"Hello, Hope, it's been a while," go the opening lines of "Dead Ends", the centerpiece of Ben Cooper's latest EP as Radical Face. After giving eight years of his life, creatively and emotionally, to his three-part The Family Tree series -- The Roots (2011), The Branches (2013), and The Leaves (2016) -- Cooper had indeed lost touch with hope. He'd too long grasped ideas and perceptions that held him back from peace. Speaking with a professional finally enabled him to let go, something he's honored by naming his new effort Therapy.
With The Family Tree, Cooper had tried to confront his difficult upbringing in Florida by forming a fictional genealogy paired with stirring folk arrangements. Towards the end of the process, a criminal trial surrounding a family member's sexual and religious abuse brought the reality of his world into painful focus. As a result, The Leaves took on a far more personal tone, as Cooper felt "dishonest… putting it into a separate avatar." That only made the songs increasingly more difficult to perform, however, which coupled with the artistic exhaustion of pairing music with his grand concept made him pine for palliation.
In an attempt to test himself and move on from the compositional confines of that trilogy, Cooper undertook a number of different projects. There was his Missing Film instrumental album, a score he released for filmmakers to use for free, and his Covers, Vol. 1 EP, in which he only sang songs by female artists. Adding to the challenge was his relocation to California; leaving his studio behind in Florida forced him to relearn how to record in an apartment with minimal tools.
Fortunately, Radical Face thrives with such restrictions. Cooper has always created with the materials at hand; he started playing banjo because he found one in the trash, accordion because one was discovered in his high school's closet. Working with MPC samples instead of drums and the threat of noise complaints from neighbors pushed him in new directions. "If you wait for ideal conditions, you'll never get anything done," he says.
Meanwhile, having never found joy in repeating himself, exploring new sounds allowed him to leave the acoustic leanings of his past works behind. Singing the songs of Lana Del Rey and Cyndi Lauper reconnected him to traditional structures, while watching the Boom Boom Room performances on Twin Peaks: The Return and revisiting Talking Heads inspired him to seek richer, vaster orchestrations. His desire to integrate these styles and return to verse-chorus framework became the drive for Therapy.
"I wasn't trying to marry production to content," Cooper explains. "I was letting the content work itself back into the production. The Family Tree series was all content first, then production built around it."
Of course, it was finding the lyrical content that became the struggle -- until therapy gutted him. Weekly sessions helped him realize the portrait he'd created in The Family Tree was masking the sad truth: "There's no real positive there," as Cooper puts it. "I don't regret it, but it wasn't what I thought. I thought I was telling a different story, immortalizing the strange into something beneficial rather than just dysfunction."
Stripped of any previous conception of self, Cooper began to find hope again. "Psychologically when we first let go of something, there's a void, and a void is a notice of an absence," he posits. "But then absence can turn to space, and space you can start filling it with things." Though filling that space has only just begun, he's embracing the beautiful rawness on Therapy.
"You gotta learn how to take your hits when your hands are always tied/ And no, I'm not well, but I'm alright," goes the quietly determined hook on "Hard of Hearing". Cooper soothes his own worries on "Better Days" as he coos, "Try to remind yourself/ That it's probably gonna take some time/ But there are better days to find." "And I don't wanna know why/ I just want to know how to move on now/ The past is buried in time/ And the future's an anxious invention," he sings on the uplifting "Dead Ends".
Explaining his new songwriting approach, Cooper says, "Looking back, it's like letting go. Mourning concepts, in a way. Sometimes you have a narrative, it's an idea, a projection you see for yourself. Sometimes, you're able to understand that that's just some picture, you would never be that thing. It's letting go of the narrative."
On Therapy, Radical Face has let go of all his past narratives. Instead of an intricate saga, he's kept his parameters simple. Instead of acoustic folk, he's written lush compositions. Instead of his troubled past, he's focused on his scarred present. Unsure yet confident, battered yet resilient, Cooper is taking Radical Face in a poignant new direction. And there's hope there.