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 Berlinwhere he’s stationed for a few months to work on new musicisn’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 collectionslike 2011’s Cut EPdemonstrated 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 Paganas 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 churchmore 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 borstala 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. “” versions of his personal experience. Still, there’s a newfound confidence therethe 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 genreit’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. Indeedwith their bright keyboard chords, elastic basslines, and wooden snareshis 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.
Palmistry’s debut album Pagan is out now on Mixpak.
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.