The idea of having a home, of finding a place in the world is an idea that poets have long tried to capture and convey. Singer/songwriter Ben Glover is one of them and he’s done a decent job of it on his new album, Atlantic. Here, Glover retraces the lives of legends and the heart of history across two very different lands, Ireland and the American South. He reaches across continents and decades to bring together the disparate musical and geographical worlds that he calls home.
Having immersed himself in the historic and artistic cultures of both lands, Glover tells wonderfully thoughtful, intentional tales of his search for and planting of roots. He sings of blackbirds and mudbanks, whiskey and rivers, having studied well the cultures and geographies of his forefathers of both body and spirit. And he pulls it all together in a collection of songs that feels at once haunted and hopeful, gritty and grounded.
When you were getting started, you would play American folk tunes in pubs back home in Ireland, then play Irish folk tunes in pubs in Boston. How did you find your balance when you had feet in two different worlds?
My objective was the same in both countries — sing great songs — and, in doing so, try and make a connection with the audience. I never felt off balance when my musical objective was consistent regardless of continent. Whether I was belting out rowdy Irish folk songs in the bars of Boston or doing some Woody Guthrie in the pubs of Belfast, my intention was to perform songs that had something to say and that would stir up an audience. Conceptually, there really isn’t much difference between American folk/blues tunes and Irish folk tunes — the songs from both traditions are filled with great stories, colorful language, and tales of both the joys and struggles of the people who wrote and sang them. I was drawn to both Irish folk and American folk/blues traditions right from the time when music began to mean something to me. So the music was really the thing that kept me balanced. It’s easy to find balance when you feel deeply connected to and love the thing you are doing even if one foot is either side of an ocean.
Both of your two geographic homelands and inspirations Ireland and, now, the South are haunted by histories that are still very much alive. And the people who live in both have a certain fighting spirit in their DNA. What is it that draws you to those kinds of places?
History is certainly very much alive in these places. It is still a sensitive thing and the wounds are still raw. William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And I think that is so true for these lands. Both Ireland and the southern U.S. states have been scarred and shaped by huge political and social struggles. These are areas of the world where parts of society have been oppressed due to race and religion. However, oppression can result in the oppressed developing a unique identity and be intensely passionate about their culture, and I think both Ireland and the South are now places with very strong senses of themselves. I’m inspired by places that have such potent spirits and depth of character.
These rich histories are full of struggle, but great art is born out of friction and that’s one of the reasons why Ireland and the South have produced so many great musicians, artists, and poets — creative expression has been vital to and sits right at the heart of the identity of these places. Music was often the only refuge and release for these people who had to endure some terrible conditions. Ireland and the South may not have geographical or physical similarities, but they share wonderfully rich cultures born out of turbulent pasts. The darker stuff is alluring to me, and both these places have this in abundance. On top of that, these two places produce people who have great fortitude, character, and warmth — they are the kinds of people I want to be around. The ghosts of history are still rambling around these parts and those spirits are an interesting bunch to hang out with, too!
There’s a Welsh word hiraeththat connotes a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return or maybe never was, the yearning for the lost places of your past. That theme seems to apply to Atlantic, no?
Hiraeth is a great word. I think that theme definitely runs through Atlantic, although it’s one that I’m more aware of now rather than at the time of writing the album. There’s the thought that, at the moment we are born and enter human form, we leave our home and that our life is a journey of yearning and search for that place from which we came from; that makes sense to me. While writing and recording Atlantic, homecoming rather than homesickness was more of an apparent theme to me. I literally went back home to the house I grew up in to make the record. Maybe, though, the idea homecoming is an illusion as we never truly can ever get back to the places of our past.
At the same time homesickness also applies because it denotes feelings of isolation and alienation. These songs are largely concerned with how the decisions and paths we take can affect our fate, our integrity, and our levels of joy and suffering. When we make decisions that, ultimately, are destructive to us, then there is a feeling of being estranged and alienated from ourselves. In this sense, homesickness is certainly at the core of Atlantic.
You went back to County Donegal to make Atlantic. How would this record be different if you’d made it in Nashville?
County Donegal is one of the most rural and isolated parts of Ireland. The house we made the record in is at the foot of a mountain and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean — the album cover image is what we looked out on every day while making the record. That rugged, raw environment and spirit of rural Donegal had a massive influence on how this record sounds; its presence was huge on this album. That physical dislocation from anything to do with the music industry was a perfect environment in which to make this record. That’s not meant to be disrespectful to the industry, but it was extremely liberating and inspiring to make a record in a place that was worlds away from the marketplace, away from the distractions that Nashville or any city has.
It meant, too, that everyone who played on the recording was transported out of their comfort zones into an entirely different context. It brought something new and different out of us all. We felt that we were creating our own little universe during the recording process and, literally, we did as we transformed the house into a makeshift studio for 10 days. We created a recording space that will never exist again and, in doing so, created a sound for this album that we can’t replicate again. For those reasons, we could not and would not have been able to have made this record in Nashville. It definitely would not have had the rawness, intimacy, or personality that it has if we recorded it in a more controlled studio environment. In many ways, the record sounds like how Donegal feels to me, and that was one of the things that I wanted to capture.
