Musical Elite

Artists who have transcended the region

Artists who have transcended the region

By Robert Fulton and Susan Anspach

Updated: November 14, 2019

Girls Rock
Two of the brightest rising stars in the Metro-D.C. music scene are a pair of 20-year-olds from Northern Virginia. Margot MacDonald of Arlington and McLean’s Chelsea Lee reflect a rising tide of young, talented women in the local music arena.

By Robert Fulton

Margot MacDonald
Margot MacDonald (Photography by Jonathan Timmes)

“I think music, especially rock music, has always been kind of dominated by the males,” says MacDonald over coffee at Northside Social in Clarendon, the Arlington neighborhood she calls home. “We’re just slowly reaching up there, trying to get ahead.”

That the history of rock ‘n’ roll has a bit of a testosterone bent is nothing new. But Lee and MacDonald have the talent, drive and love of music to be noticed.

MacDonald, the Washington Area Music Association 2010 Artist of the Year, has been in music for seemingly forever. She says she’s been writing music since she was 7, and even had a stint with the Washington Opera from 2000 to 2002. Her debut CD “Rising” dropped when she was 13. “Torn” in 2003 and “Walls” in 2009 followed.

“A series of very good coincidences and a lot of hard work,” MacDonald offers as the key to her success, which also includes a Modern Rock Vocalist Award at the 25th Annual Wammie Awards, held in February. “You definitely need all of those to succeed. I’ve been working at it for a very long time, for someone my age.

“It’s been a steady accumulation of venues and notoriety,” she adds. “It’s been fun to develop in this area. It’s a very welcoming community.”

MacDonald says that aside from a voice coach, she can’t recall a local female musician she could look up to while she was making her way as a teenager.

“The rockers, the women musicians in the area, I never really knew when I was younger,” she says, adding that she was unable to attend local shows because of age restrictions. “I was kind of a little twerp trying to get into the music scene.”

Chelsea Lee
Chelsea Lee (Photography by Jonathan Timmes)

MacDonald is currently working on some new music, and as of March had done some preliminary recording with plans for a new album to be out by the end of the year. Her sound continues to evolve, from rock ‘n’ roll, featuring soaring vocals, to more experimentation in the new stuff.

This summer, MacDonald plans to play a number of local shows and hopes to tour some. She’s not in college, choosing instead to focus on her career full time. And she adds that she has no immediate plans to leave the region.

In the last couple of years, MacDonald has been active in promoting local music. She’s organized the BMI Hungry for Music showcases, as well as showcases for the Songwriters Association of Washington. These groupings of musicians for small concerts feature locals, and MacDonald makes an effort to include area female musicians and highlight them at all-ages venues.

She adds that she sees more girls than guys in young musician showcases, but the breakdown flips for older shows.

“I really do try to make it kind of half guys, half girls,” says MacDonald, who adds that she idolized Sarah McLachlan growing up. “It’s pretty forefront. I really try to make it even, an even split, sound-wise for the show and giving people chances.” She also comments that she hasn’t had any difficulty in finding acts for her showcases.

McLean’s Lee, though, had a different experience coming up through the local music ranks. Relaxing one recent afternoon at Jammin Java, which is co-owned by her manager Daniel Brindley, Lee spoke about the time her parents hired her voice lessons with popular regional musician Mary Ann Redmond when she was 14. Lee said that Redmond, who currently plays a weekly Sunday night gig in Bethesda, was a major influence on her young career.

“I started getting opportunities through her,” says Lee. “She was very well known, and is still well known locally. That opened a lot of doors for me. That’s where I came in.”

Lee admits she doesn’t get out to a lot of shows in the area, but from anecdotal evidence she says she believes opportunities to play out—more venues, open mics and the like—have increased the number of musicians across the board.

“I think there are more opportunities and more venues around here that are easily accessible,” Lee says. “Especially for small bands. They don’t have to be a big name to get a show. More people are trying to play.”

