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In Focus: Benjamin Dakota Rogers

February 9, 2023 10:30 am GMT

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Benjamin Dakota Rogers is as down-to-earth as his songs. Growing up on a farm, he and his family lived off the land, travelling around festivals in Canada in their big VW bus.

He’s already released three well-received albums, and in the past year he’s multiplied his followers via daily song posts on Tik Tok. An artist who's constantly pushing himself to make something fresh, the 26-year-old is now releasing Paint Horse, a timeless, authentic, haunting and thrilling new album.

Rogers lives in a barn that’s so remote, he had to drive some distance to a parking lot to speak to Holler – just for the wi-fi! Intensely focused, with glints of wit, his conversation covers everything from Grimms’ Fairy Tales to cowboys, coyotes and how he knows when a song is right.

How would you describe your very distinctive voice and playing style?

My singing is mainly that I don’t know what I’m doing, and this is how it came out! I came to singing late and not a ton of thought has gone into it, other than trying to preserve it – because I used to really hurt my voice. My guitar playing is definitely influenced by my fiddle playing – I play a ton of guitar most of the time and tune it like a cross-tuned fiddle. Pretty much everything I do is influenced by my playing and going into competitions on the fiddle circuit. The way I like dynamics in my vocals is similar to how I used to play as well. So it’s all influenced by fiddle music.

Is being an outsider – a Canadian doing it your own way – a plus or a minus?

I don’t know if things would’ve turned out differently if I’d lived somewhere else. I grew up in the fiddle world, I had great teachers and my family were big music people, so I had great records to listen to. I grew up on a farm and didn’t really hang out with other kids, if me and my brother weren’t fighting with sticks in the forest I was practising violin. People assume there’s divides in genres, based on where you live, but anyone can buy records and be influenced by them.

Was there a turning point in your career, when you knew you were on the right track?

In March last year, I posted a little clip of ‘John Came Home’ on Tik Tok. I didn’t really like social media that much, but I was told I should do Tik Tok, and within two weeks of posting it got four million views! I went from 7,000 followers to 300,000 in a couple of months! That was the big catalyst for this record and everything happening. I’d been doing gruelling tours through the States every year – sleeping in my car and AirBnbs and everyone sharing a bed because we couldn’t afford anything better. This is my first introduction to doing this as a sustainable career.

Songwriting is a vocation, and in Nashville it’s a separate job. Have you ever been tempted to write for other artists?

I’ve been asked to a lot, and I did a co-write once, but it wasn’t for me. I really like my writing process. I usually go out into the field or the forest on our property – or I have my studio to myself at night. I like the quiet intimacy – and a lot of the things I write about, the emotion comes from being alone and observing. I think there’s a way to implement that and make it into writing for other people. But I haven’t yet found it in a way that’s meaningful enough for me to pursue it.

You talk about starting songs as short stories – are there writers you admire?

To be honest, my biggest influence for short stories is Grimms’ Fairy Tales. They are so different from what I’m trying to do, but I love that format of adventure stories. I have a huge vintage book collection with a whole shelf of different eras of Grimms’ Fairy Tales and the Red Fairy Book. All these different mythologies and storytelling, that’s probably what influenced my wanting to tell stories and songs the most.

I guess they have that same darkness as your songs?

I like the dark stuff, and I also think I’m influenced by when I write. I never write in the daytime, I really like writing at night. My brother is a blacksmith living on the same farm and he’s got a shop out in the fields. I go most nights and sit out there and write a little bit, and he’ll have a little bonfire going. I think the darkness in my songs comes from being outside.

It’s got coyotes howling and we’re in the middle of nowhere, and it lends itself to that kind of stuff. It’s about atmosphere and nostalgia for me, creating an overarching vibe. I feel like I’m constantly chasing a specific feeling and trying to impart that.

Is there a sweet spot when you’re creating a new song, a moment where it all fits together?

Yeah, I have two gauges. One is if I can still remember it in the morning! If I write it late at night and I’m still humming it when I wake up in the morning, I know I have something to pursue. Also sometimes if I’m working on it and I start grinning, that’s the real thing. It only happens in one in 10 songs.

