BN1 Chats to Ben Caplan

Bearded Theorist

Whether flying solo, or backed by his fearsome band, The Casual Smokers, Ben Caplan is here to both reflect and entertain the world. He’s relentlessly carving a place for himself in modern music, with an instantly-recognisable vocal growl, trademark hirsuteness, rich musicality and restless spirit. With songs as engaging as they are melodramatic, these wild paeans to existence and experience are quickly enrapturing an army of fans.

Last year’s album, Birds With Broken Wings, finally treated fans to his second long-player in four years. But ultimately it’s been worth the wait. A warm-throated collision of rock, folk, Klezmer and jazz, it displayed a snapshot of an artist unwilling to ally with any singular or constricting style. “I don’t particularly think of music in particular genres,” he tells me. “It’s really down to each song to influence where it goes.” Back home in Halifax, Canada, he’s already a major musical force, winning numerous Canadian awards – including Nova Scotia’s Entertainer of the Year and the East Coast Music Award for Rising Star Recording of the Year. Now the rest of the planet is beginning to wake up to an artist who’s trade runs rich with playful imagery and urbane wit.

Together with the prodigious musical talents of The Casual Smokers, Caplan ties together a multitude of occasionally disparate styles and lyrical themes. From the delicate arrangements of his most heart-felt ballads to some wild and rousing sing-alongs, it all repeatedly strikes you as being manifestly experimental and free-spirited. Rising above everything is Caplan’s voice. Raspy, warm and beautiful, it adds a further layer of pathos to songs packed with personal accounts and philosophical reasoning. “I try to write lyrics which are a reflection on the human condition. Every song strives towards discovering some kind of truth.” Away from the seductive poetry of his slower numbers, as he starts to gather promise and pace, is the point when Caplan really bursts into life. Then his layered guitar, banjo, melodica, harmonica and brass instruments coalesce with a ferocity too bold for many of his contemporaries. As you’d hope, this is music which growls with power when it’s performed live. Together with Caplan’s commanding stage presence, his gigs are wild, vibrant and compelling.

He’s already lit up festival stages at Secret Garden Party, Glastonbury and Brighton’s The Great Escape. Anybody who has caught these, or any of the hundreds of shows he’s played around the world, knows there’s a different rulebook in play when Caplan hits the stage. While he might be reserved and crushingly modest to speak to, he’s undoubtedly one of the most gifted and uninhibited live performers you’ll see today. Now this ceaseless show schedule continues with a characteristically feverish jaunt around the UK, which includes a visit to Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar on Mon 7 Nov.

The sheer vastness of his native North America means travelling long distances just to fulfil a few live dates. Factor in trips to Europe and Australia, and you’re talking about some serious air-mileage on a ceaseless tour schedule like his. But then Caplan has always moved about, travelling extensively when he was younger. He’d immerse himself in different cultures, making mental notes and allowing himself to be formed by the world around him. This isn’t a musician who’s locked himself in a room to hone his craft, this is somebody drawing inspiration from all of the experiences life has to offer. “I’ve never really sought to give my songs any particular vibe, but many of my influences come from the musical traditions of Eastern Europe. I just like the sounds and how it makes me feel.” Speaking with him is much like talking to an elder who’s finally uncovered a wealth of lost truths. He’s not attempting to push a world view or shrouded in smugness, but clearly he possesses the kind of knowledge which comes from a free-wheeling existence. But ultimately he hopes people will develop their own messages from within this wild and life-affirming music. All which remains is for Caplan to carry it as far and wide as he possibly can. “I just want people to hear it, that’s what I’m hoping for.”

Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers play Brighton’s Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar on Mon 7 Nov. His album, Birds With Broken Wings is available now.

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