Lee boasts sweet vocals and soothing pop sensibilities that easily draw comparisons to the likes of Colbie Caillat. She’s signed to Atlantic Records, has completed her major-label debut and hopes for a release this summer. She has an EP to her name, but the launch of the full-length on a major label will be a big step in her young career.

“I don’t expect to be someone famous or anything,” remarks Lee, who’s taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College. “I just want to be able to play. If I play small coffee houses the rest of my life, it would be all good.”

Both Lee and MacDonald see the local music scene as strong. Maybe not New York, LA, Austin or Nashville, but solid nonetheless, no matter where someone is coming from or what their goals might be.

“D.C., Northern Virginia, is such an open area for seeing music,” MacDonald says. “You don’t fully appreciate how much music there is on any given night in the Northern Virginia, Washington area, until you’re out of the area. I can’t imagine living in a small city and not having that direct access to such a great scene.”

 


 

Got you covered
Cover bands bring the party to your nearest watering hole

By Robert Fulton

Dr. FU performing at Rí Rá.
Dr. FU performing at Rí Rá. (Photography by Seth Freeman)

The four-piece band unassumingly sets up in the corner of the Tortoise & Hare Bar and Grille on a March Saturday night in Crystal City. The musicians plug in their equipment and take their positions.

Moments later, the familiar chords of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ classic “American Girl” resonate throughout the Arlington establishment, whipping the standing crowd into a frenzy, and causing those enjoying a drink at the bar to turn their heads.

But this, of course, isn’t Tom Petty bringing down the house at a local watering hole. It’s Destro, a Fairfax-based cover band hired to make this night memorable.

Destro, named after a G.I. Joe character, is not alone in this world of cover bands. Greater D.C.-area acts include the likes of well-known party band Gonzo’s Nose; uber-popular ‘80s cover bands the Leg Warmers and the Reflex; as well as the Monster Band and Dr. FU.

Destro lead singer Jimmy D. says that his fellow cover rockers are supportive, and help out by recommending venues and offering tips on how to set up. “There are some bands that probably do see it as competitive, but there are also other bands that we’re friends with,” says D., who declined to give his last name because of professional concerns. “I’m surprised how friendly people are with one another.”

While a cover act may easily fill a room and please a crowd with their own interpretations of Michael Jackson or the Killers, not everyone respects the art. “Original bands kind of think they’re above and beyond cover bands in terms of what they’re providing to the music environment,” explains Destro lead guitarist Glenn Eckenrode.

Destro formed five years ago. Just as they did that Saturday night at T&H, they provide a steady diet of sing-along Oasis, Weezer and other tunes that pair quite well with a drink.

Greg Gonzales of popular Northern Virginia-based act Dr. FU shares the sentiment with the members of Destro, that playing in a cover band is about having fun. “The original goal was to play out a couple of times,” Gonzalez remarks about his band, adding that cover band or not, it’s still takes a lot of work to build a career. “Dr. FU took on a life of its own.”

Regardless of original music or producing what others created, Gonzalez sees the area as good for music of any kind. “There’s just a lot of music,” Gonzalez says.

 

Listen Up
Northern Virginia Music Venues

Auld Shebeen
3971 Chain Bridge Road, Fairfax; 703-293-9600; www.theauldshebeenva.com

Bangkok Blues
6666 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-241-9504; www.bangkokblues.com

Dogfish Head Alehouse
6220 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church; 703-534-3342; www.dogfishalehouse.com

Evening Star Cafe
2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-549-5051; www.eveningstarcafe.net

Galaxy Hut
2711 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-525-8646; www.galaxyhut.com

Lakeside Inn
11150 South Lakes Drive, Reston; 703-264-0781; www.thelakesideinn.com

The Light Horse
715 King St., Alexandria; 703-549-0533; www.thelighthorserestaurant.com

Old Brogue
760 C Walker Road, Great Falls; 703-759-3309; www.oldbrogue.com

Spanky’s Shenanigans
538 E. Market St., Leesburg; 703-777-2454; www.spankyspub.net

The Birchmere
3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-549-7500; www.birchmere.com

