Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers come to the Union Chapel
PUBLISHED: 15:00 28 October 2016
Ben Caplan talks to ZOE PASKETT about musical kinship, biblical themes and working with Fred Wesley
When Jason Derulo sampled Balkan Beat Box’s Hermetico in his 2013 hit Talk Dirty, most of his listeners were unaware of its important history.
While Derulo sang the words “your booty don’t need explainin’” accompanied by the Israeli band’s saxophone lilts, his fans bumped and grinded to the traditional cadences of eastern European Jewish music.
The extent to which klezmer has infiltrated modern pop charts is largely unacknowledged and klezmer itself has never quite managed to break out of the “world music” genre to reach listeners who wouldn’t otherwise go searching for it.
Ben Caplan is a musician who can change this. The Canadian folk artist has been influenced by klezmer, having “listened to bits of Jewish music growing up.
“I heard sounds in synagogue but I didn’t really think of it as music, just sounds.
“Then I went backpacking in Europe and came across a Balkan brass band. It seemed completely new but also totally old and I found something deep in myself that I hadn’t looked at in years.
“The more I listened, the more it began to permeate the melodies I was writing.”
Even his la la las have a distinct Jewish feel.
Though Caplan eschews fencing himself into one genre, his recently released album, Birds with Broken Wings has very strong biblical themes in his lyrics.
“I climbed up the mountain just to kill my son” from the single of the same name is a clear reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Acknowledging this, he says: “The stories of different religions and cultures, to a writer, they seem like a beautifully effective shorthand. They provide an undulating universe of meaning. I can take these icons, the tips of these icebergs and twist their meanings.”
He does this by turning them into parables of his own behaviour. His wandering the desert in 40 Days and 40 Nights is actually a reference to missing a woman who has gone away.
Having been on the road almost without pause since his career as a musician began, you can hardly blame him for feeling the longing that he expresses in so many of his songs.
But he’s used to it and has embraced the life of a travelling musician. It probably helps too that his partner Taryn Kawaja is one of the Casual Smokers (his band).
“Some people work as baristas or bank clerks. This is just what I do. There’s a rhythm and a flow to it, the unloading and reloading.
“The schedule I keep makes it challenging to find people who can tour with me. I have a warm relationship with people I’ve played with over the years. We share a kind of musical kinship.”
He must have racked up a good number of kinfolk over the years, as Birds with Broken Wings is a collaboration with 33 people including musicians and mixers.
“I’m interested in trying to figure out the limits of potential,” he says.
“This was the first time I’ve had a budget to use, so I thought, what can we do in the studio? Where can we take this?”
Realising that he’d be unable to have a “string quartet, horn section and Romanian gypsy musician” on the stage at every show, Caplan took the opportunity to go to town on this album.
The result is a dense and intensely complex layer cake of instruments.
He commissioned Fred Wesley (James Brown Band, Ray Charles, Van Morrison) to arrange some of the tracks.
“I thought, if we could do anything, why don’t we go to the guy whose composition styles defined an era?”
Currently touring Europe with the Casual Smokers, Caplan will be bringing his vigorous performance to the Union Chapel on November 10.
He jokes that he enjoys touring the UK more than Canada because he doesn’t have to travel thousands of kilometres to do one show.
“Things have been growing in a great way here. There are so many people and it can be a challenge to distinguish yourself.
“I feel blessed.”
Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers perform at the Union Chapel on November 10.
Tickets £12.50 from unionchapel.org.uk