A beautiful mix of early gospel and soul, with modern synth and electronic samples, is an experience that can only be created by Malachi Henry and the Lights. This San Diego-based band was founded by singer-songwriter, Ben Hernandez after he realized that his love and passion for music needed to be fed. With new songs, a new perspective and bandmates who longed for change and a push out of their comfort zone, Malachi Henry and the Lights were born.
When you listen to their single, “Upon The Shoals”, a scene from a movie starts to play in your head. You’re driving down a stretch of the highway, looking out at the beautiful scenery of the countryside. The lyrics talk about the struggles you encounter throughout life and confronting these challenges in order to grow. This is the kind of song that is able to take you on a true self-love journey. The track starts out with smooth vocals and a soft percussion beat. As the song goes on and starts to build, you can really hear the different sonic influences start to come in and blend together. The guitar comes in with a groovy riff that is a very southern soul sound. By the chorus, a more steady rock beat in the drums is carrying through the track. The piano is then introduced and gives in that gospel feel. The sounds of Malachi Henry and the Lights inspire self-reflection and “Upon The Shoals” is an incredible single that will inspirit its listeners.
Listen to “Upon The Shoals” here.
Where did the name “Malachi Henry and the Lights” come from?
The name is a combination of a few things. Several years ago, my wife and I volunteered overnight at a transitional shelter for homeless women and their children and we met a little boy named Malachi. His innocence in the midst of his situation and his joyful personality left a very powerful mark on me. I don't know what became of them, but part of the bane name is a tribute to them. "Henry" comes from the folk tale about John Henry, The Steel Driving Man. I was fascinated by this story when I was a kid, reading it over and over in one of those Golden Books. "The Lights" is taken from an old gospel group from Baltimore called "The Holy Lights". I joke about it once in a while, especially when I tell people the name of our band, that it's impossible to say, spell, or remember! Why couldn't I have come up with a one-word name?! Hahaha! But that's what was put together and I'm proud knowing that the name wasn't just randomly chosen.
The way you’re able to mix gospel and soul with more modern electronic sounds is really unique. Can you explain more about your writing process and how it’s changed since you started musically professionally again?
When I first started out years ago, I was playing more country blues and Americana, and writing within those styles and genre. The lyrics were simpler, the content was a bit more superficial, but I always held on to a little collection of other songs that were a bit more "progressive" both in their arrangement and lyrically. In 2009, my wife and I moved to North Carolina and I had to give up playing full-time, so I just practiced writing...and listened...to everything. Up until that time I had mostly been listening to traditional country blues, soul, and gospel music. So, when I finally stopped playing and began to dig into writing, I checked out so many artists that probably everyone else had been listening to for years, but whose music was completely new to me. I will always keep coming back to the well of traditional American music, but in some ways, it felt like I had just emerged from hibernation and hadn't seen the sun in awhile. I was just consuming it all, even stuff I didn't especially like. I would just take it in with an open mind, gleaning anything I could from the recordings. I used to work as a traveling salesman of sorts, so I had a lot of time in the car, driving throughout the South, and East Coast, listening to new bands or recording lyrics and singing into my phone. Our new single reflects some of those times; being away from home, just staring through headlights or standing at the bank of a frozen river, skipping a stone across the ice. It takes me a long time to put a song together, but I usually start with the words. I love the lyrics. I love the sound and rhythm of lyrics and how they feel rolling out of my mouth. I collect words and phrases all the time in hopes that I'll be able to use them in a song. I think I'm more observant than I used to be and seem to take notice of an interesting word or phrase more quickly. In the beginning, my writing was so rigid. I would get frustrated when lines didn't have a connection to each other or that they didn't compliment the "story". I let go of the idea of them staying true to the theme and gave myself permission to phrase lyrics that just sounded cool to me, regardless of whether they "made sense" in the context of the song. I'll take all of those little lyrical pieces I've gathered and slowly stitch them together, singing them over and over again to see how they flow vocally. If certain lines seem cumbersome or awkward, then I trim them or find a better word to smooth things out. Sometimes, though, I have to sacrifice a really cool word; but in my process, cerebral lyrics are worthless if they don't sing right. Eventually, I take it to the band and at that point, it's a very collaborative effort. Because my background is in roots music those elements will always be present in our songs, and we're constantly balancing the relationship between the traditional, raw sounds, and modern rock. We'll sample organic sounds recorded from an iPhone, like birds or cicadas or trigger synth effects and combine them with a lo-fi guitar tone. As a band, we really look forward to the challenge of setting ourselves apart from each show by using these unconventional elements in our music.
