More often than not, music is based on the public display of deeply private emotions, and taking to the stage provides a way of externalising deep, dark secrets in the most open and civic setting possible. Yet for Ben Cooper, the Jacksonville-based musician behind the Radical Face moniker, the public side of making music rarely comes into his process.
Sure, the indie folk/rock/electro/post-rock/mostly uncategorizable musician frequently takes his beautiful, cathartic songs out on the road, and has a committed fan base that flocks to see him live. But those are things he tries not to worry about when he’s writing. Instead, he keeps his process as internal as possible; digging further within himself rather than constantly peering out.
“The projects that I do that are personal remain personal,” Cooper says in his gentle, singsong voice. “If people like them when I’m done, that’s great, but I don’t want to design them for a hypothetical audience. I’d rather just get whatever is inside my head out, and whatever the results are the results.
“I get terribly selfish,” he laughs. “I just seem to be scratching at some unseen itch, and when I’m happy, I stop. I don’t even know about the result most times. I just know what happens to [me] when it’s out there. I let it go. So I try not to imagine how it will be received when I’m writing.”
Part of that approach is based in the mechanics of artistic survival and self-preservation – Cooper never wants his music to become sullied by concerns of the market, or to find himself transforming his process into an occupation rather than a love.
“I think you have to actively protect why you got into music. Because when you do it pretty regularly and it gets tied into whether or not you can afford to pay rent, it can take on a very different shape … I’ve actually over the years done more and more music for TV and film in order to earn income. That way I’m not worried about whether or not anyone likes my records, because I just feel like that would change the way that I write.”
As a result, Cooper’s albums have only become more introspective and emotional over time. Best known for The Family Tree trilogy, a string of conceptual records individually titled The Roots, The Branches and The Leaves, Cooper’s music tackles heartbreak, horror and the profound mundane beauty that inflects most of our lives. And although the Family Tree records are framed by the story of the Northcotes, a fictional 19th century family of Cooper’s own devising, really, they are albums grounded in reality; grounded in him.
“That third record [2016’s The Leaves] is the most nervous I’ve ever been putting something out into the world, because it’s about my own life. It was kind of strange. I was a little creeped out at first … It was almost like sharing a diary or something. It wasn’t that I put out anything that I was embarrassed of, or that I put out anything that was false or lies. You just feel a little naked when you do it, a little exposed.”
He pauses; thinks. “But I think songwriting is a way of touching things that are scary or negative. There is a practical function to songwriting – you have to think, ‘How do I make these syllables fit? How does this melody work?’ So you can focus on that and that’s how it helps you through stuff. You can push through [sadness]. There are enough little crevasses you can hide in. And eventually, you do move past it.”
The Family Tree: The Leaves is out now through Nettwerk. Radical Face plays the Factory Theatre on Saturday May 27.