Back in the 90’s, New Age Music was doing very well due, for the most part, by the artists on the Windham Hill Records label. During that period, I interviewed and reviewed quite a lot of folks and their albums of primarily instrumental music. Recently, I received notification of an album called “The Trouble With Wilderness” by pianist/composer Ben Cosgrove and when I listened to the link I was sent, I was immediately transported back 30 years ago to that simpler time — and I requested an interview with this talented young man. I called the number supplied by his publicist at the allotted time and caught him in his car pulled over on the side of the road in, of all places, Southern Maine.

Q: One thing that struck me upon delving deep into your new record was that it reminded me of the days of Windham Hill Records and artists like George Winston, Philip Aaberg, and Barbara Higbie. I don’t know if you’re even familiar with that label, though.
Cosgrove: Oh, yeah — Will Ackerman {founder and producer of the label} and Liz Story {a famed pianist/composer featured on that label} — I certainly am!

Q: That’s what this album of yours did for me … it brought back that sense of peace inherent in that label’s music.
Cosgrove: Wow! That’s very kind of you.

Q: Well, it’s so needed now, as you well know.
Cosgrove: That’s been sort of the style of music that I’ve always written — and Windham Hill stopped being a record label shortly after I became a person (chuckle) — but yeah, it’s sorely missed out there now.

Q: And the last track, “Templates For Limitless Fields of Grass,” that has a Philip Glass=like element to it: the repetitive theme that ran through it.
Cosgrove: Thank you … because the album isn’t even out yet so I’m very interested in hearing how everyone reacts to it. That song is an exercise in trying to build out a big, wide, immersive, inhabitable space using as few tools as possible. I sort of reverse-engineered my way into minimalism (laughter).

Q: Oh, when does the album come out?
Cosgrove:: It comes out on April 23rd. The bulk of the tracking for it I did last summer at a studio in Boston. I’ve been kind of chipping away at it for months after that. This is the longest I’ve sat on an album before releasing it.

Q: Speaking of albums, what number is this one in your catalogue?
Cosgrove: That’s a good question … the other day was the 10-year anniversary of what I consider to be my first real album, so that came out in 2011 and it’s called “Yankee Division.” Since then, this is the fourth studio album and there’s a live album there, too.

Q: What’s the underlying theme of this new one?
Cosgrove: It’s about finding and appreciating expressions of nature and wildness even in places where you might not think to look for them.

Q: Does the composition of the music come easy to you or do you have to really work at it?
Cosgrove: It’s super inconsistent and it always has been. I mean, I could be banging on a song for more than a year — or years — and maybe never get anywhere with it; other times I’ll sit down and the whole thing will come out all at once. So it’s sort of always been that way, it’s never gotten any harder or easier, sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not (laughter). But I kind of like the process of whittling away at things, even in the times when I come up with a song very quickly and it all seems to be right there, I’ll usually kick it around and play it live as long as I can before recording it, just to see how it shapes up.

Q: Do you find that playing live has a profound effect on the material or just a reinforcement?
Cosgrove: Umm, both, I’d say. The reinforcement that is has is profound (laughter), yeah, it’s a thing that I really missed this year. A song that I’ve been playing for five years sounds totally different now than it did when I started, and I kind of like that, I like the idea that the songs can be these living, changing things. Fundamentally, I identify more as a folk musician than as a classical musician, so I think that’s where that philosophy maybe comes from.

Q: Another aspect of this album is that there’s a distinct flow to the tracks. They’re all individualistic but there’s a continuity throughout the 12 songs in the program. Was this a conscious thing on your part?
Cosgrove: Yeah, for sure. I always try to write — and this may seem contrary to what I was just saying about how performing live changes the songs over time — but whenever I write an album I try to make it very internally consistent and a coherent thought from start to finish. (Pause) It was good this year to have this thing to work on because I wasn’t able to play shows, obviously, so having this to just obsess over day in and day out was a nice like flagpole to hold onto during a hurricane.

Q: And it has been all of that, for sure. Now a topic away from your new album, if I may. I’ve heard that you have a connection to Maine’s own Ghost of Paul Revere band?
Cosgrove: Oh, yeah, I do, they’re close friends of mine and I play with them often. I toured with them full time for about a year-and-a-half, I guess, and I still pop in very frequently. I like working with other musicians a whole lot, and one thing that has brought me to Maine and kept me around is that there’s such a vibrant community in the Portland area. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of them. I feel that figuring out how to add instrumental elements to other people’s music has made me a much better and more thoughtful songwriter and arranger — it’s had a big impact on my instrumental music lately (chuckle). I keep hanging out with these guys with guitars and it does make me a better piano player.

Q: And going back to the Windham Hill reference earlier, all those fine solo instrumentalists would team up in duos, quartets and other configurations to create music together that would augment and eclipse what they were doing separately.
Cosgrove: It maybe my favorite thing about being a musician is that there’s always an opportunity for collaboration. And one of the reasons I love being a keyboardist is it’s one of those instruments that everyone always kind of needs for something — it’s never totally out of place (chuckle).

Q: Is there anything, Ben, that you’d like me to pass on to the folks reading this article?
Cosgrove: Umm, nothing specific but if they’re interested in learning more about the album there’s stuff about it on my website — and it’ll be out on the 23rd in all of the streaming places … and it’s available on CD and vinyl, as well. It’ll be on the full complement of any medium you like. bencosgrove.com

Lucky Clark has spent more than 50 years writing about good music and the people who make it. He can be reached at [email protected] if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.

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