by Julia Cirignano
Ben Cooper, who performs under the pseudonym Radical Face, is a singer/songwriter from Jacksonville, Florida. His fifth album, released this year, is The Leaves. It’s part of his album trilogy known as The Family Tree (which includes 2011’s The Family Tree: The Roots and 2013’s The Family Tree: The Branches). Cooper has spent eight years on this project, and the final chapter has shown to be quite a grand finale.
Cooper created this trilogy project by first creating a fictional family, the Northcotes. He chose an interesting and wise way to tell this family’s story. He didn’t start with Aristotle’s Dramatic Structure that all children are introduced to in high school. Instead, Cooper views the Northcotes family as if they were real. He does this by not giving them dramatic story structure, but instead deals with the natural chaos on human life; with its seemingly random ups and downs. Cooper digs deep into the structure of human families, throws Aristotle’s ideas into that hole, fills it back up, and creates a new, raw, and truly honest way to storytelling. He explains this:
“The entire Family Tree project deals largely with how we affect each other, but I don’t have a lot of answers. This last record is as much about tying up earlier stories as it is trying to sort my own family problems. The only thing I’ve really walked away with, after working on this for eight years, is that families are complicated.”
Although the Northcotes are a fictional family, Cooper has been open about how much of his real family is incorporated into project. His personal connection between this last album “became very directly about my family. Half the songs are about the things that happened over the course of 2015, and the aftermath – everything from abuse coming to light, to court cases, to falling out with people I’ve known my whole life.”
The Leaves is personal to the point that Cooper has admitted to the fact that he can barely listen to it himself because it makes him so emotional. For a while he “wrapped things in fiction” to make them easier for himself. but he has finally broken free from even his most personal chains. The Leaves shows the beauty that comes from personal growth and freedom.
Cooper has stuck with this one idea for many years, and has created an entire world for his music and the fictional Northcotes. “I’m a pretty firm believer in letting the ideas lead the way. I don’t set out with any agenda as far as how to release music. I just roll with the concept as far as I can, and figure out the rest as I go.”
He is true artist in and out, believing in his ideas as if they have a separate identity. He believes that it is his job to put together the ideas, but doesn’t necessarily believe he comes up with them. He believes that the ideas themselves will guide his music in the right direction.
Cooper says that letting his ideas take the steering wheel, “definitely makes putting out records more complicated, and it’s not as simple to follow I’m sure, but I’m okay with that.” He doesn’t worry about the end results or how much time the process takes. He has a strong faith in the ideas that want to work with him, and he truly believes that together he and his ideas can sit side by side and make something amazing. Without each other, they could not create such complex beauty, but together they are unstoppable.
Even when talking about the future, Cooper still plans to let his ideas pave the way. He says, “ I have a bunch of ideas kicking around, but I don’t know what will stick. [….] I’ve got ideas for everything from writing my own nocturnes to working on film scores.”
The Family Tree is not the first album that Cooper has released in such an unconventional way. In 2014, he released a different series called Clones. This was released in six different acts; one each week. Cooper says that he chose to release the music in this way because, it was such a dense project that it made sense to break it into installments. “It’s how we had to organize for writing as well, and musically I think it’s a lot to digest.”
Cooper also tapped into the fun of it all, “But Rick [Colado] and I also discussed how we enjoy serial installments — how you find yourself with little marks on a calendar, just waiting for the next part of a story you’re following. So we thought it would be fun to release it that way, since it was such a narrative driven project.”
I ask Cooper what first sparked his interest in clones. He said that he and Rick Colado, a childhood friend and collaborator, are very interested in science fiction and fantasy, and the idea just seemed to come to them. “We were just sitting on his porch one night, talking about working on something together, and somehow the idea of a clone showed up. I really can’t say how or why. But the idea stuck, so we started writing.”
Similar to The Family Tree, Clones follows a storyline filled human-like features and emotions. He says, “We thought of it as a twisted fairy tale. All the characters are pretty archetypal. But I think the story is one of innocence lost, having to grow up too fast and finding your way without much guidance.” Cooper was able to make his listeners feel for these clones as they would a human being.
“[….] a clone could view the world with a fully functional brain, but without having all the emotional connections that muddy the waters. At least for a little while, until they make connections of their own. Then it’d be like the rest of us: spots of clarity in the otherwise murky woods.”
Make sure to catch Cooper at World Cafe Live Philadelphia on May 28th to explore his world of storytelling through song.
Tickets can be purchased here: http://tickets.worldcafelive.com/event/1082065-radical-face-philadelphia/