When Hicham Benhallam knows he’s sketched out a good song, he gets excited. So excited that he paces around his house for 20 minutes or more, listening to the song through all the speakers. “It’s cathartic,” he says. “I sleep so well those nights.”
Songwriting isn’t easy for Benhallam, vocalist and main writer for Charlottesville’s Post Sixty Five. “When I write songs, I’ll really dive into it,” he says, staying up until the wee hours of the morning working on a guitar line or tweaking a lyric so that it fits but still holds its intended meaning. He’ll massage a song until it works, or until he’s ready to let it go and move on. This process can take months. “I think that’s why it’s so tiring for me, and why it takes so long.”
Benhallam learned to play classical guitar growing up in Rabat, Morocco (he earns his bread and butter as a classical guitar teacher here in town), and plays a variety of other instruments. A few years ago, he got the itch to start writing songs, and has been refining his writing process since then. He starts off with what he calls a “sketch” of a song, working first on guitar parts, and vocal melodies, then layers on lyrics and percussion.
He shares these sketches— but only the ones he deems good enough— with friends and his bandmates, and Post Sixty Five develops them from there. “Some of these songs take so long to write,” he says, but he has something to say and can’t ignore the urge to share it.
Post Sixty Five occupies a unique spot in the Charlottesville music scene; they don’t sound like anyone else in town right now, largely due to Benhallam’s arresting voice and the plain emotion present in the songs. The music is atmospheric, the lyrics are earnest, and Benhallam’s deep voice is melancholy. (His voice fits somewhere in the realm of The Antlers’ Peter Silberman and The National’s Matt Berninger.) In the band’s new single, “Beginners,” Benhallam sings, “We stay kids for too long/ We stay kids for too long/ Will anybody love me?/ Will anybody love me?” He’s practically still a kid himself— he’s only 22— but when he repeats these lines, he’s pleading as much as he’s wondering. “Let me in, let me in” he begs later, his voice weary by song’s end, exhausted from removing his heart from his body and stitching it— slowly— to his sleeve.
“Beginners,” like all of the songs on the band’s forthcoming I Think We’ll Be Okay EP, are about violence and anger, but they’re also about love. These are songs about the feeling of longing. It’s a feeling Benhallam knows well, one he feels for Rabat and for his family thousands of miles away in Morocco; one he’s felt when he’s in love, or out of love. When he’s on stage, he says he wrestles constantly with whether or not he should be up there. He’s never quite comfortable on stage, never quite satisfied with what he’s singing or doing, longing for something better. He’ll pound his leg and choke the mic as he feels each word he sings.
“We can get pretty sad,” Benhallam says of the band’s music. But he believes that “anyone in the world will react to feeling, to earnestness, to this zero degree of representation. We’re not particularly cool, but we’re unapologetic— in our music and lyrics— about how terribly sad we can get.” But the band’s music isn’t depressing. There’s a difference between expressing deep, sometimes dark, emotion and being “depressing.” Benhallam’s songs don’t make you feel depressed; instead they’re meant to be there for you to relate to in your own moments of sadness, of need and longing.
Benhallam says that he and his bandmates are proud of I Think We’ll Be Okay and can’t wait to share the new songs with a live audience; the new lineup and the new songs are really working, he says. “We’re really proud of the record. I mean, I’ve been panicking about making something meaningful for quite some time now,” he says. “Every birthday, I’ve been like, ‘I haven’t made anything meaningful yet.’ When I was 16, I started thinking, ‘This is not enough!’”
This is the kind of thinking that has gained Benhallam a reputation as a deep thinker, as a songwriter who cares about the process of his craft. “He is the kind of musician who will obsess over a song,” says Kyle Woolard, who fronts Anatomy of Frank and is a friend of Benhallam’s. “He’s such a thinker. There’s this quote that Hicham said to me one time, and I will carry it with me ’til the day I die. He said, ‘The people that we [he and I as musicians] consort with, the people that we’re chasing in life, are those who are seeking beauty in every part of their life.’ Think about that! He’s right. There’s beauty in every medium, every discipline.” Benhallam is on a quest to uncover that beauty, even when it’s a little dark.
Benhallam’s Tuning In playlist is a collection of songs that mean a lot to him— “they are essentially songs I used to find scary to listen to, and after I started writing songs, I made a point of going into these things completely uneconomically and sort of dove right into these enormous emotional mammoths.” He points out the Jacques Brel songs as “incredibly heartbreaking and uneconomical expressions of despair in the face of getting older and sort of being beat by your own sense of self. I think it’s one of the most powerful expressions of self-surrender I’ve encountered.”
The playlist is constructed in pairs, which is how Benhallam prefers to listen to songs— and how he often ends up writing them. The only solo song is Modest Mouse’s “Little Motel,” a song about what else, but longing for another person.
At the I Think We’ll Be Okay EP release on Thursday, Sept. 24 at The Southern, Post Sixty Five will be joined by various special guests, including Devon Sproule; Jimmy Bullis and Kyle Woolard of Anatomy of Frank; Ryan Lipps from Erin and the Wildfire; and Brian Roy from Kendall Street Company. You can expect new songs, new arrangements of old songs, and plenty of feelings. “Over the last few months, we’ve developed a lot of love for each other as a band, and for other musicians in town as well,” says Benhallam. “We’ve never been happier to play for Charlottesville.”