How do you leave behind the horrors of war and find love in a strange land? How have generations upon generations rebuilt their lives in unwelcoming new homes? And where is the wiggle room to be found in the immortal truths allegedly dictated from on high?
Combining timeless melodies with a contemporary folk-rock twist, singer-songwriter Ben Caplan tackles these challenging questions with wry humor on his latest album, Old Stock (due out June 15th in conjunction with Rhyme and Reason Records). Adapted from the acclaimed music-theater piece Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, the genre-warping album is inspired by the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees coming to Canada in 1908. Through their travails, Caplan weaves a captivating concept album that reflects on modern issues from immigration to religion to sexuality through his darkly funny and urgently heartfelt songs.
“Over the course of this album I wanted to build the sense of a life, or a personal journey,” Caplan says. “It may end with more questions than answers, but I think that’s what life is about.” Created in collaboration with playwright Hannah Moscovitch and director/co-songwriter Christian Barry, Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story opened in Caplan’s native Halifax, Nova Scotia and enjoyed a hugely successful run at the world-renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival before making its Off-Broadway debut with a 7-week residency at New York City’s 59E59 Theaters, where it has been named a New York Times “Critic’s Pick”. All of this with Caplan in the starring role. Now he’s adapted the songs from a theatrical score to a concert version on Old Stock, which he’ll take on tour in North America and Europe with an eclectic five-piece band “throughout 2018 and 2019.
With his enormous beard, unruly mane, intimately booming voice and beguiling charm, Caplan has always had a striking stage presence, making his shift to the theatrical world a natural one. So too the subject matter of Old Stock, a natural fit for Caplan’s unique blend of Jewish and Eastern European folk melodies with rootsy folk-rock songwriting. On Caplan’s prior albums the Balkan and Klezmer influences have accented songs bearing the influence of iconic artists like Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull and Tom Waits; here the balance tilts in the opposite direction, with folk songs appropriate to an early 20th-century setting performed with a devilishly modern gleam.
“The goal on this album was to try to distill the music that we created for the play into a concept album that could live as a cohesive whole, independent of the play itself,” says Caplan about Old Stock.
For all the mischievousness of Caplan’s storyteller persona, however, at the heart of Old Stock is a deadly serious empathy for the plight of immigrants and refugees throughout history. The title is taken from a notorious comment by former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who claimed in a national debate during the Syrian refugee crisis that “Old Stock Canadians” didn’t want their money going to pay for refugee claimants’ health-care benefits.
“That really shook me,” Caplan recalls. “It seemed to me that this dog whistle was meant to include me, but only with a very naïve and shallow understanding of history could I feel included in that categorization. A hundred years ago my ancestors were not ‘Old Stock Canadians.’ I wanted to look at the broader history to consider how much we all have in common with those who are often portrayed as ‘other.’ That exploration takes is done through the story of people who are now considered an integrated part of Canadian society but a hundred years ago were an ‘othered’ group themselves.”
“The inspiration for making the album, however, was the contemporary plight of 21st century refugees, predominantly Muslim, feeling violence in Syria and around the Middle East,” continues Caplan. “I wanted to use the histories and the religious and cultural quirks of my own background as a way of exploring the common humanity of refugees, indeed of all human beings, regardless of religious, cultural, geographic, or temporal divisions. While I have never been an immigrant or a refugee, I have felt like a stranger, I have felt heartbreak, I have felt lost, and I have felt unresolved tension. My goal was to use specific stories to illustrate universal themes.”
Glide is proud to premiere “Widow Pride” off Old Stock (below), an exuberant up tempo foot stomper that retains the punk aspects of Gogol Bordello while retaining Bob Dylan’s Desire era mysterious charm.
As for contemporary musical inspiration on Old Stock, Caplan notes the “musical reference points are all over the place, but there are a few big ones.”
“Canadian songwriter Geoff Berner stands out – he is an iconoclastic, accordion playing, punk-poet, klezmer mongrel. His use of old klezmer melodies thrust into a songwriterly context has been a major influence for me. Indeed, a couple of the songs on the album are Geoff Berner covers. I was also influenced by instrumental bands like The Klez Messengers, Fanfare du Belgistan, and Lemon Bucket Orkestra. From a songwriting standpoint, I am a lover of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Stephen Sondheim.”