Jammin Java
227 Maple Ave. E, Vienna; 703-255-1566; www.jamminjava.com

The Carlyle Club
411 John Carlyle St., Alexandria; 703-548-8899; www.thecarlyleclub.com

Carpool
208 Elden St., Herndon; 571-203-7995; www.carpoolweb.com/CPH

Clare and Don’s Beach Shack
130 N. Washington St., Falls Church; 703-532-9283; www.clareanddons.com

Fat Tuesday’s
10673 Braddock Road, Fairfax; 703-385-5717; www.fatsfairfax.com

The Front Page
4201 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-248-9990; www.frontpagearlington.com

IOTA Club & Café – Permanently Closed
2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-522-8340

JW & Friends Restaurant
6531 Backlick Road, Springfield; 703-451-4556; www.jwandfriends.com

Kalypso’s Sports Tavern
1617 Washington Plaza n, Reston; 703-707-0660; kalypsosportstavern.com

Lion & Bull Restaurant
5351 Merchants View Square, Haymarket; 703-754-1166; www.lionandbull.com

Madigan’s Waterfront
201 Mill St., Occoquan; 703-494-6373; www.madiganswaterfront.com

Murphy’s Grand Irish Pub
713 King St., Alexandria; 703-548-1717; web.murphyspub.com

O’Sullivan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant
3207 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-812-0939; osullivansirishpub.com/Arlington
754 Elden St., Suite 102, Herndon; 703-464-0522; osullivansirishpub.com/Herndon

P. Brennan’s Irish Pub & Restaurant
2910 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 703-553-1090; www.pbrennans.com

Parallel Wine Bistro
43135 Broadlands Center Plaza, Suite 121, Ashburn; 703-858-0077; www.parallelwinebistro.com

RÍ RÁ Irish Pub
2915 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-248-9888; www.rira.com/rira/arlington

The State Theatre
220 N. Washington St., Falls Church; 703-237-0300; www.thestatetheatre.com

The Tasting Room Wine Bar & Shop
1816 Library St., Reston; 703-435-3553; www.thetastingroomwinebar.com/reston

TurCuisine
13029 Worldgate Drive, Herndon; 571-323-3330; www.turcuisine.com

Vintage 50
50 Catoctin Circle NE, Suite 100, Leesburg; 703-777-2169; www.vintage50.com

Vintage 51
25031 Riding Plaza, Chantilly; 703-722-2844; www.vintage51sr.com

Whitlow’s on Wilson Bar & Grill
2854 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-276-9693; www.whitlows.com

 


 

All Ears
Searching for Inner Ear Recording Studios in Arlington is like looking for a brick needle in a haystack of small theater companies, auto shops and food assistance nonprofits.

By Robert Fulton

Don Zientara
Don Zientara (Photography by Jonathan Timmes)

But within the confines of Inner Ear, situated in a nondescript building just a stone’s throw from the Village at Shirlington, is a compilation of instruments, equipment, recordings, pictures and local music history.

Lots and lots of history.

When one considers Inner Ear, one also must consider Don Zientara. The owner and founder opened Inner Ear at its present location in 1990, but the beginnings of Inner Ear go back three decades. During this time, acts such as Bad Brains, Fugazi and Jawbox recorded with Zientara.

In the mid-’70s, always interested in the recording process, Zientara began collecting recording equipment and storing it in the basement of his Arlington Colonial. A microphone here, a transistor there. Pretty soon, he had a makeshift recording studio.

And he needed a lot more room.

“I realized that this isn’t going to work,” Zientara, 62, recalls one evening behind a desk in his eclectic office at Inner Ear. Hundreds of tapes and CDs are stacked throughout the 3,000-foot facility, and pictures of musicians line the walls. Near the entrance to the studio sits a toy piano. “If I’m going to do this full time, I’ve got to get a place.”

studio
Photography by Jonathan Timmes

Raised in upstate New York, Zientara came to the Northern Virginia area in 1971 while enlisted in the Army, stationed at Cameron Station in Alexandria. After serving, he took a job with the National Gallery of Art. But soon his interest in recording became more than a hobby. In the mid-’80s, he left the NGA, and focused on Inner Ear full time.

