Ben Caplan — recollection
With a powerful, booming voice that vibrates your very soul long after the record draws to a close, Ben Caplan doesn’t just write music – he crafts emotions that leap from the song and on to the listener. Nowhere is that more apparent than on his latest album, recollection, a whimsical and dreamy journey into the Canadian singer-songwriter’s catalog of previously-recorded tracks, which he stripped down and re-imagined while in isolation during COVID-19 quarantine.
I recently sat down with Caplan to discuss building new relationships with the songs, surpassing his career goals, and the contrast between beauty and decay.
Americana Highways: Your latest album recollection is a beautiful and moving collection of re-imagined tracks from your catalog. What did you want to bring to the songs that would not only offer something new for listeners, but for yourself as well?
Ben Caplan: For a long time, I have been using my voice to create a range of different feelings and textures. Working on those timbres has always been a core part of my artistic process. With live performance being the bulk of my work as an artist, I have spent a lot of time working on big sounds that can fill a room. For this project, I was imagining my music in the tremendously different context of listening to something alone at home. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to take these big and bellowing tunes and find a more modest way of singing and performing them. I had to create new relationships with the material and find new ways of producing my voice.
AH: What I personally love about recollection is the way it makes you feel as a listener. Beyond the songs themselves there is an emotional response that happens. Did revisiting these songs in this way plug you back into the emotions you had when you originally wrote them because there is something so raw about them that feels as if they were written in the moment?
BC: I think that may partially come from my background in theatre – it has always been important to me to live the songs as I sing them, and not just recite the words and melody. In each tune, I try to step into the skin of the character who is singing. It may be a version of myself, and it may be a complete stranger. Either way, I try to find an authentic perspective for the singer before I open my mouth.
AH: When you announced the album on social media, you mentioned that you were taking a new look at your favorite compositions. With that said, did you end up liking any of these new versions more so than the original recordings?
BC: There is the song, and there is the recording of the song. For me, the song itself is always an ephemeral and changing thing. It is not solid. It has no borders. It is only a framework. A recording on the other hand is very solid. It has well defined boundaries. Listening back to old recordings, there are always things that I love, and things that I wish I could change. I am very rarely fully satisfied with any recorded work. So, I am kind of side-stepping the question, but I don’t really have a preference of one version over another. They are just different corporeal manifestations of the idea of each song. Different skin and clothes. They fit into the world in different ways.
AH: It’s been a decade since you released your first studio album. Would the Ben who first picked up a guitar be surprised that he would one day have an entire catalog of music to interpret in new and interesting ways?
BC: Totally. The majority of my career has been one giant surprise. When I first picked up a guitar, I wasn’t dreaming of stadiums and platinum records. I wanted to fill up the local indie music bar and have enough of a following to be able to tour around Canada. Each time I have pressed an album to vinyl it has felt surreal. I have surpassed all of my goals. All of this madness of touring around the world, writing new music, and pressing more albums just feels like a lovely unexpected bonus. The fact that I am now on my fourth full length is crazy to me.
AH: Would recollection have come into existence if not for the isolation of the pandemic?
BC: There is no chance. I have been dreaming up and tinkering with songs and arrangements for another full band album for a few years now. I probably would have stayed busy touring for most of the pandemic period, followed by a period of burnout and slowly starting to get the ball rolling on the new music. Feeling totally overwhelmed by the global shutdown and some major changes in my personal life made it very hard to take on such a big project – not to mention the problem of geography when most of my collaborators live far away. The isolation of the pandemic opened up a space for working on this album as a gentle way of keeping myself busy.
AH: Is isolation good for creativity? Does being forced to slow down speed up songwriting?
BC: Isolation is great for creativity. But so is being with people. It sort of depends on which point in the creative process. I like to do my writing in periods of private and quiet introspection. But I like to pour the vibrations of the song into the air with the creative collaboration of other musicians.
AH: In going back to look at your musical past for recollection, did it make you rethink your musical future? Did the album inspire what will come next?
BC: I wouldn’t say that this project has made me rethink my musical future, but it certainly has had an impact on the depth of my toolbox. I spent a huge amount of time in the studio with co-producer and engineer Daniel Ledwell. I learned a lot from working with Daniel, and more importantly watching him work. That has deepened the way I think about recording and production. I think I’ve also expanded the sonic pallet that I am working with.
AH: Lyrics. We love them, especially those that make you think about things in new ways than you did before going into a song. What is a favorite lyric of yours that you have written and why?
BC: I can’t really claim to have a favorite, but after thinking about it for a minute the lyric that comes to mind is from the song “Belly of the Worm.”
Sure as each flower blooms, every flower is doomed.
I love the contrast between beauty and decay. That one line is a metaphor for life itself. The one inescapable consequence of life is death. I think it’s lovely to stare at that idea with bravery and curiosity rather than run from it or pretend that this macabre duality doesn’t exist.
AH: Music can touch people in profound ways, often in ways that the artist never intended. What do you hope people take from your music and where would you like to see it impact listeners most?
BC: A lot of my songs are about affirming life and beauty in the face of death and profound ugliness. Many of them are just different ways of saying YES to the eternal now. I received a lot of feedback from people who have said that my music has helped them through challenging times in their lives. That’s already more impact than I think I could have hoped for.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
BC: Nah, I don’t want to know. So much of the joy of life is making the road by walking. I am not interested in my destination. I don’t want to know what’s on the other side of the horizon. Each day, I try to orient myself towards my broader life goals. I pick a spot on the proverbial horizon line and try to keep myself motivated to walk towards it. I think that knowing the destination would make the journey a lot more tedious.
To aim yourself towards recollection, walk on over to http://www.bencaplan.ca.