Her dream gig is the Pat O'Brien's piano bar, where she's the center of attention and anonymous at the same time.
Hannah Kreiger-Benson didn’t set out to become spokesperson of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO). Prior to assuming that role in the fall of 2012, she was a student, a member of ska-rock band The Local Skank, and she sang in St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus. Since becoming spokesperson, she’s eased up on the student thing and added regular stints at the piano bar at Pat O’Brien’s, where St. Cecilia’s member Amy Trail performs as well. She’ll have played at Pat O’s two years in May, and she really enjoys the job, even though her solo activity has dropped off.
“Freelancing is much harder and less appealing,” Krieger-Benson says. But she reiterates, “I love it. It’s so much fun.”
Kreiger-Benson will perform at The French Quarter Fest’s BMI Songwriter Stage at the Historic New Orleans Collection Sunday at 2:15 p.m., then again on the same stage at 3:45 p.m. with St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus.
Kreiger-Benson moved from Boston to New Orleans in 2007 to do construction with a non-profit agency to help the rebuilding process. “I loved that job,” she says. She answered a number of Craig’s List ads to join bands that year--one for a cover band that became more trouble than it was worth, and one for The Local Skank. Another couple of projects started but didn’t take.
After three years of construction, she became concerned of the possibility of hearing loss, sun damage, and hand damage and quit in June 2010. Soon after, she played her first gig under her own name, playing Irish folk material, but she’s not sure why. “Where the Irish thing comes from is a mystery,” Krieger-Benson says. Her family isn’t Irish, but “for some reason that relatively percussive, often fiddle-driven, Appalachian/New England/Irish-in-the-new-world sound seems very familiar.”
With the construction gig behind her, Krieger-Benson wasn’t sure what to do next so she started a Masters Degree at Tulane. It remains unfinished because “the thesis turned into MaCCNO. I was going to write a thesis about zoning law and music venues and very quickly found that I’d opened this portal and off I went.” She hadn’t planned to become part of MaCCNO’s leadership when she showed up the at the September 26, 2012 meeting of musicians, culture bearers, and culture supporters at Kermit’s Treme Speakeasy, but she was up to speed on the issues. “I’d done a paper for a history class on Frenchmen Street, and how Frenchmen was a bizarre thing that had grown organically and the law was catching up with it,” she says. The idea that the law was constantly running behind the organic reality of culture on the ground interested her.
That fascination isn’t as odd as it might seem. Her father did environmental zoning law, and over Thanksgiving 2012, she asked him to help her go through the New Orleans zoning code to make sure she understood it.
The first meeting at Kermit's was chaotic and volatile, so much so that when Kreiger-Benson started a sign-up sheet to collect email addresses for possible follow-up interviews for her thesis, that marked her as sufficiently organized to possibly lead the meetings. She agreed if she could co-lead them with singer/songwriter Kyoko McRae so she didn't have to carry the burden alone. That worked until McRae stepped down and the front person gig fell to her.
“I have a fairly rare combination of traits,” Kreiger-Benson says. “I make a living as a musician, but I also have this love for nerd things and zoning laws. It’s been pretty much a full-time job for 2 1/2 years.”
Working with MaCCNO has been a crash course in politics and dealing with people and New Orleans. She’s learned to harness and focus unfocused energies, as well as the processes of politics. “I’ve learned a lot about myself in terms of what I value and what I’m willing to fight for,” she says. She’s learned to the necessity of saying unpopular things with the force of conviction, and that there are limits to diplomacy and how far you have to go to make others happy.
“I’ve learned a ton,” she says.
During part of the last year, The Local Skank lowered its profile. Until 2011 when St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus started, it was her primary vehicle and introduced her to New Orleans audiences. When its guitarist left town, the band cycled through a number of guitarists, playing the same songs gig after gig in musical limbo, unable to move forward until the lineup stabilized. Now they think they’ve found their guitarist, they’re writing again, and Krieger-Benson thinks the time off was good for the band to regain perspective on a lot of things including its identity.
“We’re not really a ska band,” she says. “We’re a pop-rock band with horns.”
She sees the interaction with musicians as the common thread, which is telling. She doesn't see a musical or thematic signature, finding it instead in the pleasure of working with others. Perhaps that's why projects she’s in feel like bands you should enjoy while you can, because she doesn’t treat them as vehicles to a future but as ends in themselves to appreciate until it’s time to enjoy another one.
“I never had the drive to be famous under my own name,” she says. “I’m not great as a bandleader. I’m not good at the hustle. There’s something just as exciting about being a part of [St. Cecilia’s] as opposed to being me in the front backed by other people. I think I’m a better arranger than songwriter. I wouldn’t have got back into songwriting this month and last month if not for the gig.”