“At a certain point you say, ‘I’m spending all my evenings doing this, and I’m making a little bit of money doing this, at least enough to buy a cup of coffee, so it’s maybe something more than just a hobby at this point,’” Zientara says.

When it comes to recording, Zientara thinks of the process as a presentation, and relates it to his visual arts background.

“It was the presentation that was important,” he explains. “Recording was just part of getting someone’s ideas in music and how to get them presented to the public. This musical thing hopefully will appeal to people so that they will look at it and listen to it. And when they listen to it, they will perhaps understand this music better.”

Inner Ear’s list of alumni includes local legends such as the Dismemberment Plan, Minor Threat, Bob Mould and Rites of Spring, which all recorded either at the current location or in the original basement setup. But while the studio made a name for itself with big-name area hardcore, post-hardcore and indie acts, Zientara also likes to keep the studio accessible to up-and-coming locals.

“One of the problems with being a little bit successful is your costs go up,” Zientara says, adding that he’s gotten plenty of commercial and political campaign work to help pay the bills. “You get better equipment. It’s an ongoing battle. If there’s any way I can slip people in here cheaper, I will.”

Though he’s the boss, with bills to pay and taxes to take care of and everything else that the owner of a business has to tackle, Zientara still finds the time to involve himself in the recording process.

“Every chance I get,” he says, adding that he estimates he’s involved in 75 percent of projects, though the studio employs five engineers. “I try to make the business part of it as efficient as possible and as non-paperwork as possible, and try and get in there. I really try to do a lot as far as keeping myself
in there. That’s the fun part.”

 


 

Locals Voices
One man’s friend is another man’s legend. such is the case for inner ear’s zientara.

Ian MacKaye
Fugazi and Minor Threat
“I was shocked,” says Ian MacKaye, of Fugazi, Minor Threat and Dischord Records fame, when he learned that Zientara planned to quit his NGA job in the mid-‘80s to pursue music full time. “I hadn’t heard of such a thing. It was an alien concept.” ¶ MacKaye first encountered Zientara in 1980 when his band Teen Idles looked for a place to record. MacKaye was immediately impressed, and has remained friends with Inner Ear’s owner for three decades. ¶ “He wasn’t interested in changing our sound,” MacKaye says. “He was interested in capturing it. He’s not concerned in the output reflecting the studio. He wants it to reflect the band.”

Will Lebing
Cellist
This Northern Virginia native—he grew up in Woodbridge and Manassas—now lives in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of D.C. But when it came time to mix his first solo album, he came back across the river. ¶ “I was vaguely aware,” says Lebing, who goes by the stage name Wytold, of Inner Ear. “I had friends who mentioned this place.” ¶ Lebing recorded “When Fulvio Found Celeste” at home, but did the mixing at Inner Ear. ¶ “My project was not your typical recording studio project,” Lebing explains. “What I really liked about working with Don was how enthusiastic he was about helping me learn.”

Keith Center
Dreamscapes Project
“It was this thing that lived in myth and legend,” says Keith Center, lead singer of Reston-based Dreamscapes Project. “A cornerstone of what music was in D.C.” ¶ When Zientara put an anonymous post advertising available studio time—an act had dropped out last minute—Center responded. ¶ “When [said] he was with Inner Ear, I was floored. It’s such an iconic place to record at.” ¶ The band went on to record a half-dozen songs at Inner Ear. Center was blown away by the photos lining the walls of the studio. ¶ “It was before Henry Rollins was Henry Rollins, before Fugazi was Fugazi. There’s this magic to it, but there’s no pretense. It’s almost still a basement.”

 


 

The Revalulion Will Be Recorded.
Emerging talent The Five One does it their way.

By Robert Fulton

The Five One
The Five One (Photography by Jonathan Timmes)

It’s difficult to tell whether the members of the Five One, an emerging Reston-based alternative hip-hop band, are putting people on, dead serious or seriously putting people on.

