Ben Glover’s new album Atlantic bridges the gap between Nashville and the Emerald Isle. We recently caught up with the Northern Irish singer-songwriter, who weighed in on his favorite scribes, his whiskey preference and what he considers to be the perfect song.
How would you describe Atlantic?
The concept behind the recording of Atlantic was to bridge my two homes — the north of Ireland where I was born and raised – and the southern states of the US where I have also been living the past few years. It’s a musical bringing together of my two worlds. The songs were written in the US, the album was made on Irish soil. It’s folky, bluesy, country and its southern and Irish roots are very apparent in the sound.
How would you compare it to your last album?
We tracked Atlantic live in my living room in County Donegal in rural Ireland. The house is at the foot of a mountain that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. My last record was recorded in East Nashville so as you might suspect there is a world of a difference between the two recordings. Atlantic is raw, stripped back and intimate. It was made by a bunch of friends sitting around a fire in a living room, worlds away from the sound and feel of an East Nashville record. The songs, performances and spirit on Atlantic are the best I have captured on an album so far.
What was it like to co-write songs from Atlantic with Mary Gauthier? (and Gretchen Peters, Neilson Hubbard and Rod Picott?)
Mary and Gretchen are High Priestesses of songwriting. They have the gift of being able to get straight to the truth but also bring a powerful, fierce poetry and alchemy to writing. The common denominator with those two and both Neilson and Rod is that they all bring a huge amount of courage and integrity to the songwriting process. They are prepared to dig as deep as the song requires, no matter how painful or tough that process is. That means that often our writing sessions are tough and grueling but it’s always worth it in the end.
You’ve said you draw inspiration from rural Ireland and the American South. What are similarities you’ve noticed between the two?
The first comparison I noticed was that these two places produce people who have great fortitude, character and warmth. Ireland and the South may not have geographical or physical similarities but they share wonderfully rich cultures born out of turbulent pasts, history is certainly very much alive in these places. 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 are intensely passionate about their culture and I think both Ireland and the South are now places with very strong senses of themselves. Great art is born out of struggles and friction and that’s one of the reasons why Ireland and the South have produced so many great musicians, artists and poets.
What piqued your interest in songwriters like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams?
My parents were fans of country music and so growing up I would have heard a lot of Cash, Hank, Willie, Merle etc…at home. The stuff you are exposed to early definitely has an influence on you and I always felt that Cash and Hank were vitally important artists and writers. I have learned a great deal from their songs, especially how to keep it simple but still convey powerful messages. Cash was a master at turning human struggle into song and Hank the master at turning heartbreak and pain into poetry.
How does it feel to have “Whatever Happens Will” used in a Coca Cola commercial?
It was a nice surprise when it happened! It’s slightly odd as it was for an advertisement campaign in Latin American…but it goes to show that when you put a song out there you never know where it will end up.
What was it like recording the album with old friends in a house you spent much of your childhood in?
To make the album with four of my closest friends in such a personal space meant that the recording process was incredibly relaxed and great “craic.” (Gaelic word, with no exact English translation. The closest you get is “fun.”). Even though we were in a home environment we were still out of our comfort zones in many ways. We created our own little universe by setting up the studio in a place that was completely removed from the industry and marketplace. We were in our own little bubble for two weeks in the wilds of Donegal. We would get up in the morning and light a turf fire in the living room – how many live rooms in a studio can you do that it in?! The environment allowed us to strip away the pretense or barriers that can sometimes arise in a normal studio. Neilson Hubbard and Kris Donegan came over from Nashville to make the record and it was their first time in Ireland – I was seeing familiar sites through fresh eyes and that was very inspiring too.
How does Ireland’s rich literary tradition inform your work as a songwriter. Do you have any favorite Irish scribes?
The great Irish writers had/have a wonderful intuitive sense of storytelling and drama. As a songwriter I try to infuse both of those elements into my songs. Ireland is a country steeped in rich cultural history and literature was always a vital part of its identity. Storytelling and poetry was seen as being an almost spiritual and semi-religious process. The Irish were/are not afraid to write about tragedy, adversity or the darker parts of the human condition, so maybe that is partially where I get my desire to write about that side of life rather than the sunnier side.
I especially love Seamus Heaney and WB Yeats, who both were masters at making sense of their time in history, is it in a personal sense or getting perspective on how politics shaped their eras. The list of my favorites could go on and on but others definitely on it are Brendan Behan, Brian Friel and James Joyce.
What was your musical upbringing like in Northern Ireland? What kind of stuff were you listening to?
