Singer-songwriter Ben Caplan was strolling through the streets of Antwerp, Belgium, during a solo backpacking trip some 10 years ago when he stopped, spellbound, to listen to a brass band playing Romani music.
The melodies he heard reminded him of cantorial music he’d listened to in synagogue. Those melodies were to become crucial to the development of Caplan’s own sound.
“It changed the way I thought about music. I’d heard these [minor] scale melodies before, but I’d only ever heard them in shul,” he said. “Suddenly, hearing this band, I realized there was a deep wealth of music that had been bred into me from a very young age that I had been completely ignorant of.”
As a child attending services at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton, Ont., Caplan recalled being mesmerized by the voice of Cantor David Bercovici.
“I just remember the glory of his voice, the incredible melodies that poured deep inside of me. In many ways, my career as a musician is the story of those melodies seeping back out again.”
After hearing the band in Antwerp, Caplan began exploring music from all over eastern Europe, as well as listening to archival recordings of Jewish music and contemporary klezmer performers. He incorporated some of the traditional melodies he heard into his own songs and matched the tunes with his muscularly poetic, sometimes dark, lyrics.
“When I try to write a song, the standard I hold it to is whether it merits staining the silence. When I hold my writing to that standard, I find the darker feelings and darker subjects are more worthy of contribution for me,” he said.
Themes of social justice have also found their way into his songs. “I think that’s part of my Jewish identity and Jewish upbringing,” he reflected. Caplan said he takes a “songwriterly,” literary approach to lyric writing, like the artists he grew up listening to.
“When I was 13 or 14 years old and starting to collect vinyl records, it wasn’t eastern European folk music – it was Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.”
As a singer, Caplan’s strong, gravelly voice is often compared to the raspy bark of Tom Waits, of whom Caplan is a fan. He’s flattered by the comparison, but said the throaty voice isn’t all they have in common.
“There’s not a lot of music that draws from the same places I’m drawing from while being singer-songwriterly. I think the biggest similarity between us, other than having rougher, lower voices, is that we both listen to music from a lot of diverse traditions,” Caplan said.
Caplan, 30, has been singing and performing since he was a child. He played guitar in high school rock bands. Performing in a folk duo in his late teens was the “beginning of things, where I wrote my first couple of songs and started to get very excited about this singer-songwriter idea,” he said.
He moved to Halifax to attend the University of King’s College when he was 18. There, he acted in university theatre productions and collaborated with other musicians in a group called Ben Caplan and Friends.
“They were real days of experimentation for me. One week I’d be playing with a sax player, another week a violinist. I was learning a lot about working with other musicians,” he said.
By the end of fourth-year university, disenchanted with academia and no longer involved in theatre, he decided to make music his full-time job. Several years later, in 2011, his debut album, In the Time of the Great Remembering, was released.
Currently based in Halifax, Caplan was named singer of the year at the 2012 Nova Scotia Music Awards, and his debut album was nominated in several other categories. His latest release, Birds with Broken Wings, was listed on CBC Radio’s 50 Best Canadian Albums of 2015.
Ben Caplan & The Casual Smokers will be touring Canada in March and April. They’ll be performing in Hamilton on April 2 and Toronto on April 4. For more information, visit www.bencaplan.ca.