The Marriott Hotel on Bay Street was transformed from its typical hotel stature into a sort of agora for music-types — promoters, producers, managers and musicians of all sorts mill about, chatting with each other and on their phones. They’re sitting around, looking utterly exhausted. But hey, it’s Canadian Music Week, and nothing less than extreme exhaustion, killer hangovers and long, press-filled days should be expected.
And then there’s Ben Caplan, who’s been nothing less than very busy. Over the past few months, Ben has been all over the map travelling around North America, making stops at various festivals and awards ceremonies along the way. After finishing up his North American leg with CMW, Ben will be heading over to Australia and New Zealand, where his fan base has been growing. Ben attributes his global explosion to the festivals he’s been playing at and the posters of his well-bearded face plastered around numerous cities, which is something that his street team, aptly named Ben Caplan’s Beard Brigade, is responsible for. It has become the street team’s job to go out and promote Ben, the band, and any upcoming shows. Much of the promotional support that Ben and the band receives comes from Audioblood Media, but not having a big budget requires volunteerism, which Ben says really does help. Members sign up online on Ben’s website and go from there. Plus, their assistance does not go unnoticed. “They get little perks like videos only they (the street team) get to see,” explains Ben.
His success at home has not gone unnoticed either, and at the beginning of the month, Ben won the “Rising Star of the Year” award at the East Coast Music Awards in Halifax. Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Ben has been living in Halifax for 8 years now, and he considers it to be home. “When I’m in Ontario I’m visiting, and when I’m there, I’m home. It’s wonderful—it’s such an honour to have been taken in as one of their own,” he remarks on his success down east. The unique sound that Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers has is yet to be duplicated by any other artist, and with its mix of folk, jazz, and eastern European music, along with Ben’s Tom Waits-esque growl, it is not surprising that Ben and the band have garnered such success in the two short years since the release of their debut album, “In the Time of the Great Remembering.” In between travelling, Ben’s been busy writing and demoing new tracks for a new album, which can be expected to have a lot of the same flavours as the debut, says Ben, but we can expect this new release to be a little bit darker than the last.
Canadian Music Week, Ben’s final stop before making the trek across the world, is in its 31st year, and brings together artists from across the globe to a cutting edge trade exhibition, award shows, informative conferences and most importantly, it is Canada’s biggest new music festival. Over 6 nights, 1,000 bands are showcased at more than 60 live music venues in downtown Toronto. It’s a week where artists from all over are able to network with huge names in the music industry, and get the chance to showcase their music to a diverse Canadian audience. “I love the opportunity that it (Canadian Music Week) has created with all of the international delegates being here and bringing in all of the Canadian promoters—and it’s cool being able to see all of my friends who are in other bands—you’ve got everybody in one place for a week,” says Ben when asked what he likes best about CMW.
Ben is no stranger to the music festival scene, though, and he recently just arrived back in Canada from his second stint at South by South West (SXSW), which he describes as being: “twelve city blocks that are kind of like Kensington Market … imagine twelve city blocks with an Augusta sort of feel. It’s all bars and every single bar has music going on in it, the streets are blocked off and there’s just thousands of people dancing back and forth from venue to venue. There’s loud music everywhere.” Although compared to SXSW, Canadian Music Week seems to be relatively tame. Having arrived in Toronto on Thursday, Ben is only able to catch the end half of the festival, and seldom has any down time. He admits that his days are scheduled into 20-minute time slots and that he rarely has the luxury of taking the TTC, so most of his time is spent hopping in and out of cabs. Being at Canadian Music Week is considered to be work for Ben, and judging by the Starbucks cup clutched in his hand, many late nights—including this particular night—are going to be had. At 1:35 in the morning, the legendary Horseshoe Tavern’s stage was graced with Ben’s presence. All ballads have been left out of the set list, Ben claims, so his performance will be nothing short of a party.
An encounter with Ben Caplan cannot be considered complete without some sort of comment made about his majestic beard (which is extremely impressive in person, if I do say so myself). Just as Justin Bieber cut off his hair, sold it on eBay and donated the profits to a charity of his choice, I asked Ben which charity he’d donate the earnings from his beard if he were to sell it on eBay. “I’d probably give it to the Common Roots Urban Farms in Halifax. It’s an organization that has built a farm for the city of Halifax in the center of the city, and they do a lot of community outreach programs – teaching the community about living healthy, healthy eating and sustainable agriculture and local agriculture,” was Ben’s philanthropic response.
Ben Caplan and I part ways—I head back down Bay Street to Ryerson University, and Ben dives back into the whirlwind that is Canadian Music Week. For my first interview, I’m impressed. Ben is down to earth, friendly and clearly passionate about music. With an attitude like that, I can’t foresee Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers slowing down anytime soon.