I usually just pick up my guitar and I’ll have the story that I want to tell planned out – but no lyrics or anything. I really like alliteration, so I chase that a lot. When things start to come together, and I start grinning and get very excited, nobody can talk to me for three hours while I finish it. My little brother and my girlfriend are the two people all this gets tested on.

Some of your lyrics are pitch black but also mundane in their detail – like the ashes in the Tupperware in ‘Arlo’ – how do you get that balance right and is it based on a real memory?

It’s not based on a real recollection, but I thought it was very sad and beautiful, and I think that just happens. I write and I tell stories, and there’s also all these normal things happening around me that influence that kind of stuff, and the mundane things fall into place and soften things. It’s all also a way of making stories more relatable.

Is it true that you believe your old, vintage instruments have songs already in them? And is there one that has had that effect, maybe inspired you?

Yes. There are three, actually. There’s a really old violin and every time I pick that up it feels like there’s sounds coming out of it. I can’t play it without writing some tunes. Then I bought an old Stella tenor guitar when I was 13 or 14 from Fred Eaglesmith, and I’ve written so many songs on that. It’s so warm and when I play it vibrates against my chest, it’s so resonant. It’s full of cracks and doesn’t come out with me any more, but I probably wrote 80% of the songs on this new record on it. I also have an old National guitar that’s my special, six-string, songwriting guitar.

I think it’s the worn-in, beat-up stuff that people love. I sometimes buy old guitars just to get songs out of them because they inspire you in new ways – they might ring in a different way that makes you write different melodies. I’m a big believer in cycling through lots of instruments, using them as writing tools.

Do you record live, in one take?

This record was pretty much all live. The barn apartment I live in is very small, and the rest is a recording studio I built. I got really into old ribbon mics and mic-ing everything live. So some of the songs are all around one microphone and for some there are three mics. I got into engineering so I do it all by myself. It’s all very live, there might be almost no overdubbing on this record.

Your only cover on this album is Red Lane’s ‘Blackjack County Chain’ – why did you choose this and are there others you’re itching to cover?

I’ve played it for a long time and the reason it’s on the record is because I posted a clip of it on Tik Tok and it went super viral! People seemed to connect with it so I thought I’d put it on the record. I’ve always loved it; it’s such a great song, melody wise. I’m planning on doing a YouTube series where I release a proper live video once a week, starting in March for the rest of the year. I’ll probably include some Blaze Foley tunes like ‘Clay Pigeons’ and ‘Moonlight’ and other covers I love.

What made you yodel on the slow, spooky ‘Wild Wind Can Have Me’?

I was listening to a lot of Hank Williams when I wrote that. I knew I wanted to try it, I still don’t know if I fully have the grasp of it, trying to work out the fluctuations. My grandpa was a cowboy who did all that stuff, he bred Appaloosas, and I wanted to write a song to him, and it fit.

Any knock-backs that almost derailed you?

I’m really stubborn; between a ton of ADHD and an obsession with music in general. As much as it’s a career that’s really wonderful, I just roll with whatever’s going on. I feel lucky to make music, and over this past year people have started listening to it. It’s been mind-blowing, but I’d probably be doing it if no-one was listening. I’d just have to find a different way to fund it!

Many artists have their career plus a farm – like Miranda Lambert – is this a goal for you too?

Yes, that’s been my goal my entire life. I was going to do it out in Nova Scotia, but prices have gone up. I was in Nevada the other day and there were some nice big plots of land really cheap. I’ve cheated though, because I’m on a farm now! I don’t have any animals, but we forage for a lot of our own food, we have lots of mushrooms and a big veggie garden and make our own cheese and do a lot of hunting. I’d love to have my own place and amplify what I’ve been doing since childhood.

Is ambition important and do you set goals?

I set pretty strict goals. I have to keep myself on a schedule, otherwise I feel like I’ll just drift off and write songs and make records and there’ll be be no sort of plan, because my default is very chill. It’s become more important that I get to do this for as long as I can, if not forever. To ride this out.

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Paint Horse is out on Friday 17th February via Good People Record Co. Benjamin Dakota Rogers is one of Holler's 23 Artists for 2023 - check out the full list here.

Written by Helen Jerome
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Benjamin Dakota Rogers
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