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Esquire magazine songwriting project comes to Detroit

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When Esquire magazine brought five musicians to Detroit during the first week of March, it wasn’t just to see the town.

But it had everything to do with the city and its musical heritage.

For its May music issue, which hits newsstands this week, the magazine flew in country star Dierks Bentley, R&B artisan Raphael Saadiq, the late Beatle George Harrison’s son Dhani of thenewno2 and Detroit natives Brendan Benson and Ben Blackwell to make some music. Esquire gave them a line, “Last night in Detroit,” and asked each to write a song using it in some way.

The results are available at www.Esquire.com and iTunes for 99 cents per song or $3.99 for all five, with proceeds going to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Detroit. Videos for the songs, shot by photographer Danny Clinch, are streaming at Esquire’s website.

It’s the second time the magazine has done the project, based on a game Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Bob Schneider plays with his colleagues. Last year’s was held in Clarksdale, Miss., but Esquire’s Andy Langer, who coordinated the trip, says the desire to add a charity component pointed the project northward.

“Both years we wanted a music city, some place that had a rich music history, and some place that has places of historical significance that we could put these guys in” for photos, Langer explains. “When we decided to introduce the charity component, it was like, ‘Who can you help?’

“I think Detroit fit all of those criteria.”

Weather concerns led Esquire to push the issue back a month (last year’s music issue came out in late March), but otherwise, the trip went smoothly. The entourage ensconced itself at the Westin Book Cadillac and ate at the restaurants Roast and Slows Bar BQ, the latter near High Bias Recordings, where the musicians recorded their songs.

Photos, meanwhile, were done at the Masonic Temple, the Heidelberg Project and at now-Nashville resident Benson’s old house near Belle Isle. The troupe also shot at the Motown Historical Museum, where it was allowed the rare privilege of taking photos in Studio A and where Saadiq was the first person in many years to be allowed to actually step foot in the usually roped-off control room.

“These guys had been to Detroit at various times to play shows,” Langer notes, “but like any other city...generally they’re on and off the (tour) bus. This was, for a lot of them, their first chance ot really see the places of Detroit, albeit in a condensed time frame.

“The idea was, ‘You’re going to collaborate. You’re going to hang out.’ This was more like a little summer camp kind of vibe than anything else.”

The city certainly weighed heavily on the songs the musicians created -- especially Benson (“Last Night in Detroit”), “who really did have a last night in Detroit before he left,” and Blackwell, whose “Bury My Body at Elmwood,” referencing the famous cemetery, Langer calls says “sounds like a Detroit song -- not the Motown Detroit, though.” Saadiq, meanwhile, wrote “Breaking In” about “being sort of drunk and lost in the Motown building,” while Harrison lends a British flavor to his “One Way Out.”

Bentley, meanwhile, penned his “Line No. 7” from the perspective of the machines at a stamping factory that was moved from Detroit to Mexico but still turns out parts that are shipped back to the Motor City. “I wrote and recorded it all in less than 24 hours, honestly,” Bentley recalls. “I started it on the airplane on the flight up there, and I was in the studio at 9 o’clock the next morning recording it. It was a cool thing to do. I’m proud of that song.”

Langer says that one of the best parts of the trip was having Blackwell, another expatriate to Nashville, where he works for his uncle Jack White’s Third Man Records conglomerate. Despite “the slightest resume of the bunch,” Blackwell was the most valuable player in terms of indigenous insight.

“He’s like this walking encyclopedia of Detroit folklore and trivia,” Langer recalls. “He had an answer for virtually everyone’s questions regarding anything in Detroit.

“He was probably the most nervous of the bunch, sort of ‘Why am I here,’ and then he really delivered. He really enhanced everyone’s Detroit experience.”

Web Site: www.esquire.com

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