Interview

Ben Cosgrove: Shifting Landscapes

by Ken Templeton

Ben Cosgrove has a new album, Salt, coming out in May. If you are unfamiliar with Ben’s work, I cannot stress enough how much you’re missing out. He is a mesmerizing pianist and his compositions make you listen more closely and make you reconsider the world around you. We got to chat about Salt; you can pre-order the album here.  

 

BC: This new album was a bit of an experiment. I’ve always tried to make my music about things that are bigger than me — kind of as a tool for thinking about the commonalities between landscape, musical sounds, and the rest of life — and whileField Studies was meant to reflect different personal reactions to landscapes, Salt is almost a backwards version of that. I went through a really hard time a little while back and was searching for a means to process it that wouldn’t feel boring or self-indulgent. I absolutely knew I didn’t want to write a typical break-up album, and what I ended up doing instead was looking around for landscapes with basic qualities that resonated with the things I was struggling with and then writing music about those places. By narrowing my focus like that, I feel like I was able to address the ideas in these songs more clearly and directly.

At the time, I was regularly overwhelmed by a feeling that I couldn’t tell where the ground was, that it was shifting all the time, that it was unstable, and that there was no surface on which I could dependably plant my feet. So I ended up writing this series of songs about landscapes where that is literally true: places like ice roads, tidal estuaries, fault lines, and that sort of thing, that transform regularly and exist in this constant state of flux where the ground comes and goes. And the concept worked well with the material I had: I was writing musical fragments for a really long time without understanding how I’d ultimately gather them together, but then realized that rendering the album in fragments might be the best, most honest way to convey the things I wanted to. …I guess this is why I don’t write lyrics, by the way [laughs].

RLR: Your perspective on music and place seems really unique to me. How did this type of composing start for you?

BC: Despite the fact that I don’t write lyrics, I’ve always tried to make my music explicitly about things outside of myself, and have my songwriting be this process by which I’m drawing lines from those larger places and concepts back to my own feelings and thoughts. It’s my favorite thing about my job, this feeling of knowing that whatever experiences or interests come at me, I have an engine I can turn onto them to process them in a way that can be productive and satisfying. But more importantly, I guess I have this sort of liberal artsy conviction that metaphor is going to save the world, and therefore that the greatest way I can really be useful is to encourage people to think about what seemingly disparate concepts – like, say, estuaries and the end of a close friendship – have in common with each other.  

In a way, it’s kind of how I defend to myself this strange life I’d ended up with as a traveling piano player: whenever I worry that it’s fatuous or indulgent, I focus on the idea that ultimately the work might lead people to think more critically about the landscapes I write about and how those places intersect with their lives. That renews my sense of purpose, but it also holds my feet to the fire: it makes me recognize the high stakes of writing pointless songs. And again, since I don’t use lyrics, I sometimes feel like I have to work twice as hard to keep the songs honest, grounded, and relevant. So I try to hold this focus on indirectly encouraging people to focus on what they have in common with each other, with the land around them, and with all that they’ve built and are surrounded by. My hope is that in some indirect and unknowable way, if you cultivate that way of thinking in as many people and places as you can, it’s possible the world will ultimately come out better for it.

RLR: This album feels like the songs are very much in conversation with one another. Maybe that’s true of all albums, but what do you think a song like “Pine” is saying to “Let,” which seems to echo the opening song, “Champlain”?

BC: That is all very intentional. In large part, it’s to reflect the places I’m writing about, these places that are in flux, that the same ideas keep recurring over the course of the album: these fragments keep coming at you, recombining, changing their meaning, and growing and dividing into things that are sometimes new and strange and sometimes familiar and comforting. So some small ideas from the beginning of the record end up very prominent by the end, but other bigger ideas disappear entirely, or loop around obsessively, or show up for a flash twenty minutes later before receding, which I guess is sometimes how life works. The idea – or the hope – is that over the course of those 10 songs, the listener comes to peace with that murkiness and unpredictability and can then notice moments in this music that wouldn’t necessarily pop out for you until you were aware of how fragile they were. I guess it’s all about becoming okay with change.

For instance, by the time you arrive at the last song, “Glass,” it’s gone all the way: in that song, the melody and form aren’t particularly clear at all, and the only way to get traction on it as a listener is to let it wash over you and see where it takes you. It’s all harmonic material that has already appeared earlier in the record, but I think you engage with it differently, in a way that’s simultaneously more detached and more deeply immersed than the way you’d hear a song like “Break” or “Champlain” from the front of the record. Deciding to use that kind of disassembly as a narrative strategy felt right to me for this project: it all resonated very strongly with the landscapes I was focusing on and with the particular feelings and events that led me to look at them critically in the first place.

 

RLR: “Kennebec” is the only song on the album that features the guitar. How did that composition come about and did it ever exist on the piano in any way?

BC: It was late addition to the album when I realized that it needed a different ending. It’s helpful to have this apotheosis toward the end where you sort of lift up out of the instrumental world that had gradually been established over the course of the last eight songs. It’s meant to pull you gradually into a different and surprising place, right before it all winds up in the glowy sounds in “Glass.” It’s called Kennebec after the river in Maine – two of my best friends live on its banks: the river flows backwards for half the day, and forwards for half the day, but throughout it remains this solid, dependable, knowable feature of the landscape. These fundamental things about places like this may change constantly, but despite that, you can hold them in your head and heart, and put weight against them, you know, feel them as a part of the world around you, even though they’re changing all the time in these major ways.

RLR: There are many sounds on this album that feel just out of earshot–whispers, birds, some of the more ambient instrumentation–how do you consider these elements when you think about where you want your listener’s ear to go? Or do you think about it in another way?

BC: Everyone thinks they’re birds in the first song! It’s actually my friend Sophie whispering a poem. But yes, definitely, there are a lot of found sounds and ambient sounds that float up throughout the record: there’s a thunderstorm at one point, and those voices that come and go. I guess more than anything else, those sounds are used more as musical textures, rather than as a means of placing you in a particular environment, per se.  I guess I tend to make records as collages, and these big, washy elements feel like important parts of that process. It helps make the record’s sonic world more cohesive, specific, and unique, and it can throw the listener’s ear off just enough to encourage them to listen differently to the rest of the music.

I also love making records, and I think of it as just a fundamentally different means of music-making from what live performance is. I love being able to present songs in a way that’s unique to the world of recorded sound. In that universe, notes don’t necessarily have to behave the way they do in the real world: they can rush up right in front of you, they can vanish suddenly into oblivion, they can hang in the air for an unnaturally long time, or they can hover in the middle distance for a while before moving on. I’ve always found it really interesting and gratifying to play with those parameters. Salt is in some ways a much quieter, simpler album than Field Studies was, but it may depend even more heavily on things like space and timbre than that album did. So much of this album is about thoughts and feelings that fly around and can’t be nailed down, that surge up and change shape unexpectedly and melt into one another like clouds, and it seemed like the best way to evoke that phenomenon was to focus very hard on sculpting all these ambient textures that permeate the record.

 

 

Get this album, folks. And honestly, get out to see Ben play live. It’s a truly memorable experience; tour dates arehere. Finally, Ben has wonderful essays on his website, my favorite of which is called “The Great Silent Places.” They’re well worth your time and will leave you with plenty to think about.



Photo Credit: Max García Conover