Exclusive in depth Interview – Ben Caplan talks to TheZineUK

With a string of awards and nominations to his name as long as his trademark mane-like beard, Ben Caplan’s much-awaited third studio album ‘Old Stock’ is out this week and sees a change in direction from his usual growly songwriting folk & blues to a body of work taken from, and inspired by, his hit off-Broadway play ‘Old Stock; A Refugee Love Story’.

In this exclusive long-read interview, the Canadian troubadour reveals the light and shade of an active erudite mind, toiling with historic and modern day humanitarian, political and cultural issues.

Listen to Ben Caplan on Spotify here:

TheZineUK :  In comparison with your previous work, ‘Old Stock’ seems more unabashedly topical and political. What’s brought this transition about? Would it be fair to say we are listening to a Ben Caplan who’s fed up with the news?

BC – “This album is certainly more focused around a single concept or theme than my previous work, but I wouldn’t describe myself as fed up with the news. 

The news is mostly just about human beings doing what human beings do. And I love human beings. I don’t begrudge the sun for shining, horses for galloping, nor human beings for being self-interested, cruel, loving, hateful, generous, murderous, and all of the other things we are. But this album did give me a chance to go deep in thinking about the topic of migration and refuge. 

It has been an opportunity to think about my own heritage and where I come from. I think the goal is to share a way of thinking about all people as sharing a common humanity.

I believe that we are all equally capable of doing beautiful things and terrible things. Our skin colour, our culture, language, music, our way of relating to the divine, or to the endless emptiness of space, are really pretty meaningless and subtle differences. 

My goal was to, without preaching or telling anyone what to think, share my own thinking about the geo-political issues at the fore of my concern by thinking about the stories of my recent ancestors who went through very similar struggles to the migrants and refugees of today.”

Video clips; The Making of Ben Caplan’s ‘Old Stock’. Out Now.

Z – You are well known for showmanship, and your new album ‘Old Stock’ is part of a multi-faceted project that includes a play – was it a natural transition to drift towards the theatre?

BC – “I have dreamed of working in theatre since I was a kid. Performing in theatre was an aspiration of mine long before I became a singer-songwriter. I definitely don’t have any interest in giving up my work as a singer-songwriter or touring musician, but this has been a great way to explore other modes of performance and try expressing myself in a different medium.”

Video clip : Ben Caplan – Widow Bride

Z – How did you come up with the songs for this new album? Did they inform the narrative or was it the other way round?

BC – “It worked both ways. I collaborated on this project with writer/director Christian Barry and playwright Hannah Moscovitch. The conversations and collaborations with those two absolutely shaped the songs that came out. Certain songs naturally emerged from the flow of the narrative arc for this concert-theatre mashup that we call Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story.  

Other songs were knocking on my door asking to be written, and influenced the structure of the play. For example, the song Plough the Shit does not in any direct way participate in the plot flow of the play, but it worked its way in as an important structural piece as a metaphoric and abstract response to the problem of evil in the world. It comes from an impulse that I have to want to understand why some people do terrible things. I want to climb inside that part of my own mind and try on that world view. I think any number of songs might have been written to fill the structural demands of that moment in the play, but this song was asking for me to write it.”

Z – As well as performing these new songs as part of the theatre production you are also doing a regular music tour. Do you feel there is a difference in how the crowd responds to the tracks in each setting?

BC – “It’s been very interesting figuring out how to perform some of these songs, written to exist within the super-structure of a theatrical production, in a totally different environment. That said, even as I was writing the songs, I was considering how they might live alongside my other repertoire of songs. These are not Rodgers and Hammerstein musical numbers. They are still songwriterly songs. Most of the new tunes fit in very nicely with the rest of my repertoire at a concert. Others need a bit of setting up. Others simply don’t make sense at a rock-and-roll show, and I leave them for the theatre stage.

I should say though, that in many ways, the play is just as much of a full on concert as the concerts are, but the framing is totally different. The scenes, the set, and the story create a world for the audience that radically transforms the experience of the songs. To the credit of my collaborators, Christian and Hannah, I think the songs and scenes meld into a unified body of work that is experience mostly as a single thing. It allows for a depth of experience that is hard to achieve at a concert. On the other hand, I love being able to treat each song as an individual and experience the audiences reaction from song to song. I have to say, I am pretty pleased to be able to do both.”

Z – You mentioned that you wanted to really explore these Balkan sounds and stay true to their roots, hiring specific musicians to collaborate with and prevent it turning into a pastiche. Have you learnt something new about Klezmer along the way?

BC – “I’ve learned that I sound a bit pretentious sometimes. Really, it’s just about trying to live the music. Trying to understand what makes it special, explore the idioms, and then forget everything and experience the performance of the music in the moment. All these words… they don’t matter. Music is just organized noise. Let me put it another way: I’ve listened to old world klezmer music, and I’ve listened to new world klezmer music, and I’ve listened to the traditions that influenced both – Balkan, Turkish, Romani, etc. in the old world, and jazz, classical, and pop music in the new world. Mostly, I am not being true to either “pure” tradition.” And that’s ok. 

My interest is to allow myself to be deeply influenced by these rich traditions, and then just let them flow back out of me, jumbled up with all of my other influences. You’ll find sounds and musical impulses stolen from hip-hop, free jazz, tin-pan alley, and Appalachian folk music mixed in with the klezmer music that I am interested in. If there is anything specifically unique about my approach it’s only that there is a colour on my palette that is not being used by a lot of other songwriters, and I enjoy painting with that one a lot.”

Video clip : ‘Birds With Broken Wings’ – Ben Caplan

Z – Do you feel it’s justified that a particular culture claims exclusive ownership of a specific genre/sort of music? Or are you an advocate of a fluid cultural exchange? Are there exceptions?