Take, for instance, the fact that the band members decline to give their given names. Instead, they prefer to be referred to by color: Green, Red, Blue and Gold.

“No first name, no last name, no middle name,” says the dread-locked Red, 24, who along with Green and Blue enjoyed burgers at Jackson’s of Reston Town Center in March. The 27-year-old Gold had a prior commitment. “I consider myself really red. So my real name is Red. If I want you to know who I am, I tell you ‘I’m Red.’”

The Five One define this concept of personifying themselves as colors “Revalulion” (rev-uh-loo-lee-n) a word Blue, 25, once saw as a typo for “revolution.” The members of the band wear clothing that reflects their adopted identities. Blue is decked out in a blue shirt, shoes and watch. The others follow suit.

“I didn’t have to go home and put on a blue shirt,” Blue clarifies. “He didn’t have to go home and put on a green shirt. He wears green every day. There’s no acting.”

“He’s the color blue,” Green, 26, adds, looking across the table. “There’s no way in hell I’m any way like the color blue.”

While Revalulion might lack convention, the music exhilarates. The band’s sound, a difficult-to-define mix of hip-hop, rap, rock and reggae, brilliantly combines melodic complexity and rhythmic simplicity in songs like the spacey-slash-languid “Mandatory” and the creative “Closing Time.”

The Five One morphed into its present form in 2008. Named for a neighborhood next to a local police station (Five-O), all the members of the Five One grew up in Reston and attended South Lakes High School. The group boasts about 50 tracks to its name and in March began work on a publishing deal while eying some local and national festivals this summer.

“I feel like we can do something really big, so I might as well try my best,” Green says.

 


 

Riding the Sound Waves
Pop producer Benny Blanco has shot to the crest of the Billboard charts. The trick now, he says, is to not look down.

By Susan Anspach

Benny Blanco
Benny Blanco (Photography by Jonathan Timmes)

Some days—more of them, perhaps, than you’d like to admit—you can’t get Benjamin “Benny Blanco” Levin out of your head.

The Miami bass producer is jointly responsible for such sonic guilty pleasures as Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite,” Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” and Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”—ear candy the consistency of taffy.

In some measure—viscosity, maybe—the Bubble Yum quality of Blanco’s work is what accounts for his slew of Billboard chart-scaling tracks, as well as the four Grammy nods he picked up last year. At 23, the producer has joined artistic forces with half the Top 40’s starting lineup. In 2010, work included writing and producing for Usher, Justin Bieber and 3OH!3. Last March saw the release of albums “Femme Fatale” by Britney Spears and “Rolling Papers” by Wiz Khalifa; Blanco had an active hand in both.

Yet no success goes untarnished—especially in an age when Us Weekly’s circulation numbers trounce those of The New York Times. Earlier this year, Blanco was romantically linked with Perry in the unsubstantiated reports of rag tabloids.

Still, in the right light, the rumors could be seen as their own measure of achievement. Before Blanco produced, he wanted to rap but says he failed to break in for lack of material and ill repute.

Both proved difficult to conjure at age 13, when Blanco, before he was Blanco (an array of industry names were sampled and discarded; among them: Benny Bounce, Short Stuff, Little B), lived in Reston and attended Langston Hughes Middle School. He later graduated from South Lakes High in 2006.

“Look,” says Blanco, now a resident of Manhattan. “No one wants to hear a f*cking short Jewish kid from the suburbs. What am I going to rap about? Tuna fish sandwiches and busting caps in people’s asses? No. I’m going to rap about … my bar mitzvah or something.”

Blanco logged enough studio hours, however, to catch the attention of Source Magazine founder Jon Shecter, who worked at signing Blanco as a rapper to a subsidiary of Columbia Records. When the deal fell through, Shecter instead hired Blanco (then 15) to produce the beats for a soft-core porn DVD, “Hip Hop Honeys.”

“I remember running home and playing it for all my friends, and then my mom would come home and shut it off,” Blanco says. “You know, typical Jewish mother. She would come up and shut it off and hide my own DVD from me.”