What would your music be like if you’d married a New Yorker rather than a Mississippian?
My wife is from Oxford, Mississippi, and her southern roots have allowed me to have a very personal discovery of the South and its culture. I always had a real interest in that particular part of the world, but with her I have been able to get to know, get to see, and get to feel its heartbeat. She’s the reason why I’ve been able to develop this relationship with the South, especially Mississippi. This has allowed me to spend a lot of time in that part of the world and consequently that has deepened my connection for the music and culture of that area, especially the Delta blues. This real and personal experience of southern culture has had a massive influence on my life and my songs. A New York wife could not have helped me inject such an element of southern gothic into my music the way a Mississippian has.
You’ve made pilgrimages to sites related to some of your musical heroes Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Robert Johnson, et al. How does that affect you as both a person and an artist?
To experience the very places that are marked by my musical heroes is something that is very important to me. It’s about deepening the connection with their legacy, but, more importantly, it lets me get closer to the source of the fire that their music lit in me creatively. For me, such places are shrines of sorts and there is definitely a spiritual element, too. Those artists have had great significance in my life and music and so journeying to sites that are connected with them always awakens and stirs up something inside me. To sit at Hank’s grave, to spend the day at Cash’s childhood home in Arkansas, or to go in search of Robert Johnson’s grave in the Delta excites and invigorates me in the same pure way that their music did when I first heard it. These trips fire up my creativity and imagination. Music is a sacred thing, and I need to go to sites that have sacred symbolism for me; it’s the duty of any good pilgrim! In some respects, too, it de-romanticizes my heroes in a good way — by visiting their graves, it’s a reminder that these mighty, near mythical figures were indeed mortal after all and just on the same journey as the rest of us.
Do you identify with one particular musical icon more than the others or have you found a place in you for several?
I’m generous — there is room in me for a number of icons to both inspire and corrupt! Right at the top of the list sit Dylan, Cash, and Hank. They are the three I’ve looked to constantly ever since I started writing and performing. I identify with them for a number of reasons: Dylan sets the bar for songwriting; Cash for his voice and presence; and Hank for being the ultimate at turning heartbreak and pain into simple poetry and song. I also have to give a special mention to the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. During the writing and making of Atlantic, he held a great fascination for me and his story is something that influenced some of the songs on the record.
When you are writing a song with another person, how do you dig into deeply personal things about yourself and hash that out in an honest way? It must take an incredible amount of trust… or whiskey.
Atlantic is the most personal album I’ve made and that was because I wrote it with trusted friends who were willing to dig as deep as possible to find these songs with me. There’s no point in going halfway to the truth. It only matters if you go all the way there and we were all committed to mining as deep as possible to get there, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable the writing process was. I wrote these songs with Mary Gauthier, Gretchen Peters, Neilson Hubbard, and Rod Picott; they are all amazing writers who bring a huge amount of integrity and courage to the writing process. They are also some of my closest friends, so it was easy to get deeply personal and dismantle any pretense. It also comes down to what you and your co-writer are writing the song for — if it’s for the charts and for commercial sales, then honesty doesn’t necessarily have to drive the process; but if you’re writing because you want to express your truth, then digging deep in an honest way is the only way to go. As for the whiskey, there was definitely some Bushmills involved in the recording, but not in the writing. We couldn’t possibly make a record in Donegal and not have a few sips…
There are a couple of tracks on Atlantic that wouldn’t be out of place in a tent revival. How does an Irish lad summon the hallelujah spirit so naturally?
Spirit is spirit and tapping into it has nothing to do with where your passport comes from. Growing up, I regularly played traditional Irish music sessions and the sing-along nature of those traditional songs can have a passion and spirit of the same intensity as the hallelujah spirit found in a tent revival. The most meaningful performances have a transcendental element, and I believe the performer has to allow himself to be a conduit for something bigger than him/herself, and that’s when the hallelujah spirit is conjured up. When it comes to Atlantic, however, I can’t take all the credit for summoning the hallelujah mojo — everyone who performed has soulful spirit in abundance. Their voices and performances brought an incredible fervor and passion to those tracks, and so I have to testify that it was a communal summoning up of the spirit.
Are you a fan of Southern gothic literature or did you just soak up and conjure up all the imagery and culture through your travels?
It’s a bit of both. Since moving to Nashville, I wanted to immerse myself in as much of the southern culture as possible, so my senses have been wide open and soaking it all up ever since I made my first visit to the South seven years ago. However, I had been reading William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and many other gothic greats long before I set foot on southern soil. This mean’t my imagination was traveling through those hot, dusty, dark backroads of the South prior to me physically being there.
This article originally appeared as separate pieces on NoiseTrade and No Depression.