Ben Cosgrove was much younger than I expected.
Two weeks prior to our interview, he dropped a copy of his latest album, Field Studies, in my mailbox. Since then, I’d spent hours wrapped up in the instrumental tracks. When we finally met at a coffee shop near my apartment, I expected an older man who’d had years to develop such a level of mastery over the instruments in his work. I was wrong—Ben Cosgrove is only 26. Walking in with a bike helmet tucked beneath a plaid sleeve, he looked more native to Portland, Oregon than to New England.
“I’m glad you got the album okay,” he said, grinning. His energy was nervous without being awkward. He pointed to his helmet. “I had a lot of deliveries to do that day.”
Ben’s chosen mode of transportation fits in with his love of travel and the outdoors—he has written essays about ecology and held fellowships at several national parks. Field Studies is a musical ode to landscapes. The genre could best be described as classical with hints of indie influences, reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens. Ben calls it textured—he plays all of the instruments on the record himself.
“It’s instrumental music intended to suggest the experience of certain physical landscapes,” he said. His music is lush, and the tracks capture his subjective, emotional response to the environment. He spoke of driving across Kansas, the broad open spaces producing an internal loss of control. This was the inspiration for the song “Abilene.”
“I was underslept, living on coffee… there’s no sense of where you are in relation to anyone else,” he recalled.
The reckless spiral of “Abilene” contrasts sharply with “Lafayette,” written about Mount Lafayette in New Hampshire. He uses accordion swells and the sound of thunder in the beginning of the piece, which soon give way to finger-picked guitar and a clear piano theme—meant to recreate the moment in the hike when “you get above the clouds and have a unique kind of clarity.” Listening to the song again after our interview, I could feel what he meant.
“Ultimately, what I’m really trying to do is just paint these places as I experience them,” Ben said. “You can drive through something and think that you understand it, but there are always levels that you can never uncover. Many of the songs in the album are pretty melodies that pull apart to reveal something chaotic underneath. Those are the sorts of feelings that I find interesting.”
Ben’s first instrument was the piano; he began taking lessons as a young child when his family moved into a house whose owners had left behind an upright. He took to it quickly, guided by a teacher who encouraged his predilection for experimenting with sound.
“I became totally obsessed,” he said. “One of those weird little kids who liked Beethoven.”
For Ben, piano was only the beginning. He soon began to learn violin, followed by brass instruments like the trumpet and trombone. As an “angsty teenager,” he added guitar and bass to the mix and started recording with a multi-track recorder from his middle school. Even more impressive is his technical proficiency as a multi-instrumentalist—in his recorded music, his fingers glide across the piano keys, climbing arpeggio stairs. A guitar or trumpet will come in with a well-placed solo and just as effortlessly fade away.
“I’m a very obsessive listener,” he said. “I’ll get obsessed with sound. Most of the songs that I write will come from me trying to replicate something. So I guess the technical skill has come from a sort of desperate need to make that happen.”
I was curious as to how, as a multi-instrumentalist, he approaches his live performances.
“I used to use loop pedals, but I’ve sort of stopped doing that,” he said. “It’s an interesting challenge. For an album, you use all the tools at your disposal and make it sound exactly how it is in your head—that’s the test of when you’re done. When you’re playing live, you’ve got the limitation of a thing in front of you, and you’ve got to pull from it all of the sounds that are most important to the recreation of the song.”
Ben’s favorite place to play in Boston is Lilypad in Inman Square. He prefers the atmosphere of a listening room—somewhere you’d go to hear a singer-songwriter. Toad in Cambridge is another of his preferred venues.
“Boston’s actually really tough. There are so many musicians; there are so many places I’d love to play. I’d love to play at Club Passim, but I don’t know if I’m folky enough,” he admitted.
Ben plays with other musicians regularly; he is one half of the duo 90-Mile Portage along with singer-songwriter Jamie Kallestad, and he also plays with Saint Anyway, a “stomp grass” band from Minnesota. Ben spoke enthusiastically about his collaborations.
“I’ve always really respected sidemen,” he said. “I love being a sideman and getting to create these weird little instrumental things that enhance the performance of a frontman. It’s a great way to explore and utilize textures.”
Ben’s next big project is an artist residency in the Pacific Northwest at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Before then, however, you can catch him at various cities in the Northeast—including at the Lilypad on December 7. One look at his tour schedule will tell you that he isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
Still, he keeps a close eye on the past—he makes mix CDs of the songs that have affected him for every month. For 10 years and counting, it’s been a way for him to document his reflections and his evolution as a listener.
“You know,” he said, “I’m a heavy hearted dude.”
Maybe so—but his music does more to inspire than to depress. Walking home, I found myself paying extra attention to the rustling of the leaves.
Black and white photos by Ursula DeYoung.