With songs that explore life's murky corners and shadowy characters, Ben de la Cour's music occupies the intersection between gothic Americana and dark, gritty folk.
It's a sound fueled by the stories and struggles of its creator, a lifelong explorer who's never been afraid to shine a light on his own demons. Raised in London and Brooklyn, Ben experienced an international coming-of-age, leaving home at 17 and transforming himself into a semi-professional boxer in Havana. He returned to London and logged several years on the road with a British metal band, then followed his muse to cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans. Finally, he settled in East Nashville, where he found a community of roots musicians and simpatico songwriters who weren't afraid to chase down their own musical horizons.
Albums like Ben's 2012 debut, Ghost Light, and 2016's career-shifting Midnight in Havana chronicled not only that sense of wanderlust, but also Ben's attempt to wrestle his own vices into submission. The result was a haunting, harrowingly personal version of folk music that earned praise from outlets like American Songwriter and NPR. Ben was named a Kerrville New Folk Winner shortly after Midnight in Havana's release and began maintaining a regular presence on the road, playing more than 100 shows a year. In a genre that had become increasingly pop-friendly throughout the 21st century, his stark tales of heartbreak, hangovers, God, and death seemed to harken back to folk's roots, making him a modern torchbearer of a classic sound.
"Folk music has a long tradition of darkness," he explains, "and darkness is something I know a lot about."
That darkness takes on new dimensions with his fifth record, Sweet Anhedonia, a gripping collection of Americana noir songwriting, heartland rockers, and folk ballads. He recorded the album with Jim White, a cult folksinger celebrated for his own Southern gothic sound. "Jim's album Wrong-Eyed Jesus! helped me through a terrible time in my life," says Ben. "I've always been such a big fan of his music. We worked together in Athens and Nashville, taking alternative approaches to my songs by building soundscapes and percussive patterns. The goal was to make an art record — something that was expansive but not bombastic."
Two years earlier, Ben had released Shadow Land, his first album to be recorded since completing a rehab program for alcoholism. He paid several visits to the psych ward following rehab, continuing to grapple with the internal forces that had waged war within his head for years. Being institutionalized didn't just bring clarity to Ben's life; it added new perspectives to his music, too. The experience made him increasingly empathetic to other people's struggles, and that awareness shines on Sweet Anhedonia's sharply-written songs.
"I have love for all the characters I write about, even the ones who seem to have no redeeming qualities," he explains. "To be a good writer, you have to be empathetic. Part of that is resisting the urge to judge or justify the things your characters do. Sometimes, you just present your characters and follow them along their path, writing about whatever they're up to. I've never been shy about presenting unlikable narrators, because I think it's a human thing to root for 'the bad guy.' Just look at all the serial killer documentaries."
Sweet Anhedonia makes room for acoustic fingerpicking and electric amplification, casting Ben de la Cour's stories against backdrops of haunting roots music ("Appalachian Book of the Dead"), Springsteen-sized heartland rock ("Suicide of Town"), moody minimalism ("Maricopa County"), and orchestral, cinematic bombast ("Shine on the Highway"). Ben doesn't shy away from nodding to his influences — including Townes Van Zandt, Nick Cave, and author Raymond Carver — but Sweet Anhedonia whips up its own folky brew, weaving southern imagery and rootsy textures into something starkly singular.
A leading light of folk music's underground, Ben de la Cour has kept his songwriting sharp, charting his own path through rehab, release, regression, and redemption over the past decade. Sweet Anhedonia marks the latest chapter in a story that continues to unfold. It's Ben at his narrative, nuanced best, full of songs that seethe one minute and soothe the next.