BEN CAPLAN - BIRDS WITH BROKEN WINGS
It's time. It's time Ben Caplan gave his legions of fans what they've been waiting for these four long years. After criss-crossing Canada and the US, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and some dozen countries across Europe, Caplan has finally stopped long enough to deliver the long- desired follow-up album to his 2011 debut, In the Time of the Great Remembering. Welcome then, to Birds with Broken Wings.
"I think it could have been time for a new album years ago," admits our hirsute hero. "but I wanted to take my time and honour the process. There was a lot to learn. I wanted to make an album that was complex but with room for strangers to find their way into it. I wanted to collaborate with people who inspire me and discover unexpected things. It takes time."
It turns out this could be the best record you'll hear all year. Caplan has moved his sound by leaps and bounds, his soul-fired, charismatic music exploding out in surprising new directions. Along the way, he joined forces with over 30 different musicians, a raft of unconventional acoustic instruments, and the hottest production/arranging/mixing team imaginable. The eleven songs that make up Birds with Broken Wings range from angry and edgy to dramatic and inspirational, to some of the most unconventional and beautiful work Caplan or anyone else has made. All your expectations of what a Ben Caplan album could be are met, but you'll also hear him like you never believed you would. You'll get that blustery, raspy, fire-and-brimstone force of nature, but then he'll woo you with rich and delicate vocals as lovely as any you've heard. The album took a long time, and great care went into it, but that's only part of the journey. Most of it was spent on the road. Since the release of his first album, Caplan has played well over a thousand shows. He was on the road from eight to ten months of each year. Many bands don't play that many gigs in their entire career. Why so much? "Because I want to live this music, and that's the only way I can think of to do it," Caplan explains. "To afford the luxury of developing your craft for a living, it's either winning the lottery or working your ass off."
That hard work has paid off, as Caplan has built a loyal fan base that stretches from the U.S., to most of Europe, and of course, coast-to-coast in Canada. When he launched a Pledge campaign to fund the new album, the full target goal was reached in just 48 hours. "I'm very fortunate that going into my second record I have a spectacular platform," he confides. "I have over 20,000 fans engaged online and listeners in more than 30 countries. I have this broad international fan base, but it's all a little under the radar. I wanted to make a record that my audience would be excited to hear and that they would be excited to share.”
It's no surprise that the seeds of the album were sown on tour. Caplan was already a fan of Montreal producer and rapper Josh "Socalled" Dolgin, known for his unique blend of hip-hop and klezmer. Even though they both live in Canada, Caplan only met him by chance while touring in Eastern Europe. "I met Socalled at the Green Zoo festival in Poland," he explains. "I found out he was playing, and I had been trying to answer the question of who was going to produce the album for months at that point. I went to his set, hoping to meet him and find out if we could work together. Seeing him perform live and the way that he unpretentiously flowed between different styles, fusing seemingly disparate genres, really captured my attention. After seeing his set, I knew I had to work with this guy. I am grateful he signed on!"
"We got crazy with instrumentation and arrangements and bringing in guest musicians, more than 30 different players on the record," say Caplan, still spinning from the process. "We recorded for weeks, 10-hour days, grabbing sounds, and re-doing this and overdubbing that, bringing in new people and recording things that we knew we might not use, but that could perhaps provide those juicy little moments. We spent days upon days, weeks, almost as much time as we spent recording it, maybe more, editing it, and hacking everything down to its most essential moments."
It's perhaps the most eclectic group of musicians ever found in one set of credits, including the great James Brown and P-Funk trombonist Fred Wesley, who arranged one cut. "We got the principal harpist from the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal to come throw down some harp," adds Caplan. "We got the amazing Joe Grass from Patrick Watson's band on pedal steel, alongside Mohamed Raky, a darbouka player from North Africa. And the cimbalom player, Nicolae Mărgineanu, he used to be the conductor of the Moldavian Symphony Orchestra, and was once a professional concert cimbalomist. I guess there aren't a lot of concert cimbalom gigs in Canada so perhaps he's a hidden gem. I feel very privileged to have worked with him."
Remarkably, with all those players and choices, the album turned out uncluttered, and an aural delight. "The last step was taking to this mixer in Paris, this guy Renaud Letang," says Caplan. "In my mind, Renaud is the top of the top. He's an unknown to most fans of music, but his ears have had a major impact on a ton of records people know and love. He did all the Manu Chau albums, he mixed the last three or four Feist albums, and all the recent Gonzales stuff, Alain Souchon, Seu Jorge, and on and on. His mixes are always super clear and beautiful. I really think he's a untouchable. And the vocals are always very clear. With the plethora of sounds on this album, I wanted to make sure we would have mixes where the vocals would still sit on top and sound very clear. I didn't want all the ear candy to distract."
Those lyrics and themes are at the core of understanding Ben Caplan. "I try not to sing cliches," he advises. "I'm fighting to make sure that any lyric I settle on will be something I can live with for a long time." To that end, his songs are full of major topics of our time, holding a mirror up to society so we can take a good, long look at ourselves. "I like looking at the ugly bits, celebrating the darkness and the nasty bits that are at the root of the sublime.”
The nasty bits include the title cut, a song about extremism in it's many forms and about people who believe in pursuing ends without examining the consequences of the means. The song Dusk talks about the dangers of the oil economy. While those songs are among the most energetic on the album, perhaps the quieter numbers stand out even more. Known for his lower range and his great growl, here Caplan is able to show off the impressive softer side of his vocals, away from the stage.
That's heard the best in the beautiful and brave performance on Night Like Tonight. With its woodwinds, brass, strings and vintage crooner arrangement, Caplan drops the rasp from his voice, adds trills and reaches high notes never heard before in his repertoire. He pulls it off splendidly, as he does all the other themes, styles, and ideas overflowing on the new album.
Don't spend a lot of time worrying about what to call Birds with Broken Wings though. It defies description, even to its creator. "I don't make dance music, but it's music that you'll want to move to," he offers. "I don't know exactly what it is that I'm trying to do, I just do it. The instrumentation is very different from song to song. I don't ask myself what genre it is, and I don't let that trouble me. That's why I wanted to work with Socalled, his albums aren't exactly hip-hop or klezmer, or any of the many other things they get called. They are always a thousand things rolled into one. A profusion of diverse musical threads weaved into one tapestry."
Maybe that's the best description of Ben Caplan, a thousand things rolled into one. He's a road warrior, an international presence, a one-of-a-kind performer. Now, he has the album to put him on everyone's radar as well
BIRDS WITH BROKEN WINGS TRACKLIST
1. Birds With Broken Wings
2. I Got Me A Woman
3. Belly Of The Worm
4. Ride On
5. Under Control
6. Deliver Me
7. 40 Day & 40 Nights
9. Night Like Tonight
10. Devil Town
11. Lover’s Waltz