With the sun beaming down on Kew Gardens, Ben Caplan confidently strides onto the stage just a couple of days after his success at Glastonbury 2013. A wonderfully bearded Canadian in his late twenties, Caplan is charming and exuberant in equal measure; he exudes energy even without the presence of his backing band, the Casual Smokers. The expansive arrangement of his tracks requires a little more work to fill in the gaps when playing solo, but hes certainly up to the challenge. In opener Southbound, Caplans voice swings between mimicking gypsy-style fiddle melodies and articulating bluesy growls, followed by the charging chords and folky inflections of Birds with Broken Wings.
The audience at Kew Gardens consists wholly of seated, sun-soaked picnickers, and I found myself fighting the urge to stand and stomp along to Caplans dancier tunes; the infectious Beautiful evidences the musicians uninhibited passion, and is carefully juxtaposed by the tender Drift Apart. What use is a sunny day if you cant bring a bit of bitter heartbreak into it? he inquires, and quite justifiably – the songs poignant nostalgia is conveyed with excellent dynamic control.
Both Down to the River and his closer Stranger are executed with the same consistent charisma – the former with a philosophical sense of yearning, and the latter narrating a tale of misanthropy, bellowing his Russian waltz-style tune with alveolar trills and booming chants aplenty. After Ben had played, we sat in his dressing room behind the astonishingly beautiful and grandiose greenhouses of Kew Gardens and discussed his style and influences, life on the road, and of course, that brilliant beard…
How was Glastonbury?
Smashing. Yeah, it went super well. You dont know what to expect with Glastonbury, but I was fortunate – all three of my shows were just packed. Over the course of the weekend, I probably played to 5000 people, which is wonderful.
I seem to be catching you at the end of a very busy touring period – how has that been? Hows life on the road?
Its life, you know? Im into a rhythm now… Ive been on tour pretty much since my record [2011s In the Time of the Great Remembering] came out.
Thats very impressive – a testament to a dedicated touring musician.
Well, you know – when I started I had nothing but the sweat on my back and a credit card. I just sort of made it work and at this point its sort of flowing… so it seems like the investment and the insanity has paid off.
How do you feel about breaking into the British music scene?
Its a goal I set for myself. To me, its part of a very long project – I just wanna be able to do my thing, you know?
I bloody do. How are the British fans? Have we not been perfect for you?
No, that was good, that was good. British fans have been wonderful actually, even from the early days. People got connected right away, and offering to help me. Ive been lucky that theres always been a few people who have gone above and beyond!
Great to hear. How would you want your style to be described to entice new fans?
Ive been saying recently… folk rock mixed with gypsy soul.
I like that.
That works? Yeah. Theres a few different things in there.
Whatre your thoughts on the UK-based scene right now – what critics are calling nu-folk? Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling…
Yeah, sure – I dig it. I guess in general Im just turned on by acoustic sounds. [Bowie plays in the background. ] Its just about sounds which I can understand… it connects me to something aesthetically.
A lot of people have compared you to Tom Waits. Is that a heavy Waits on your shoulders?
No, no, its flattering – Im a Tom Waits fan for sure. In a lot of ways, hes been an inspiration for me, but hes one of maybe thirty different artists who I take inspiration from. Singing-wise, I probably learn more from Louis Armstrong than Tom Waits. But hes probably the most well-known artist which informs my sound. But yeah, I always find it flattering.
Do you prefer being in the studio or on tour?
I think I probably prefer being on tour. The live thing is something that Ive done a lot of, and Im in my element and I know how it works. If something goes terribly wrong, I know how to recover it and roll with it, whereas in the studio its like – youve got to put everything under the microscope and have all of the right mistakes and none of the wrong ones.
Yeah. Im not sure if Ive ever had an awful trainwreck gig, because people always remember the energy, not the notes. But its the opposite on an album.
Sure. It definitely seems that you really give it your all in live performance – have you ever broken an instrument on stage?
A couple pianos. Yeah… you dont want to break a piano on stage.
And on the studio side of things, whats on the horizon for another release?
Ill be heading to the studio first thing in the fall, as soon as I get off this tour.
Ace. Your Street Team are the Beard Brigade, so I have to ask – what do you call your beard style? If I try to emulate it, am I growing a Ben Caplan?
I think youre growing a Ben Caplan.
Do you secretly hate the beard, and its just for the ladies?
The ladies do love the beard.
You can grab Ben’s 2011 album In the Time of the Great Remembering, or ItTotGR for short (or for confusing), online, or in any good retail stores if they still exist. And you really should. Because we love you, you can also download a free version of Ben’s track ‘Stranger’ from here.