Letters from the Border, the debut album from multi-musician, composer and poet Ben Osborn immerses you in his delicate weaving of some way-heavy tales. But silk is stronger than Kevlar, right?
The comparison to Leonard Cohen is sure-fire, but there also something more, like the first time you heard Nick Drake. There’s also reference to Bjork-like beats and Erik Satie piano chords. But that doesn’t really explain how Ben’s captured a diaspora spirit, an enfornced itinerance, of birds on the wing, of souls swirling, of history whispering.
A series of stories
“It’s at once a series of personal stories and a retelling of older stories from within my own family, of migration and persecution, in the context of those experiencing similar things in our time,” Ben told ArtsCulture.
Letters from the Border was composed and recorded on the German-Polish border, and the studio’s rural location provided another level of sound, as the birds around the building would make their way onto many of the recordings.
“I was reading a book about Jewish mythology that said that the voices of sparrows were thought to contain souls, so I made the connection with all the birds around the studio, whose voices made it onto many of the tracks,” said Ben.
But the studio’s wild borderland setting was also a reminder of the dangerous reality of the border for those who have to cross it.
A broken world
The opening lines of the album’s title track – “When the fire swept over this continent / a host of sparrows rose from the broken things” – evoke a strange and broken world, at once the stories of Ben’s Eastern- European Jewish ancestry and the struggles faced by migrants and refugees today.
“My ancestors came from Europe to the US before WWII,” he said.
“My great-grandfather was sending letters back to his family in Europe, but he didn’t know that they had already been killed. So he never received a reply to those letters.”
Just dwelling on that for a moment is one of those soul chasm moments that echoes with loss and numbness.
These themes of mysticism and global scale catastrophe are in turn set against intimate honest tales such as My Sister The Swimmer, an exploration of nostalgia and unspoken family conflicts, and A Guide to Gothenburg For The Sleepless which examines the universal experiences of grief and bereavement from a deeply personal perspective.
But Letters from the Border is bright, shimmering, infused with an unforced uplift. And it feels so wise!
The album is the result of a musical partnership with German experimental violinist Alex Stolze.
And with Ben’s background of providing soundtracks to live theatre he’s adept at ensuring the musical story is told with subtle and resolute efficiancy.
Back to the title song again: “All our love is a pattern of ashes / a scatter of songs overcome by the silence,” says Letters from the Border. But you get the feeling that the whole album is such an intricate, passionate, weft of sounds that it rejects the silence and taps into every aspect of all the love.
Letters from the Border by Ben Osborn, is out on Nonostar Records from April 19, 2019.
Ben Osborn will be touring Letters from the Border.
Saturday, May 4 the Dartmouth Inn, Totnes
Sunday, May 5, The Wardbrobe Theatre @ The Asembly, Bristol
Monday, May 6, Set Dalston, London
Sunday, May 36, Villa Neukölln, Berlin, Germany
For tickets and times pop over to Ben’s site.