I am the youngest of six children so early on I was hearing all the stuff my older siblings were listening to which was mainly the what was on the UK charts in the 80’s. Britpop and Grunge were huge when I was a teenager but by then I was obsessed with Bob Dylan and most things I listened to during those years had some Dylan connection. I was always into the revered songwriters like Bob, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Johnny Cash etc…rather than bands of my era. I began playing in Irish traditional music sessions when I was 13 so when I started performing it was mostly roots music, old Irish ballads etc…I spent my summers as a teenager gigging in the local pubs and my set would have been mostly folk songs, country and stuff from the 60’s.
What’s your preference: Irish or Tennessee whiskey?
Irish all the way. Bushmills in particular – Jameson is a close second.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
I have a whole bunch that I look to for guidance but right up there would be Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Hank Williams, Tom Waits, Van Morrison and Mike Scott.
When did you start writing songs? Were they good right away, or did that come later?
Learning to play guitar and writing songs both came hand in hand and I think I was about 12. Awesome they were not, but thankfully my inner critic hadn’t woken up yet either so my early attempts must have given me enough hope to keep on keeping on. It took me until I was about 20 that I wrote a song that I would be proud to still play today.
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
It was a song called “Johnny Had It Coming.” I can still hum the melody but I have no longer have idea who Johnny was or what grievous thing he did! For some reason I do remember this line from it, “The mountains looked away when he cried their name.” Yep, enough said. Let’s move on.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
It’s a song called “Arguing with Ghosts” which I wrote with Gretchen Peters and Matraca Berg in June. Amazingly it only took us three hours to write and I know already it’s a contender for my next album.
How do you go about writing songs?
A melody idea can arrive anytime anywhere so I try my best to record them my on phone when they arise. I’m always jotting down lyrics or words so when the time comes to sit down and write I’ll get things underway by seeing if any of the lines in my notebook are jumping into any of the melody ideas. The hard part for me is being disciplined enough to make myself sit down and just put myself in the midst of the process. If I can do that and be patient then I know that I’ll be helped along by outside forces and not just rely on craft. The easy writes are when the song just flows out and you act as more of a channel. The not-so-easy writes, which are more often are not, require doggedness and just staying with the process can be quite excruciating.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I’m continually adding to a stockpile that I have of song themes, ideas and lines that I then turn too when I am writing. It’s a priority that every word has to count. There can’t be a word in the song that doesn’t need to be there.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Specifically for Atlantic I was drawn to write about a range of themes that were important to me at that time including – cause and effect, reaping and sowing, homecoming, faith, sin, love, sex, redemption, the idea of the soul, hell, heaven, hell and history.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m particularly proud of all 11 songs on Atlantic and could not pick one over another. I really can’t settle on a favorite.
What’s a lyric or verse from the album you are a fan of?
“I do like a good juxtaposition and so the last verse of “Too Long Gone” gets me fired up! “There’s poison in the whiskey/ Weakness in the strong/ Violence in the silence/ I’ve been gone too long”
Are there any words you love or hate?
The Irish word “craic” is a great word and can be used in so many different scenarios. For example: “What’s the craic?” “How’s the craic?” “He’s great craic.” “That’s bad craic.” “It was mighty craic” “It’s just a bit of craic” and maybe my favorite “That’s wile craic sir.” It’s hard not to love such a versatile word.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
A few years ago, the son of friends of mine was tragically killed. At the graveside during the burial they asked me to play my song “Do What You Do.” They felt that the song conveyed what they were feeling at that moment and brought comfort to them. I don’t know how I got through singing it. When you combine music and events like that the song never is the same again to you. It just takes on a deeper meaning.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
No. I do journal every day. I think that’s important but aside from that and “to do” lists music is all I write.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
I’m going to go for Robert Johnson. I mean, how cool would it be to stand on stage and say ‘here’s a song I recently wrote with the King of The Delta Blues.” If it were a three-way write I’d have to invite Elvis along too. Two Kings in one room; that would be quite the write.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Neilson Hubbard. He doesn’t put out a lot of material under his own name but writes with a lot of the artists he produces. Because of that his writing often gets overlooked but I think Neilson is a wonderful writer.
What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?
Into The Mystic by Van Morrison is one of the finest songs ever written. The sailor at sea is thinking about returning to his lover and home and so it conjures up this great longing. The song is much bigger than that though as it’s also about the infinity of time while still expressing how life itself is finite. Van captures all these themes brilliantly and I love the song’s intrigue, mysticism and romance. It’s pure Celtic soul.