BC – “I take issue with the question. I can’t think of a single culture that does claim an exclusive ownership of a specific genre or sort of music. It’s a false premise. It’s a misunderstanding of what cultural appropriation is about.

I am absolutely an advocate for cultural exchange, but that doesn’t mean that everything is fair game for everyone all of the time. There are some limits. Cultural context is important, and cultural awareness, sensitivity, and understanding are also important. There is a big difference between being influenced by another culture, and appropriating another culture’s modes of expression. 

When a cultural minority is oppressed, be it African Americans, Indigenous Peoples, Jews, Roma, etc., the cultural minorities often respond by looking inward and focusing on creating strong internal bonds of identity. Music and art are part of those bonds of identity. It’s an antidote from being made to live on the margin. You make a new circle, a circle of your own, where you belong, and have your own dances, and melodies, and visual languages.

Art, be it visual, musical, textile, or whatever it is, is a way of relating to your identity and experience. When everything else can be taken from you, self-expression is the hardest thing to take away. Art and craft become a fertile ground for subtle forms of resistance, and of building strength. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that isolated and oppressed peoples tend to make the funkiest music. You ain’t heard funky till you heard rural Hungarian folk bagpipes.

And here’s the thing: music is mostly for sharing. But there is a difference between sharing, and allowing oneself to be influenced by another culture, and the whole-sale appropriation of another cultures mode of expression. The former is a way of witnessing and participating in creation with the other. The latter is thievery. When someone from a dominant culture takes on an oppressed peoples modes of self-expression to serve themselves, without any acknowledgement or conversation with the source, then I think that can be problematic.

If you want to pick up a horn, or any other instrument and play some klezmer melodies, I would think was pretty badass – because it’s music for sharing. On the other hand, if you wanted to dress up wearing a Jewish prayer shawl and leather phylacteries to look “cool” while doing so, then I would think that would be a bit offensive. Everything exists in a context. I think that cross cultural sharing is a beautiful, rich, and ancient tradition. But I think that curiosity, acknowledgement, and respect need to be a part of that process.”

Z – The latest track from the album ‘Truth Doesn’t Live in a Book’ feels like something of a tongue-in-cheek Python-esque curveball for you. What was the motivation behind it?

BC – “With ‘Truth Doesn’t Live in a Book’, I wanted to bring a bit of a sense of humour in response to religious extremism. I am in no way anti-religious but I think that religion is often used for ugly things. I wanted to respond to that ugliness, as well as share a bit the unique philosophical approach that I love about Judaism. I also threw in a bit of what I see as just good sense – Don’t count your eggs before they’re chicken. Ask for consent before you put your dick in. My goal was to write a good times singalong in praise of looking to life, not old books, as the source of truth.

It might surprise you though, that the whole idea for the song though comes from Jewish theology. A lot of people don’t realize that mainstream Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, does not read the bible literally. The Hebrew Bible, referred to by Christians somewhat diminutively as the “Old Testament” is a central, but proportionally small part of Jewish learning. Jewish tradition has it that the five books of Moses came along with an oral tradition of interpretation. This oral tradition was eventually written down in the Talmud. The Talmud is a very long (59 tractates!) series of written discussions, elucidations, and arguments about interpretation. 

The idea is that it would be folly to interpret any part of the bible literally. In the Talmud, there are dozens of pages discussing, practically every line in the bible. 

For example, what does “an eye for an eye” mean. To boil it down to a phrase, the conclusion on that one is “fair compensation.” Then there is a whole long discussion about what the heck fair compensation means, for whom, how, and in which situations.

It bothers me to no end when people use the Bible as an excuse to treat other people hatefully. It bothers me to no end when people use religion as an excuse to justify whatever shitty behaviour they are inclined towards. 

Sure, the bible says that “a man should not lie with a man as he would with a woman” (oy… that’s a longer conversation) but it also says not to eat pork, and I don’t understand why these people who are so willing to hold signs that say “G-d Hates F**s” are more concerned about that particular issue than with the ham sandwich industry. 

There is a famous story in the Talmud of a student coming to one of the great Talmudic scholars, Rabbi Hillel, and asking him if he could explain the whole of the bible while standing on one foot. Hillel replied, “Love your neighbour as yourself. The rest is commentary. Now go study.” That sums it up for me. The heart of it should always be to be good to each other, but that’s not to say there is no value in the commentary.”

Z – ‘Old Stock’ shines a torch on all manner of slightly risqué dinner party subjects, from immigration to religion to sexuality, in a way that differs from your previous work. Did you set out to be more provocative? Does it feel more uncomfortable to teeter on that line?

BC – “When I was growing up, immigration, religion, and sexuality were the principle topics of discussion at my parent’s dinner parties. Actually. In many ways, this project is a tribute to the memory of my late father, Marvin Caplan. I think these are important subjects to discuss and I think that shying away from them does us all a disservice. Let’s get uncomfortable and have difficult conversations. I am hoping to spark a few hard conversations among my listeners, and hopefully, beyond.”

Z – ‘Old Stock’ seems like an enormous undertaking, and the play has become a great critical success. Should we expect to see Ben Caplan turn his hand to other similar projects in the future or is once in a lifetime enough?

BC – “I can’t even begin to think about the next project of this scale. I am still on the road with the play, plus touring the album in concert, with a pretty full schedule through 2020. It’s already more than I can handle thinking about the next album, never mind the next multi-disciplinary cross medium extravaganza. I am not saying it won’t happen, but give it at least a few years.”

Old Stock is avialabale now in all the usual places.

For more info see bencaplan.ca  |facebook.com/bencaplanmusic

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