Five Questions With… Ben Kunder
The Toronto songsmith's second album, Better Human, comes out this week and features some prominent guests. In this interview, he describes its creation, his growing confidence as a songwriter and performer, and a memorable night in Ireland.
By Jason Schneider
On his new album Better Human—released June 29 through Comino Music—Toronto singer/songwriter Ben Kunder once again displays the exceptional storytelling skills that were the hallmark of his acclaimed 2015 debut, Golden.
Produced by multi-instrumentalist Aaron Goldstein, Better Human, like it’s predecessor, features an array of notable guests from the Canadian indie scene including Oh Susanna, Jim Guthrie, Sarah McDougall, drummers Tim Oxford (Arkells) and Loel Campbell (Wintersleep), bassist Anna Ruddick and backing vocalists Maia Davies (Ladies of the Canyon) and Carleigh Aikins (Bahamas).
The support came in handy for Kunder as he admittedly felt some pressure while writing new material in the wake of Golden putting him on the map both at home and abroad. However, after laying down a few initial tracks early in 2017, a tour last summer with Oh Susanna opened his creative floodgates and provided the bulk of Better Human’s tales of everyday triumphs and failures.
A father of two young sons and a carpenter by trade, Kunder’s latest efforts touch on themes of childbirth, finding work/life balance, and just coping with reality, as laid out on the album’s title track. Kunder says that the messages contained on Better Human became in some ways a personal challenge to share the dark corners of his life, as well as the joy, in what amounted to a cathartic experience overall.
He will be recreating that experience on tour in the coming months, starting with the album’s official launch on June 27 at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern. For more info go to benkunder.com.
What makes Better Human stand apart from your debut album?
I’ve got a much clearer perspective as a human and as an artist now. I know what I want to say creatively and the message feels very clear and positive. The record was made a little differently than my last album as well. The songs were written in a shorter time frame and with a little more urgency. And I think we went into the recording process with a bit of wild abandon. We really gave ourselves freedom to explore and let the songs speak for themselves. Having a producer was a significant change too; Aaron Goldstein did a great job and elevated the songs to a whole other level.
What songs on the new album are you particularly proud of?
I’m proud of all the songs for such different reasons. I guess personally I’m most proud of “I Will Be Your Arms.” It was written at a time when I found myself in a pretty dark place emotionally and has since become a celebratory anthem to bring people together and lift spirits with love. Sometimes the darkness can help shine the brightest light.
How would you describe your artistic evolution so far?
I think we’re always in a state of becoming. I’m still finding out who I am as an artist and how to convey a strong message through my songs. I didn’t use to be very comfortable as a musician because I came from a theatre background and always felt like a bit of an outsider. Now that I’ve been doing it long enough and digging deep into figuring out who I am as an independent artist I feel much more confident as a songwriter and performer. All I want is to connect and share stories and love with people, and it seems that my evolution is allowing me to do it more and more.
What's been the most significant change in your life over the past year?
I had my second child, Jude, a year ago and that has been a wild and beautiful adventure. Navigating the world with two small children and a partner who’s a midwife means that my life is both insanely chaotic and so filled with love that it’s hard to handle sometimes. My family inspires me to be a better human and to keep chipping away at my dreams. Putting out a record is a little different though. I also get much less sleep than I used to.
What's your best touring story?
When I was touring in Ireland with Sarah MacDougall, we played this place called Levi’s Corner House that’s been owned and run by the same family for 500 years. It’s in a village just south of Cork called Ballydehob, and the whole town comes out to see shows there. The venue is picturesque—you set up behind the shop counter and in front of racks of antique goods that have been sold there over the years. It’s just a beautiful and intimate show. Sarah and I had been listening to our favourite Irish artists while touring around and I had introduced her to one of my favourite songs, “Lakes of Pontchartrain,” sung by Paul Brady, which was the perfect soundtrack for driving around Ireland.
So, after the gig, the owners locked the door and turned down the lights, and we continued to drink and play music with the local villagers into the night in the dreamiest of kitchen parties. All of a sudden, this local artist asks if she can play my guitar and starts to tune it into some strange tuning. She begins to strum my guitar and out of her mouth comes the most beautiful rendition of—you guessed it—“Lakes of Pontchartrain,” except she was singing it in Gaelic. Needless to say, my mind was blown. Maybe not the wildest touring story, but definitely one of the most magical.