape together with, like, a piece of scotch tape,” he said.
Benlolo says that it’s still surreal sometimes — that he needs to make these production decisions, that people will hear these songs at all.
It’s the realization of the dream he’d held since he was just a kid with a guitar.
“If I can [play music] and actually make a career out of it — that’s all I’ve ever wanted since I was 11 or 12 years old,” he said.
However, he says the real gift is the opportunity to connect and to change people through his music. He still creates in the spirit of connection, of bringing people together, just like he did all those years ago at summer camp.
“What I look forward to is people hearing the songs, hearing the words, and actually connecting with them and potentially helping them out.”
Brkn Love plays the Park Theatre Feb. 23 opening for Royal Tusk’s Thunder on the Tundra tour.