February 22, 2023
Set sail with the music of Steely Dan, Donald Fagan, Toto and more.
For the best part of the last half-century, the goofily-named mellow sounds of yacht rock have oscillated in popularity and influenced generations of musicians. Originating in the mid-’70s with the sounds of Steely Dan, Toto and their contemporaries, yacht rock earned its name late in life, from a Channel 101 web series in 2005.
Named for its breezy, smooth qualities, yacht rock has become synonymous with soft rock vibes made for kicking it back to and has served as a guiding sound for popular artists such as Mac DeMarco, Thundercat and Benny Sings.
Ahead of the release of his tenth album, Young Hearts, on March 24, Benny Sings talks us through his essential yacht rock releases. All aboard!
This album is an ultimate classic – and people will certainly recognise some big hip hop samples on this record. I started out in hip hop, and artists like Puff Daddy and J Dilla used yacht rock as samples for their beats. I was always into those samples before I knew what they were. I started writing hip hop songs, but I wanted to capture the choruses and samples.
Then some critics compared my stuff to yacht rock, and it was only then that I realised where those influences were coming from. Steely Dan is one of the go-tos for yacht rock–this album is full of elements you might know. It’s just a great album. Yacht rock as a term was invented in a show about Steely Dan and Michael McDonald–they’re like the founding fathers of the genre.
Kenny Beats produced my upcoming album, Young Hearts, and the night before we went into the studio together to record, he binge-watched yacht rock documentaries. “Young Hearts”, the title track, nods to this record in terms of the chords and attitude.
Donald Fagen is, of course, one of the members of Steely Dan (alongside Walter Becker). The Nightfly is his debut solo record, and it’s even more up my alley. Where Aja is still a bit complicated and rational, The Nightfly has more of a pop influence. The first song on the album is just the ultimate song for me–this is the kind of music I want to make. It could also be described as ‘soft rock’, but it’s not really rock at all–it’s super sleek and soft, but the term still works because the music still carries a strength, a kind of soft power. It has this punch to it that really gets to me. I love this stuff. The song “I.G.Y.” on this album will be instantly recognisable to some–it was a big hit when I was a young child, so it’s nostalgic for me, and it really got into my musical DNA in a way.
What You Won’t Do For Love
Bobby Caldwell’s What You Won’t Do for Love is still part of the wider yacht rock family, though it’s definitely more soul-influenced–inspired by great soul music but with an odd twist which I love. This record was just a big, classic record that influenced many people and still does nowadays. Again, I know Bobby Caldwell from great hip hop samples. You can hear samples from this album in tracks like “The Light” by Common and J Dilla, and of course, the title track “What You Won’t Do For Love” is well known as it’s referenced in Tupac’s song “Do For Love”.
That title track is the big song on this album–every note on it hits hard. The funny thing is that it was a late addition; the album was already written and finished way before it. Bobby worked really hard on the record, but the label said “it doesn’t have a hit song on it yet”. This frustrated him, but he said “okay, whatever, I’ll write you a hit song” and thought he’d just make something quick and easy, written in a day.
It was added to the album and turned out to be his biggest hit. This story does inspire me. It’s a reminder to sometimes listen to what managers and labels have to say, rather than always just focusing on what you want. Your music can be about the community around you. See what resonates with them and what doesn’t.
Toto’s self-titled album is a real, true example of yacht rock–a total classic. For me, the most important song is “Georgy Porgy”, that song inspired a song on our album called ‘The World’. I was so into that song already, and then when I went to Kenny’s studio to record this album, he played that exact one, which was a freaky coincidence. We listened and made a song in that realm.
The other key track on this album is of course “Hold The Line”. If you can make a song like that, then you’re a king. I can’t remember the first time I heard Toto or these songs, they’ve been with me since I was unconscious. They’re just such huge hits that everyone knows. If you ever go to the supermarket–you know these songs.
One Bad Habit
Michael Franks has probably been the biggest influence on my music and you hear that immediately when you hear this album. He’s got a similar vocal tone to me–that high-pitched, airy kind of voice. He’s also just the ultimate anti-rock ‘n’ roller. When you go on his website, he tells you about how he’s been working in his garden, and there’s a picture of him with his Dachshund sausage dog.
He just makes great music; really clever, beautiful, musical and easy, not pretentious at all. The first song on the album is called “Baseball”, and he sings “love is just like baseball,” and makes comparisons like “three strikes and you’re out” and all that kind of stuff. It’s so stupid and so good–made by some of the best musicians in the world, really high-league, but with a perfect balance of naivety to it. He’s all about the songs and has made like 20 albums, an album every 2 or 3 years since the ’70s.
He’s not super big or super famous, but he’s well-known and has had a big career–he’s a superstar in my eyes. If I had to choose my favourite song on this record, it would be the title track “One Bad Habit”, it has such a great groove, and really captures that idea of the soft power of yacht rock / soft rock – it’s so soft and so sleek it’s almost laughable, but it carries a real punch. It has this real greatness to it.
Benny Sings’ Young Hearts is available to pre-order on vinyl ahead of its March 24 release.