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Ben Cosgrove’s new LP shines a light on wild things in the material world

April 27, 2021
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We may not always notice them, but wild things are unrelentingly growing and creeping around us. Even the most securely constructed edifice of the unnatural world has elements of nature growing on, around or through it.

That notion of wildness being found in the most ordinary places – and how the two interrelate – is at the heart of pianist Ben Cosgrove’s fourth studio LP “The Trouble With Wilderness,” a beautiful and fascinating instrumental concept album that celebrates the certainty of nature’s presence in the most unnatural spaces.

The Boston-based Cosgrove has deep ties to Maine and says he plans a return to Portland soon where he feels most at home although in a normal year his home could be just about anywhere.

For a decade prior to the Covid lockdown Cosgrove performed about 200 shows per year around the country.

“It’s the lifestyle that works best for me,” Cosgrove says. “I really get a lot out of talking to a room full of people every night and being able to move around and live lightly. I’m not great at sitting still so the last year has been a bit of a challenge.”

Cosgrove says he recently came to the realization that he was spending much of his stage time introducing songs by telling stories connected to national parks, wildlife preserves, oceans and forests - places that tend to show up on postcards and not in most folks’ everyday lives. He’s been writing and performing music about landscape for years but says he believes the built environment can be as impressive and worthy of attention as any unfettered wilderness.

“The solution I landed on to represent that idea was to try to make the piano sound mechanical, organic and ethereal all at once,” Cosgrove says of his new music. “Even in orderly designed and constructed places, there’s still unpredictability and chaos.”

When you close your eyes and listen, you may envision blades of grass stretching through a crack in the sidewalk, a vine-covered interstate overpass, or a field full of wind turbines. The alluring music on “The Trouble With Wilderness” is about appreciating the wildness to be found outside your front door and Cosgrove says the irony of its creation at a time when we were encouraged not to go there isn’t lost on him.

“Suddenly we were all trapped in our homes so that idea suddenly became very real,” he says.

The album’s concept provided Cosgrove with almost limitless possibilities and gave him an opportunity to experiment with piano sounds utilizing some unusual techniques and tools.

On the album’s opening track “The Machine in the Garden,” we hear Cosgrove playing acoustic piano while also rhythmically plucking strings from the inside which adds a slightly mechanical-sounding brushstroke to his aural canvas.

On “Cairn,” a piece named for man-made piles of stones usually constructed as memorials or landmarks, we hear something chiming in tandem with Cosgrove’s piano.

“That’s me playing the strings of the piano with a pair of chopsticks,” he says.

Cosgrove credits his producer and engineer Dan Cardinal for devising unique ways to coax unusual sounds from the piano.

“We placed tiny tea-light candles all over the inside of the piano so when I hit a key, it sort of rattles,” Cosgrove says. “It gave it a weird texture and also introduced genuine unpredictability. I wanted “Cairn” to sound like it was going to burst out of control at any moment.”

The whirling traveling music heard on “Overpass” conjures the image of thriving wildlife that refuses to be squashed by that colossal manmade structure. One can envision the grass and plant-life that somehow manages to breach the cracks, and even the occasional crawly thing that finds a way to live amid the tons of concrete.

“Movement and location is an idea that I keep coming back to in my music,” Cosgrove says. “I’m really interested in the idea of highways and roads, and how something can occupy one physical space while being constantly defined by motion.”

The muted tones heard on “Overpass” were achieved by packing the inside of the piano with felt and placing microphones very close, according to Cosgrove. “You can hear the hammers flying around, the keys being depressed and the pedals moving,” he says. “The piano became this elaborate piece of furniture (laughs) as well as a musical instrument.”

The lively percolating melodicism of “This Rush of Beauty and This Sense of Order” was inspired by a line about gardeners and gardening written by “Charlotte’s Web” author E.B. White: “Not sun, not soil alone can bring to border/This rush of beauty and this sense of order.”

“What’s funny is that the first time I ever saw that quote was when I noticed it was printed on the floor of a rotunda at the Maine Mall in South Portland,” Cosgrove says. “It’s from a letter that he wrote to his wife. It’s about how gardens create these orderly human designed arrangements for plants and organisms to exist when they really want to burst out, explode everywhere and take over.”

Staying faithful to the idea of nature interacting with structure, Cosgrove allowed spontaneity to mingle with the composed music on “The Trouble With Wilderness.” The textural pieces “Arterial #1,” “Arterial #4,” and “Wilder” are in-studio improvisations captured on tape, he says, adding he wanted to remain faithful to the subject matter.

Cosgrove is best known for his solo albums and performances but says he loves collaborating with and learning from other artists in different genres. His keyboard work for Boston indie-folk band Darlingside and the alt-country of Portland’s Joel Thetford are among his dozens of session appearances. Cosgrove also tours and records with Portland-based folk trio The Ghost of Paul Revere, an experience that he says altered his approach to the piano.

“I love those guys, they’re some of my closest friends,” Cosgrove says of Max Davis, Sean McCarthy and Griffin Sherry of The Ghost of Paul Revere.

“It’s a great example of how playing with other people can make you reevaluate every musical instinct you have,” he says. “Playing with them for the last few years has made me a better listener and I automatically voice chords differently now than I did before I worked with them.”

Remaining stationary for the last year has been a bit of a challenge, Cosgrove says, adding he can’t wait to play live again. Throughout his career, Cosgrove says he has performed in 48 states.

“The ones that I’m missing are not what you would expect,” he says. “I’ve never performed in Hawaii or Delaware. I’d like to hit Hawaii next because I feel like the sentence ‘I’ve played in every state except Delaware” is more interesting (laughs).’

“I feel like I get to live in the best of both worlds,” he continues. “I have the independence of a solo artist, and also get to hop around to work with artists like Joel Thetford, and I get the camaraderie when I get to go on a long tour with the guys in Ghost of Paul Revere. I like my life (laughs).”

(“The Trouble With Wilderness” is available now on CD or digital download at www.BenCosgrove.com. The vinyl version is available for preorder and is expected to ship in late May.)

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 April 2021 05:19

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