Speaking of restarting, what was it in your life that made you decide to move back to California? You said you had come to a turn row, can you speak more on what lead you to that?
I really liked living in North Carolina, but Charlotte, NC is not well known for its arts and music culture. It's known for banking. I just couldn't find enough of the right musicians and more so, the venues to be able to keep my career going the way I wanted to. So, I eventually just stopped. I didn't really notice for the first few years, but slowly I became pretty miserable not playing music anymore. My wife could see it on my face every day. I would drive to my job and on the way, I could feel this anxiety clawing at my back. I didn't sleep well. I'd be staring off into the distance when people would talk to me. I used to mumble lyrics to myself. It sounds cliche', but the music was calling me back to it. All I had was this little collection of songs and only two or three guys in town who really hung in there with me, doing their best to help launch the band. But, it wasn't enough, and the songs went back into the dark. One day, my friend Rick Holmstrom, who is Mavis Staples' bandleader, had come to town on tour with Mavis. I took him out to breakfast and asked him if he'd put a band together to help me record these songs once and for all. It took about a year, but finally, Mavis had a short break in her schedule and we got to work. I launched a Kickstarter campaign, raised all the money (I'm forever grateful to those folks), and recorded the first album with Mavis's band, Rick, Jeff Turmes, and Stephen Hodges. That was the "turn row" moment. As soon as we were done, I knew I needed to do more. I wasn't satisfied with it just being a souvenir album. I missed California and I knew I could find the musicians that would fit well into the whole dynamic of what I wanted in a band going forward.
Ben, you toured as a backup singer for Mavis Staples, that must have been an incredible experience! What was it like to tour with someone who is so spirited and inspiring? How did touring with her impact your music?
Aw, man! Touring with Mavis Staples was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I'll carry with me forever. I'm extremely grateful that I was even considered and that she and the rest of the team were confident enough in my abilities to take me along for the summer. Mavis and The Staple Singers have shaped my music more than any other artist. You'll find traces of their influence weaving throughout our songs, the way I write, and the way I sing. All roads seem to lead back to them. To not only share a stage with her but to also sit next to her in the airport and ask her about her favorite gospel groups when she was coming up, was more than my little brain could handle. On stage, she would glance over at me with a smile or slap me on the back when I sang something she liked. Mavis is a true legend. She's walked with Martin Luther King, been put in jail, put up hits on the Billboard charts, and influenced countless artists, so when Mavis Staples places her hand on your shoulder because she likes your singing, it feels like you've been knighted. Even at 80 years old, she shows no signs of stopping. Touring with her really changed how I approached my own singing and just my presence as a bandleader. And it wasn't just Mavis. I learned so many invaluable techniques by standing next to the other backup singer, Saundra Williams. Saundra is probably best known for her years singing with Sharon Jones. I had never been a backup singer before and although I've always loved background vocals in songs, Saundra really showed me the art of it all. Up until that point, I had only been a lead singer and felt I had to belt out notes the way I've always done when fronting a band. She taught me that it was more than just singing the ooh's and ahhs. It was about how the voices blended in the right ways to support the lead singer. How sometimes a softer and more nuanced note can add more dynamic texture to the song then one sung with power. Working with all of them altered the trajectory of our band in more ways than they could ever know.
What can we expect to see from Malachi Henry and the Lights throughout 2020?
We just released a new single with an EP coming in a few months. We'll continue building our name and earning our fans in our hometown (San Diego) and beyond with hopefully more shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco this year. We're grateful for this interview. It's this kind of support that will eventually get our message farther so that new fans will not only hear our name but maybe even remember it too! Thanks so much!