Interview: Ben de la Cour on Stephen Hawking, the Human Condition, and Songwriting

Interviews

Americana Highways had the chance to talk to Ben de la Cour the other day, about his new release The High Cost of Living Strange (Flour Sack Cape Records), and things got very analytic from the start – must’ve been something in the atmosphere that day.   I jumped in to ask him what’s particularly compelling about music as opposed to other art forms.   “The real advantage of music is that you don’t have to meet it halfway,” he said. “With visual art forms you may need knowledge of the art world, or a frame of reference. A lot of modern and contemporary art requires an explanation. Similarly with literature, for example with something like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or Cormac McCarthy, you need a background in literature to fully understand what’s going on. Art forms that require education in the genre first seem a little elitist to me. “

“But with music you can get attached without mediation. It can appeal without even attaching to the lyrical side; and even the lyrical side can be part of the simple storytelling tradition. So I think music is more like a margarita. It’s sweet, it’s salty, it’s strong. It’s sensual.” (laughs)

“Seriously, though, other art forms are more likely to need to go through rational channels in our understanding, and music undercuts that. Music can circumvent all that because it has a primal, direct aspect to it, which is appealing. It allows you to avoid self-indulgence. The format of the 3-4 minute limit is another barrier to self-indulgence, which I think is really valuable.“

Speaking of the pitfalls of self-indulgence, de la Cour has a song about another form of self-indulgence: “Dixie Crystals,” about drug use. “In this song,” I pointed out, “you have the line ‘tomorrow is 3 or 4 days away.’   Would you like to elaborate on your own sense of our experience of time? “There is a complete misconception of time as linear. Stephen Hawking recently died, as you know, and he theorized about time being circular, not linear. He also accounted for our human experience of time. I find that the songwriting process really makes that clear. One of the beautiful things about the creative process is that you’re allowed to avoid being at the mercy of time, unlike during a lot of the rest of your life. You almost get to be outside of time both when you create a narrative and when you’re in that kind of flow.”

How do you know when songwriting inspiration is going to hit you? “I try to write every day, so I’m ready. You can’t get there often but when you do get there occasionally you get to one of those places where it’s just all coming out. It pays to be ready, I try to sit down and write every day because I want to prepare. There’s this great Henry Miller quote: “When you can’t create, you can work.” I like that quote. When you’re not able to get something creative going, you can at least sit down and work at it.   You want to be ready. Some people may be hit by inspiration constantly, but I have to carve out a space for it, to be ready in case it comes.”

Can you write when you’re on tour? “When I’m on the road I still try to do that. Traveling is great for inspiration so I’m always taking notes, on scraps of paper or on my phone.   You can develop an ear for snippets of conversation. Good lines or jumping off points to get the ball rolling.”

Your songs describe such oddly understandable characters. How closely are your songs’ characters based on real people and events?   “None of the characters are real, I try to let the story tell itself and I try to get out of the way. I feel like the idea that people have that they are going to set out to write a story – that’s a one way ticket to writing something lousy, it ends up feeling contrived, or preachy.   You have to let the story write itself as much as possible, and then edit it later”

“The human condition is the law of entropy, the law of thermodynamics. Everything is always kind of falling apart, it’s part of being human to be lost. Things fall apart and you keep trying and you keep going. Things fall apart and people feel like it’s forever – but you have to figure out what are you going to do after the fact. We love the rags to riches story, or the riches to rags story, that provides the place where the dissolution sets in. I aim to write stories about people, the human condition, as cliché as that sounds.”  For a sample of de la Cour’s songs of dissolution, give “Guy Clark’s Fiddle” a listen:

What’s your actual songwriting process? “The goal is to distill things down to what’s important within the 2-5 minute format. I have tons of notebooks, hundreds of notes on my phone. I also record little melodies. It’s fun when it’s all done to go back and see 12 pages worth of lyrics distilled into a half a page of lyrics. I don’t know where the songs come from but I do understand the process a little better with each one I write. It’s all part of the human condition.”

Who else is on the album that’s coming out tomorrow? “Jimmy Sullivan plays bass; Erin Nelson plays drums – uncluttered, no cymbals; Billy Contreras plays fiddle, and I play guitar and mandolin and MOOG. Jeff Lisenby played accordion. The New Orleans feel seemed appropriate for Uncle Boudreau song.” You’ll have to give it a listen, here:

De la Cour is touring about 150 days/ year, check here for dates near you and get your copy of the album!

Tour

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