Making a Scene Presents an interview with Ben De La Cour
What happens when the unstoppable force of our dreams meets the immovable object of reality? It’s unclear. But Ben de la Cour is hell-bent on trying to find out. Raised in Brooklyn, Ben de la Cour was was playing New York City dive bars with his brother a full decade before he could legally drink. A high-school dropout and former amateur boxer, he received his education by listening to his parent’s record collection – full of everything from Bob Dylan and The Everly Brothers to Lynyrd Skynyrd. At the tender age of nineteen he spent a year in Havana training with members of the Cuban national boxing team before moving to London with his brother to revive their doom metal band, Dead Man’s Root. They lived in a van and toured around Europe for several years until the band fell apart under the two-fisted attack of burnout and drunken brawls, and in 2008 de la Cour returned to the states with a head full of softer, bruised, but no less intense acoustic songs.
Following a short stint in Los Angeles where he released Under A Wasted Moon, which BBC Radio dubbed “brilliant”, de la Cour passed through New Orleans, fell in love and decided to stay. In 2011 Ben de la Cour released Ghost Light, which spotlighted his talent as a songwriter and received rave reviews in No Depression and other publications, with one journalist dubbing him “a vitriolic Leonard Cohen.” However, after a chance meeting with a successful Nashville songwriter in a French Quarter dive bar, de la Cour felt compelled to keep on moving. He recalls, “he made it pretty clear to me that if I was ever going to do anything with songwriting I was going to have to get the hell out of New Orleans. So I did. I guess I’ve always been pretty impressionable that way”.
Once again Ben was on the move, this time winding up in Nashville where he crashed on friends’ couches and worked as a doorman until he found his footing. His third album Midnight in Havana came out in 2016 on Flour Sack Cape Records and was met with critical acclaim from outlets like Red Line Roots, Nashville Scene, No Depression and The Huffington Post. That same year he won the prestigious New Folk Competition at the 2016 Kerrville Folk Festival.
In April of 2018 Ben de la Cour released The High Cost of Living Strange, eight tracks of his self-proclaimed “Americanoir” style – weaving complex, mysterious and sometimes shocking storylines with a unique blend of instrumental backing and the occasional glimpse of gallows humor. Along with his unique perspective towards songwriting and his lyrical attention to detail, de la Cour has a veracious studio ideology; live tracking, minimal overdubs, no headphones, one room, and just a couple of days. “I’m like a bargain basement Cowboy Jack Clement!” he jokes.
“I like stories that are specific and I don’t like them to be preachy” Ben continues. “If I think I’m being preached to or if there’s an agenda at play – I’m out of there. I think a lot of people feel that way. When I say I think this album is about dissolution, I mean it on a personal level. How do we cope with this feeling of being lost and unmoored? What happens to relationships when they fall apart? What happens when the unstoppable force of our dreams meets the immovable object of reality? Well, what usually happens is that it turns out our dreams aren’t quite as unstoppable as we once thought!”
Some of de la Cour’s most introspective lyrics can be found in songs like “Face Down Penny” and “Company Town”, which he wrote while on the road. “When you’re touring you do a lot of driving and you really get to see the way that corporations exert influence over every facet of American life… that’s the world we’re living in now. We have this illusion of control and freedom but in reality for the most part it really does feel like we are all living in a company town sometimes.”
Listeners hoping for some of de la Cour’s more terrifying tales need look no further than “Tupelo”, a claustrophobic and hypnotic homicidal minor-key stomp inspired by a chance late night meeting. “That song is something of a meditation on my personal theory that there are only two types of people in the world – those who pick up a hitchhiker and think of all the ways they could kill or be killed by that person… and liars.” “Dixie Crystals” is a scorched earth tale of methamphetamine addiction set against an unforgiving southern hellscape, while “Uncle Boudreaux Went to Texas” and “Guy Clark’s Fiddle” are beautiful narratives about broken-hearted dreamers waking up in a world they never felt like they belonged in, but are still doing their best to love anyway.
The High Cost of Living Strange may seem bleak, but never self-consciously so, and it’s shot through with moments of real beauty. There is also enough humor and hope in all but the darkest moments to tell us what we all need to hear sometimes; it’s okay to be human. At least until a better alternative comes along.