Blanco may be the one with some atypicalities to answer for. He says he can remember terrorizing guests of his mother as a child, dragging Bose speakers out of storage and pumping Prince’s “Sexy M.F.” through the house.

“I would get in my underwear,” says Blanco, “and I would dance to ‘Sexy M.F.’ when she had guests over. My mom always said I was pretty eccentric.”

(Prince remains Blanco’s favorite artist to date.)

In conversation, Blanco is disinclined to check his tongue. Still, he exhibits signs of an awareness of his unscripted, uncensored manner of speech. He balances the potential to offend with nervous, self-effacing laughter. He checks to see you know when he’s joking, like the one about black eyes for hard-to-work-with artists.

He insists he is “a little chump.”

If a chump, then one with gumption. To push himself to keep producing in the wake of “Hip Hop Honeys,” Blanco began mass-messaging artists—“Dr. Dre, Lil Jon,” he recalls—on that most communal of art-marketing websites, MySpace (Blanco’s page no longer exists).

Disco D (otherwise known as David Shayman, a producer whose discography includes work with 50 Cent and Kevin Federline, among others) responded with an internship offer in Manhattan—provided Blanco could book his studio every day for a week.

“I’d never done that before,” Blanco says. “Somehow I figured out how to do it.”

Blanco took the bus to New York on weekends and endured sleeping in friends’ cars and tough love from Shayman, who threw water bottles at Blanco’s head and, on one occasion, his CDs out an open window.

That was in 2005, when Blanco was still a teenager. In many ways, today he still exudes more boyishness than grown masculinity. His snarl of curls is overgrown, while the stripe of hair rimming his upper lip has some filling out to do. For every instrument in his in-home studio, there are at least two toys. Monster finger puppets, a toy elephant and star machine all peer out from among more than a dozen keyboards, guitars, a ukulele, an organ, one oversized drum and a single accordion. A hookah, glow-in-the-dark Buddha and copy of Chopra’s “Love Poems of Rumi” gesture (somewhat feebly) to Western influence. Walls are swept with red and gold tapestries. Meditation pillows dot the floor.

It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between the eclecticism of the room where Blanco works and his sound. Blanco favors diverse musical components, as evidenced by his studio’s displays of vintage synths, toy pianos and Indian guitars. He possesses, he says, “a fetish for old instruments.” Blanco’s is a mix of funk, Baltimore house and electro—all rooted in a foundation of Miami bass (also known as “booty bass”), a style popularized at the turn of the ‘90s by controversial Supreme Court case rappers 2 Live Crew. Blanco, in fact, largely sampled work by that hip-hop group in the first album to gain him real industry attention, “Bangers and Cash.” The record was made and released in 2007 (in something of an acerbic twist, the same year Shayman killed himself).

“Bangers and Cash” was supposed to be a demo tape “to get me hype,” says Blanco. “We cut one record at my manager’s house … the next week we were making a record.”

The “we” is a nod to Spank Rock, a Philadelphia-based sex rapper and the voice of “Bangers,” an album reviewed by The Village Voice as “unusually crass.” Singles include such titles as “Bitch!”, “B-O-O-T-A-Y,” and “Shake That.” In homage to 2 Live Crew’s album “As Nasty As They Wanna Be,” the record’s debut single cover features Blanco and Spank Rock pounding fists on a beach. Standing over them in straddle position are women covered in suntan oil, and little else.

Rolling Stone called the album “raunchy, megahorny hip-hop, knowingly ridiculous and over-the-top.”

Not, as it turns out, that that’s a bad thing.

It was “Bangers and Cash” that landed Blanco his first meeting with producer Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald (named one of the top 10 producers of the decade by Billboard in 2009), who steered Blanco toward pop production.

According to Blanco, the switch to pop was a surprise twist of events. “I was making music for hipsters to dance to in underground clubs in Brooklyn,” he says. “I didn’t even do pop music until I was older”—by which he means 20, the age at which he contributed to three tracks on Spears’ 2008 album, “Circus.”

