If Ben Rogers sounds like he’s been reborn on his third and latest album, Wildfire, that’s entirely by design, considering what’s transpired in his life over the past few years. When the Straight tracks him down by phone, the formerly Vancouver-based singer-songwriter reveals that he’s kicking back on a porch on the Sunshine Coast—a place that moves at a decidedly slower pace than the Lower Mainland.
With a wry laugh, Rogers notes that he started telling anyone who would listen that he needed to get out of Vancouver a decade ago, when he was in his mid-20s. A couple of years after the release of his Americana-flavoured sophomore album, The Bloodred Yonder, he decided to finally make the move up the coast.
“I was living at 14th and Cambie, right in the shit,” Rogers says, sounding beyond relaxed. “It was a constant projection of people’s shitty energy, and shitty music coming from their cars and stuff. So it was like, ‘I need to disconnect. I need to see what Mother Nature has to teach me.’ So I started hunting and doing more fishing and stuff around that time. I don’t know—something inside just kind of pulled me that way.”
Looking back, his desire for a simpler life was partly rooted in the business side of making music.
“I wanted to focus on the writing without all the other managerial bullshit and dealing with people,” Rogers says. “The happiest times in my life that I can think of are being in my room, alone with my dog, and writing.”
What’s most striking about Wildfire is that Rogers has reinvented himself, creating a record that defies easy categorization, both lyrically and sonically. As a storyteller Rogers often leaves things vague, even while dealing with important and complicated issues like cultural genocide (“Leviathan Smiles”) and domestic abuse (“A Changed Man”).
Musically, there are still traces of the gunsmoke-and-whisky country that marked The Bloodred Yonder and his 2013 debut, Lost Stories—check out the breezy, steel-guitar-dusted “Steady Going Nowhere”. But Wildfire—produced by City and Colour’s Dallas Green, who also released the album on his new label Still Records—is mostly a record of beautiful curve balls. “Holiday” starts as languidly as a Georgia summer day and then unleashes an epic display of six-string violence, while “Stackabones” shifts from a soft-focus meditation to a cascading folk-rocker.
Whether it’s the spectral washes of guitar in the acoustic “Rattle Your Chains” or the battery-of-angels outro in “Wildfire”, what you ultimately hear is an artist who’s learned that sometimes the best thing you can do is stand back and breathe, secure in the knowledge that the only person you need to please is yourself.
Rogers notes that, at one point, things had gone off the rails and he’d made peace with the possibility that the well was permanently dry and he was done writing songs.
“Then I wrote ‘A Changed Man’ and it felt like renewal,” he says. “After that, all these songs started pouring out. It sort of happened without me really thinking about it.”
And as the floodgates opened, Rogers found himself taking a different approach to his writing.
“I wanted to get away from telling linear stories, so I needed the language to change,” Rogers explains. “I needed to challenge myself that way, but also harmonically as well. So I started using the découpage method, where I’d write dozens of verses and then intercut what I wanted to convey. I didn’t want things to be as plain—I wanted them to be a bit more immersive.
“It was interesting,” he continues. “In the past, I’d write stream of consciousness and then sort of whittle things down and fine-tune it. This time around, I used a lot of the stuff that I would normally throw away. It was a learning curve in terms of what I could live with, because normally I’m really picky about what I choose to say. In the end, it was refreshing and revitalizing for my craft.”
What’s made that extra gratifying is the knowledge that a change of scenery can do a person good. That’s certainly been true for Rogers, who’s happy enough today to wonder why it took him so long to leave Vancouver.
“I think I’d stressed myself out so much overthinking everything creatively,” Rogers says. “Finally, I had to go, ‘You know, do I really give a shit?’ I’m always going to do this, so I don’t really have a choice anymore. So I might as well try to enjoy it a bit more.”
Ben Rogers plays the Imperial on Saturday (June 22) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It runs from Friday (June 21) to July 1 at many venues around the city.