The future is an unknown frontier
And that’s good enough for me
Benjamin Folke Thomas is a name that sticks in the mind of those who have been lucky enough to encounter his music. The release this week of his third album, Copenhagen, has been anticipated as his most impressive work so far, and Folk Radio UK was very pleased to premier Benjamin’s video for the title track at the beginning of February. The London-based, Swedish-born globe-trotting guitar picker writes songs that not only put his heart and soul on his sleeve but lay them wide open for scrutiny, even compel you to come in for closer inspection. Beyond the maturity of his song writing, in the studio, the impressive finger-style guitar that’s such a memorable feature of his live performances is augmented by guitar, keyboard and percussion arrangements that seem to flow like a natural spring from the lyrical source.
Leaving behind his native southern Swedish Islands, in 2009 Benjamin Folke Thomas travelled to London and immediately immersed himself in the city’s acoustic/roots music scene. It wasn’t long before his gravelly baritone, skilled finger-style guitar work and creative scope that embraces wide-ranging roots, rock and pop influences caught the attention of live audiences and the music press. Following his début EP in 2010, , Benjamin’s touring schedule grew to include festival appearances and high-profile support slots that saw his fan base continue to expand. To learn just what it is about Benjamin’s music that makes it so instantly compelling one need look no further than Copenhagen‘s opening track, Good Enough For Me. Benjamin’s self-effacing song writing takes his own ego down a peg or two, his gritty but crystal clear vocal reminiscent of Johnny Cash, and with a clear pride and confidence in his own song writing. That’s no misplaced confidence either. Tinged with sadness, loaded with remorse, the self-doubting troughs and cathartic peaks of Good Friend Again are delivered over organ and a gently strummed acoustic guitar.
This is the day I’ll start drinking again
I need something to cope with these avenues of shame
When I’m sober my body feels so frail
Like a leaf deteriorated in the rain
This doesn’t come across as the song writing of a man still in his twenties, but Benjamin’s fascination with music started at a young age. At 11 his musical outlet was as a drummer in a punk band, but after seeing Kurt Cobain‘s In The Pines (Where Did You Sleep Last Night) on MTV Unplugged, he started to seek out the roots behind Cobain’s highly acclaimed performance. In the process, Benjamin discovered and imbibed the spirit of Lead Belly, Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
The skilled writing that’s grown from these musical discoveries, and the subsequent years of writing and performance, has perhaps been most effectively channelled in the trio of understated yet powerful portraits Benjamin paints in Finn. Henning Sernhede‘s mournful guitar slides in and out of Benjamin’s sacred memories and lost opportunities as he draws inspiration from a former work colleague, his grandfather, and his sister. The same band that provided such accomplished backing on his two previous albums (Too Close To Here in 2013, and 2015’s State of Mind), which includes Johannes Mattsson‘s bass and Jonas Abrahamsson‘s percussion and keyboards, compliment the lyrics with a rich, yet subtle backing.
Despite the self-searching lyrical content, and the parallels with Cohen and Cash, Copenhagen rarely comes across as morose. The light guitar and layered vocals in the chorus of Rhythm and Blues provide a more upbeat approach, despite the self-effacing content. Copenhagen 30/6 takes the positivity a step further, where Henning’s crisp, almost Caribbean guitar belies Ben’s difficulty in accepting his own good luck.
My brain is loaded and it’s two a.m.
I try to straighten things out but they just won’t bend
My chest is heavy but your heartbeat is calm
You carry me on
Struck Gold flows with the same, sublime solemnity of Finn; guitars and a bass drum the singer’s constant comfort on a journey towards hope and ultimate salvation. It’s a journey that seems to follow on perfectly from Safe and Secure, earlier in the album, where he struggles to break free from bitterness.
Benjamin, however, also succeeds in avoiding an exclusively introspective approach to his songs. The gentle pulse of Bad News stands out with its pop sentiments; synth drums and softly wailing guitar, and a lyric that looks, almost casually, towards the fleeting nature of celebrity culture. Never has Benjamin evoked more clearly the spirit of Johnny Cash than in Hold On, with an emphatically pointed finger in the lyric.
The home-spun charm of Benjamin’s début album, Too Close To Here, returns to close Copenhagen with Gimme A Smile. Co-written with Ahab’s Dave Burn and seemingly stripped of studio enhancement, Benjamin’s finger style guitar, at last, takes centre stage along with his vocal. Gimme A Smile almost comes across as a solo contribution, recorded at the kitchen table. Numerous plays have still failed to dispel the image the song invokes of Willie Nelson singing this by the open door of a trailer in early spring sunshine. Perhaps because it’s an image I rather like.
Copenhagen serves as a perfect complement to the live solo sets that fans of Benjamin Folke Thomas enjoy so much. His compelling, incisive songs are treated to a more wide-ranging vocal than it’s possible to achieve on stage, although his voice loses none of its natural attraction. It would be easy to miss the splendour of Benjamin’s acoustic guitar work, but the musical settings provided for the songs add just the right depth, colour and atmosphere to enhance without overpowering. Copenhagen fulfils the promise of Benjamin’s live shows and his two earlier albums. It represents a bold step forward as a song writer and an important progression as a studio artist. Copenhagen is, without a doubt, his best album yet.
Copenhagen is released today via Louvaio Productions
Mar 03 – The Islington, London,
Mar 04 – All Saints Hall, Langport
Mar 11 – Pustervik, Göteborg, Sweden
Ticket links and more dates via: www.benfolkethomas.com