Yet Blanco has since remained firmly planted in the mainstream. Since having met Dr. Luke, the two have worked together extensively; the producers’ discographies crisscross from 2008 onward. Repeat collaborations have included work with Spears, Perry, rapper Lil Mama and British grime artist Lady Sovereign.

Meanwhile, Blanco’s solo trajectory as a producer has held steady; like most 23-year-olds, he resists the idea of being tied down. “I want to work with anyone who’s trying to make good music,” he says.

Most recently, that’s been new talent Neon Hitch, a British artist who helped co-write Ke$ha’s “Blah Blah Blah” alongside Blanco and others. Blanco and Hitch made a stop last October at Jammin Java in Vienna to promote Hitch’s debut album “Beg Borrow Steal”; at press time, the album was slated for an end-of-year release date.

Blanco otherwise returns home “about once a month,” he says, citing Reston’s PassionFish as a favorite stop to feed. Trips home for Blanco mean Amtrak or Turnpike; the producer no longer flies. “Bad flight,” is all he’ll say on the matter. “It’s just been downhill from there.”

That means six or seven days on
the road—each way—the few times a year he visits Los Angeles. “It’s fun,” he insists. “I like it. It’s relaxing.”

It’s the attitude and optimism of someone with 23-year-old musculature, of someone young enough to derive more pleasure than joint pain from a 3,000-mile road trip.

Professionally, the age factor seems to have dropped away for Blanco, who recalls having received more than a few second looks when he was spinning in clubs in Atlantic City at age 12. Now, he says, he already fears the other side of the coin.

“People used to be like, ‘Oh, Benny’s so talented for his age,’” he says. “‘He’s only 13-, 14-years old.’ … When I get older, am I going to be some mediocre old dude just trying to make it?”

Maybe it’s the hint of edginess that occasionally flares up. (“I just make the music, man. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t.”)

Or maybe it’s the untamed, unrestrained Bob Dylan-esque mane. Either way, it’s hard to picture a future Blanco folding himself into a mold, particularly that of a “mediocre old dude.” As a source of inspiration, he cites the work of singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, whose infamous swings of bipolarity made him subject of the 2006 documentary, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston.”

The comparison, in some ways, fits. There is a high, scattered energy in the way Blanco participates in a conversation or on stage, whether at Jammin Java or on the set of “Saturday Night Live.” Clad in a metallic, helmeted spacesuit, Blanco played keys for Ke$ha for her peculiarly cosmic-Americana-themed 2010 appearance on the show.

“Every time anything [like ‘SNL’] happens to me I’m like a kid in a candy store,” says Blanco. “I go nuts.”

Directing the torrents of energy is Blanco’s manager, James Johnson, who owns the Pilot Creative Services Inc., and who introduced Blanco to Hitch in 2007.

“She swings fire,” Blanco recalls Johnson saying of Hitch. “She’s in the circus. She does trapeze. … This girl’s gonna be big.”

A second active figure behind the scenes is another Reston native; the producer’s brother, Jeremy Levin, has long held influence over Blanco’s career. As kids, he took Blanco to purchase his first singles—“The World is Yours” by Naz and “I Swear” by All-4-One—in a now-defunct South Lakes record store.

“The first one’s pretty cool,” Blanco says. “The second one? Kind of gay.”

In many ways, Levin is still his brother’s keeper. He arranges interviews as well as photo shoots, and palms off demo tapes to Blanco, who insists that, in spite of the deleted MySpace account, he is receptive to new talent. (Blanco’s wall, when it existed, was plastered in collaboration requests.)

“I do try to listen to anything that comes my way,” he says. “You might have the next big thing right there. That was me a long time ago. I was just trying to get someone’s attention.”

It would explain a lot. The “eccentric” dances in underwear. The porn tracks. All the “megahorny” that is “Bangers and Cash.” Attention? He’s got it on lock.

“It worked out,” he says. “I got my way in.”

 

(July 2011)

 

 

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