There is a buzz building around Ben Caplan. The Halifax native has been working his way up the music industry ladder, with every step bringing him closer to inevitable global domination. With a voice that ranges from a Tom Waits reminiscent growl to an opera house worthy boom, Caplan takes folk music to a powerful, core shaking level unlike anything or anyone that’s out there. From Folk Alliance, to South by South West, across ponds and oceans and right here at home, Caplan has wow’ed fans and critics alike with his eloquent and emotional song writing and goose bump inducing live performances. Ben Caplan took some time to chat with Canada Indie Music Examiner Nadia Elkharadly to talk about his musical origins, and what the future holds.
NE: This may be a generic question but I have to ask: you’re a musical person, how did you decide that music was what you wanted to do?
BC: I’ll just have to give you a typical answer. I didn’t choose music, it chose me. I was singing all the time when I was a kid (my brothers used to make fun of me). I used to pick out melodies on a shitty Casio keyboard we had. I begged my parents for a drum kit, a guitar and a saxophone, and eventually I got a guitar from my grandmother at 13, and I pretty much didn’t put it down after that.
I played in a couple of shitty bands in high school and university. And it was in the midst of my university career that I decided that I’ve gotta play some music that’s all I really wanted to do.
NE: Was there a particular song that you heard when you were young that piqued your interest in music?
BC: Early on, when I was a little kid, there were two songs that I recall thinking “wow, this is awesome”; the first was “Castle on a cloud” from Les Miserables. And the other is “Hit the road Jack” by Ray Charles, I heard that when I was around 5 or 6 years old. When I was 17 or 18, I’d already developed a keen interest in music. I saw Wax Mannequin play, and it just made my brain explode, and it really changed the way I thought about music.
NE: When did Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers come about?
BC: I think it started in 2006/2007. I’d been playing with “Ben Caplan and Friends” and doing solo gigs, but the casual smokers started off as a trio, with me, violin and cello. That’s when the project really started to develop some inward momentum, an understanding of what I wanted to pull. And it took years of working at it, of learning how to be a band leader and learning how to be a better songwriter and all these different things. And it wasn’t until 2010 that I managed to get a steady group together and stumble into the studio.
NE: so you’ve mentioned playing with violin and cello, your voice has a distinct operatic intensity – what draws you to this classical type style?
BC: I just like it. I used to be in musical theatre and there is one watershed moment that I can remember: I was in a production, and there were eight microphones, and I was the ninth most important character in the play. There were a number of singing roles but I did not rate a microphone. The vocal coach of the production stressed to me the importance of filling this 1200 person room with my voice, with no amplification. I remember doing tons and tons of exercises, strengthening my diaphragm and learning how to project and fill that space with my voice. And that process is, I think, what helped create the voice that I have today.
NE: You’ve performed at Folk Alliance, you’re going to be performing at Canadian Music Fest, but let me ask you about a place you haven’t performed at yet; I hear you’ll be travelling to Australia?
BC: It’s kookoobananas! I’ll be playing on the same stage as Iggy and the Stooges, Wilco, Santana, Robert Plant, Ben Harper, Jason Mraz. It’s a five day festival called the Byron Bay Bluesfest , and it’s one of the top festivals in the world, and it’s huge. All the big names are there. And I scored big! I’m playing three days in a row at this festival on the main stage, and then I play Sydney and Melbourne.
NE: How do you think your music will be received in Australia?
BC: I think it’s going to be well received. I’ve already had a number of high profile interviews, getting a lot of really good press over there, starting to see a lot of album sales in Australia leading up to the festival. What I’ve heard is that the music market in Australia is really enthusiastic; they really are into absorbing music over there. I couldn’t’ be more excited.
NE: and you’re travelling to Europe after that, right? What differences do you notice between the Canadian music market and the European one?
BC: Most of my career in Canada has been playing in shitty bars and trying to win over audiences one room at a time. Typically in Canada, the cultural norm is that you go to a bar, you see your buds, have a chat, have some drinks, and a band is going to be playing, and the tunes will be great and it’s going to be a social night. In Europe, the tendency is more like a night out at the theatre. You’re going to see a performance, and you’re going to shut up and watch it. I remember my first performance in Europe; I played at a bar in the Netherland, in Rotterdam. I walked out on stage with my bass player and we looked at each other and we were both thinking “something is wrong”. It was bizarre, there were 200 people crammed into this room, and when we walked out on stage and the room just went silent. We didn’t really register what had happened; we just knew something was wrong. People just realized that the band came on; we’ll finish that conversation later.
NE: Do you think Canadians don’t respect the artists as much?
BC: I don’t know if Canadian fans respects artists less, but it’s just culturally accepted to talk during a show here, but over there you talk during the show if you’re bored. Otherwise you pay attention because you went out to see a band play.
NE: Do you have a preference of one over the other?
BC: Well, when you win over a Canadian audience it’s all the more gratifying. When you have that moment on stage when everyone’s gone quiet and you can hear a pin drop, it’s like “I won, I did it tonight”. Whereas in Europe it’s like “It’s Tuesday….” *laughs*
NE: I know you’re touring on the first album, In The Time of the Great Remembering, which is a great record. But fans (and I) want to know, do you have anything new in the works?
BC: Absolutely! I’m starting to perform more and more new songs, about five or six songs in my repertoire now that are new and there are more that I haven’t unleashed on audiences yet that I’m still tinkering with. I’m planning on going into the studio in May and hopefully the album will be out by the end of 2013.
Be sure to check out Ben Caplan at Canadian Music Fest in Toronto:
The Horseshoe Tavern – Thursday, March 21st, 1:30am
The Rivoli – Friday, March 22nd, 9pm