From Ireland to Colorado and many a backyard in between, Halifax singer-songwriter gets around
Ben Caplan is a Halifax-based musician who has made fans all over the world. He’s big in Australia, recently received a rave review in UK paper The Guardian from a show he played in Glasgow with his band The Casual Smokers, and has been touring throughout the Commonwealth pretty much constantly for the past five years.
Caplan’s voice is huge, rasping, growling, tender, and passionate, but before he even opens his mouth you can’t help staring in expectation of something epic happening, because there he is with a shock of curly red hair and a long bushy beard. Ridiculously multi-talented, he plays guitar, banjo, harmonica, and melodica, and comes across as a genuinely nice guy.
Wanting to find out more about Caplan, we caught up with him by phone on the 10-hour drive he was making from Kansas City, MO, to Denver, CO. Having just flown in from a gig in Ireland, the native of Hamilton, ON, was on his way to do yet another show.
Billy: How did you find yourself in Halifax?
Caplan: My intention was to do an arts program at UBC, which I deferred to do a foundation year at the University of King’s College. Within a few weeks in Halifax I just said forget it, why would I want to go anywhere else? I fell in love with the place.
There’s a lot of prominent local musicians playing on your last album, Birds With Broken Wings. Do you feel there’s still a strong music community in Halifax?
Yes, Halifax has got a great scene because it draws in creatives not only from the Atlantic provinces but also from all over Canada. It’s like a seething, bubbling mass of creativity. There’s a special energy to the place, and Halifax has enough gravity to hold people who are aspirational with their art, but who are not swayed by the glitz of the big cities. Once they’re here, people here stay for a particular quality of life that it is hard to achieve in bigger places.
When you are in town, where do you go to see live music?
I have great affection for The Company House, and The Seahorse is a good venue, but I think Halifax wants for a great music venue. There are places around the province though, and I’ve played shows and festivals all around Nova Scotia. I used to do a regular run up the Fundy Shore to Five Islands because there used to be a gig there, but it’s gone. Still, that’s a place in the province that everyone should see, and that particular vantage point from the Bay of Fundy is unbeatable.
What has been your favourite travel experience of the past few years?
One of the most incredible travel opportunities I’ve had was when I played the Into the Great Wide Open festival in Vlieland, a little island off of the north coast of the Netherlands. If you look on a map it just looks like a bunch of large sandbars, which is basically what it is except it has trees and a village. Just taking a ferry out to this island in the middle of nowhere, where the waves crash on the sandy beaches, it was absolutely incredible. The festival was this very intimate and carefully curated experience, somewhat like Sappy Fest in Sackville, NB, but on a much larger scale.
I see that you’ve done SXSW.
I hate that festival! SXSW is the complete opposite of Into the Great Wide Open. Its all about commercial sponsorship, everybody’s selling something, the streets are rife with barbecue and booze, and there’s all these … loud people bumping into each other. I think SXSW is a shadow of what it used to be and has been corrupted by corporate America.
I’ve been a few times because the whole music industry gathers there, which makes it seem like it’s a good idea to go. But in many ways that’s what makes it a bad idea to go, because unless you’ve got so much buzz going on, and meetings with a dozen people and the only way you can meet all 12 people effectively is for you all to meet in Austin, then go ahead. If you want to go and be overwhelmed, and want to turn it into a scavenger hunt for music amidst the chaos, then go for it. And I like Austin, it is beautiful and a great city, but a lot of people in Austin take those three weeks of SXSW and go somewhere else.
One of the editors at Billy saw you playing in Toronto at a house concert. Is that something that you like to do?
I do like playing house concerts. I much prefer to be up on big stages with lights, production, and a whole band putting on a show but there’s something really special about house concerts. For me, it’s a really beautiful way of connecting with people, and a practical way of getting from A to B when you’ve got to fill in sometime in your schedule.
So are you going to keep touring forever? What’s your long-term plan?
I love it, but I’m totally knackered. I’m still trying to figure out how to make a living from the music industry while not being on the road. A lot of people say that the bottom has fallen out of the bag in the music industry and you can’t make a living as a musician, but my response has always been, No, now we’re troubadours again. You can’t make money by making a record and sitting at home, you have to go out, and you have to tour. If you’re willing to do the work, and you have something that resonates in a live format, then you can do it.
From the road, I’m slowly trying to figure out how to not be on the road and do it, which brings me back to the same questions that everyone in my industry is asking. I think it’s a question of scale, and working my way up to playing large enough concerts that I’ll be able to bank my retirement and take weeks and months off of the road. But, right now I’m still loving it. There’s a routine but still every day if different. I’ll keep going for a while.