Q&A: Ben Caplan

By Kirsti Salmi

Ben Caplan’s Birds with Broken Wings is a glorious riot of sound and personality. He melds Eastern European influence with hints of country, jazzy bass lines, mid-century crooning, Tom Waits-meets-Elton John vocals—and that’s not even the half of it. Like Walt Whitman claims in his famous poem, Caplan contains multitudes, and half the fun is keeping up with this Hamilton-born, Halifax-based musician’s sonic evolution. We caught up with him as he was touring the UK in late May.

The Walleye: I saw you organized a concert for Fort Mac in Halifax. How did it go?

Ben Caplan: It was great—the show sold out early on, we had a really enthusiastic crowd of people, and a beautiful lineup of artists. It was horrifying to see those images coming across [from the fire], so just to be able to do that little bit was really nice, to get together in support and solidarity for them.

TW: You’ve got an impressive list of artists on Birds with Broken Wings—over 30. How did that kind of diversity benefit the album?

BC: I try to treat each song like an island—each individual song has a different approach. It wasn’t a matter of deciding to have a lot of musicians, more a consequence of trying to really hone what thing would be right for each song. We explored possibilities while in the studio, different ideas would come up and we’d say ‘oh, I know somebody right for that, we should get in touch’ and we’d just make that happen.

TW: Aurally, I’m getting this impression of a giant party—lots of dances and deals with the devil—and you’re the host. You’re calling us out on all the darker parts of existence. What compels you to write about it?

BC: I’m interested in the darker aspects of our humanity. It’s fine and dandy to write pop songs about ‘hey let’s party, everything’s great and nice’; there’s more than enough of that around. But there is also a dark side to humanity, and to life. I’m inspired by psychologist and philosopher Carl Jung, who says about the way to deal with our dark impulses is to address them and acknowledge them, not say they don’t happen. Only by calling those things into light can we see them for what they are and access our better nature. So I’m interested in making art that isn’t afraid of examining those darker elements.

TW: Are you still touring with the Casual Smokers?

BC: The Casual Smokers has never really been a specific set of people, usually just whomever I’ve got on the road with me. Right now I’m playing in a trio with keyboardist/vocalist Taryn Kawaja (also Caplan’s partner) and drummer Jamie Kronick.

TW: You’re often described as being a disarming stage presence—do you take pleasure in taking the audience by storm, or disrupting pre-existing ideas they have about you and your music?

BC: I love being on stage, and making the show into the best experience it can be. I’m addicted to touring. So it’s not so much a reaction to other people’s thoughts of me; I just don’t want to put myself into a box. It’s not very calculated, just what happens when I get up there, I suppose.

TW: I see your birthday is coming up—happy early birthday to you. Any plans or traditions lined up outside of touring?

BC: My goal is usually to try to get out to the woods. So I’m going to be able to do that the day after my birthday. It’s a great opportunity to disconnect from everything.

Catch Ben Caplan and The Casual Smokers at The Foundry on June 29 at 10pm.