All photos by Tonje Thilesen
Benjy Keating sounds rough today, though it's not really his fault. The voice on the other end of an early June Skype call from Berlin—where he's stationed for a few months to work on new music—isn't one that I recognize. The connection breaks up; every other word is cloaked in distortion. We hang up and call back, then eventually resign to speaking back and forth via chat. The unrelenting crackle of that call is the opposite to the smooth, softly Auto-Tune-coated lilt that I'm used to hearing on his records.
The London-based songwriter and producer has been working under the name Palmistry since 2011, slowly shaping and honing that wisp of a voice over punctured drums and lilting keyboard melodies. Early self-released collections—like 2011's Cut EP—demonstrated his singular, controlled talent, and attracted kindred spirits. Over the past five years, Keating has made beats for the mysterious, Hippos in Tanks-signed, Cantonese-rapping MC Triad God; released a 2014 EP on pointillist trance producer Lorenzo Senni's Presto?! label; and fallen in with Brooklyn's Mixpak crew, whose founder, Dre Skull, shares his taste for dancehall's immortal riddims. While some writers have emphasized his music's indebtedness to that Jamaican tradition, Keating has arguably been mining the pop idiom in equal measure since 2013, when he collaborated with pop provocateur SOPHIE on Palmistry's first Mixpak single, "Catch." The pairing made perfect sense, with SOPHIE's manic bubblegum sensibilities meshing seamlessly with the slower bounce that had become a Keating hallmark.
Mixpak released his long-in-the-making debut album, Pagan, back in June. The years he's taken to complete it have afforded him a approach that is unique even for that label's vast roster of experimenters, weaving dancehall's off-kilter rhythms, the low-key gleam of pop music, and trance's head-spinning synth-work into a bed for his celestial voice. While that voice often manifested in a hushed whisper during his early work, his delivery is stronger, clearer and more nuanced than ever on Pagan—as if to underscore the fact that he's revealing some of his most personal stories to date.
Keating was born in Kilkenny, Ireland, but he was raised in the church—more specifically, a non-denominational congregation that his parents ran out of their own home. His mother was a worship leader who would play guitar and sing during services; his father was a preacher with a complicated past. After running away from a borstal—a sort of youth detention center and reform school in the U.K.—at the age of 16, Keating's dad had been in and out of prison until his late 20s, mostly due to drug-related charges. It was there that the elder Keating found Christianity. "[My dad] had come from a crazy background and religion was his way out," Keating says. "There was a lot of good vibes from [the church]." Though he says the sounds he heard during worship up didn't do much to influence his artistic trajectory—"I guess it was kinda sweet," Keating recalls—he admits that growing up in a religious household had a "huge impact" on him as a person, for better or for worse. The church can be an easy way for some to define themselves, but Keating had to find another way.
In 2011, he moved to South East London, and started publicly sharing sounds under the name Palmistry. Immersing himself in the busy metropolis, he immediately came into contact with a culture completely different from the remote Irish setting he'd wandered as a child. For one thing, as he explained to The FADER in 2014, his next-door neighbors were Chilean DJs and producers Blaze Kid, Uli K, and Kamixlo—artists now starting to get their due respect for breaking down and reshaping pop, nu metal, and club music. "They're definitely making London the most exciting place musically for me," he tells me, marveling at their peak-time, full throttle stamina. "It's really the only kinda energy I'm interested in club-wise."
Living in London was also how Keating first fell in love with dancehall, drawn in by its emphasis on the voice and straddling of the dance and pop worlds. "It definitely works in the club and also just listening at home," he says. "All over London you'll hear Popcaan, Vybz Kartel, and Mavado blaring from cars at all times of the day." During our conversation, he mentions that Mixpak founder Dre Skull—who produced Kartel's Kingston Story and Popcaan's Where We Come From—inspired some of his earlier work, then pushed him to refine his production chops after they became friends. Now that Pagan is out in the world, it isn't lost on Keating that the record will be slotted right alongside his heroes on shelves. "I can't really compare myself to them, but it's amazing for me that Pagan will be Mixpak's third LP, following Vybz' Kingston Story and Popcaan's Where We Come From," he says. "That's deep on a personal level."
Keating started writing Pagan in a friend's rented space in South London's Brixton in January of 2015, before finishing the album at Mixpak's Brooklyn studio in the summer. Over the course of the record's 13 tracks, he mixes clattering percussion, billowing keyboard chords, and melancholic pads to devastatingly poignant effect, all the while revealing a little more of himself than he has on previous efforts.
I can't really compare myself to them, but it's amazing for me that Pagan will be Mixpak's third LP, following Vybz' Kingston Story and Popcaan's Where We Come From. That's deep on a personal level.
He sings of love, liquor and loneliness—of taking things slow, of embracing the night. "L After L" finds him shirking romanticism ("Plenty time for love/ But for now fuck that"), and "Sino" draws on an old gambling habit. On "Paigon," he seems to turn the album's mysterious title against himself: "Daddy was a pastor… Mummy was a pastor… Son was a pagan." Chatting with me, he's hesitant to explain the quote exactly, simply stating that the songs represent "embellish[ed]" versions of his personal experience. Still, there's a newfound confidence there—the sense that you're catching a new glimpse of him with every word, whether he's singing about his past or of pouring out another shot.
Some critics have have suggested Keating's engagement with dancehall is problematic, an act of cultural appropriation from someone who isn't Jamaican-born. However, Keating would say that his music isn't a direct riff on the genre—it's slower, a little more somber. "I wouldn't say I'm making dancehall, even though I'm on a dancehall-heavy label, and it's definitely what I listen to most," he tells me. Indeed—with their bright keyboard chords, elastic basslines, and wooden snares—his productions lean further towards pop, albeit a weirder and more soft-spoken brand of it than you hear on the radio. "My music is too underground to be called pop in the general sense, but I write it with an emphasis to be remembered," he explains.
More than any one genre in particular, the sound he's created feels most indebted to the animated rhythms of city life, to the melting pot culture of his adopted homes of London and Berlin. Currently, he's been working on his second record as Palmistry, as well as a long-awaited second Triad God album, and some other "anonymous" projects he doesn't want to talk about yet. While out in German capital, he says he's been immersing himself in a whole new world of sounds, including those of the reggaeton-influenced Mobilegirl; 19-year-old wunderkind Mechatok, who meshes rap and club music as part of Stockholm's STAYCORE crew; and WHY BE, whose hissing, apocalyptic productions have found their way onto Rabit's Halcyon Veil label. "It's the younger generation that I'm super excited by," he tells me. Keating may be talking about his peers, but he's speaking about a generation that includes him.
Aurora Mitchell is on Twitter.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mechatok was part of Kamixlo, Uli K, and Endgame's Bala Club crew, when in fact, he is part of Stockholm's STAYCORE collective. The article has been updated accordingly.