Ben Kunder

Ben Kunder is the kind of guy you pray sits next to you on a long-haul flight. Affable, erudite, and full of riveting tales about the ordinary and the extraordinary — and the intersection where they converge — Kunder is a storyteller of the highest order.

So, it’s no surprise that Better Human, the Toronto singer/songwriter’s dazzling new album and confident follow-up to 2015’s internationally acclaimed Golden, soars on vividly detailed vignettes elevated by Kunder’s warm conversational voice and, like Golden, by a small army of marquee musical guests.

Compelling themes like the birth of a child (“Night Sky”), the struggle for life balance (“Fight For Time”), the workaday reality propping up our outward façade (“Hard Line”) are all fearlessly explored on Better Human, with vocal assists from luminaries Oh Susanna, Jim Guthrie, Paper Bird/Bahamas singer Carleigh Aikins plus Sarah McDougall and Ladies of the Canyon’s Maia Davies, who, respectively, co-wrote “Better Days” and “Fight for Time,” the album’s meditative lead single.  

Expertly traversing that rarefied space between elegiac folk and accessible pop, Kunder’s music — propelled variously by strings, pedal steel, keyboards, percussion, guitar, bass, and those spectacular before-mentioned voices — renders small moments in precise detail, making his songs both accessible and, occasionally, downright palpable.

“This record is about trying to navigate through the world while sharing darkness to see the light. It’s been cathartic for me to realize that, while I was filling my social media with pictures of my kids and stops on my last tour, I was also filled with anxiety and struggling to find time to really be joyful,” Kunder laughs. “The more I started opening up about it, the more I realized everyone was feeling the same way.

“If we could just embrace that, then we could all just breathe it out and be present with each other.”

Diving deep into Better Human — both the album and the title song which is slated to receive an accompanying video — is an excellent way to begin that process. With its shimmering lead guitar and joyful chorus (“I’m working harder every day, to be a better human in this world, tattoo these words onto my skin”), “Better Human” is a tiny, perfect anthem for self-realization. 

Elsewhere, Kunder lightens it up, as in the breezy, propulsive “Jessi,” buoyed equally by bloopy synth and by Kunder’s onetime Europe tour-mate Sarah McDougall, who adds backup vocals. Meanwhile, the unabashedly knock-kneed “Come On,” gorgeously abetted by Carleigh Aikins, is a tender reminder that love really is all you need.

Kunder spent most of 2017 assembling Better Human, beginning with the songs “Better Days” and “Night Sky,” which were cut that spring with multi-instrumentalist/producer Aaron Goldstein at his Baldwin Street Sound in Toronto.

Writing happened throughout the year. “My first record, Golden, was a collection of songs I’d been working on for years,” Kunder says. “Now, it’s a bit more immediate. The title track was written the day I went into the studio, and ‘Come On’ I wrote halfway through the recording process. I was struggling leading up to the recording. Then I went on tour with Oh Susanna at the end of last summer and the floodgates just opened.”

Kunder and Goldstein reunited at Baldwin Street Sound last fall, welcoming a host of esteemed players — bassist Anna Ruddick (Randy Bachman, Bry Webb, Ben Caplan), Arkells drummer Tim Oxford and keyboardist Anthony Carone, violinist Drew Jurecka, Wintersleep drummer Loel Campbell, among others — while crafting the superb album that will now dominate the balance of Kunder’s 2018 via tour dates across Canada, Europe, and beyond.

“I realize it’s hard to know where to put me,” Kunder offers when asked where he’d expect to find Better Human filed. “I just write songs and hope people relate to them. I think there are people like me who listen to albums the whole way through, to hear the arc of the story. Others want to pick out specific songs to soundtrack their lives.

“I’m happy with either kind of listener. I really just want to connect with as many people as I can in any way possible.”

 

DISCOGRAPHY

Golden (2015, independent) co-produced by Kunder and John Dinsmore (NQ Arbuckle, Kathleen Edwards, Strumbellas) at the latter’s Lincoln County Social Club studio. Nine original songs with Kunder on vocals, guitar and piano alongside marquee guests Brian Murphy (Alvvays) on guitar/piano/Wurlitzer, Rich Knox (Dustin Bentall, Danko Jones) on drums/vocals, Anna Ruddick (Ladies of the Canyon, Randy Bachman) on bass/vocals and Aaron Goldstein (Cowboy Junkies, Daniel Romano) on pedal steel.  John Connolly, Kirty and Ladies of the Canyon’s Maia Davies and Jasmine Bleile also contribute vocals.  

Golden charted on college radio Canada-wide and received airplay from many respected international radio programs in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, along with airplay and interviews at BBC1 and BBC2 in the UK and at RTE in Ireland. Single ‘Half Moon’ was the #2 song of CBC Music: Sonica’s Top 50 Songs of 2015.

Better Human (2018, independent) was produced alongside Aaron Goldstein at Baldwin Street Sound. Guests include Oh Susanna, Jim Guthrie, Paper Bird/Bahamas singer Carleigh Aikins, Sarah McDougall, Ladies of the Canyon’s Maia Davies and Anna Ruddick, Arkells drummer Tim Oxford and keyboardist Anthony Carone, violinist Drew Jurecka, and Wintersleep drummer Loel Campbell, among others.

SHOWS & SHOWCASES

Toured Canada August 2017 with Oh Susanna; toured September 2016 and Europe November/December 2016 with Sarah MacDougall; has shared stages with Sarah Harmer, NQ Arbuckle, Andy Maize (Skydiggers) and New Zealand’s Marlon Williams; showcased at the International Folk Alliance Conference (2015); North By Northeast (2014); and Canadian Music Week (2015).

CRITICAL RESPONSE FOR GOLDEN

"Kunder's extra special voice, along with gorgeous production, lends the record an almost velvety quality..." Matthew McKean, Exclaim!, May 2015

"Everything about Ben Kunder's debut album, Golden, is warm. From his vocals to the production, the entire record glows…" Judith Lynch, CBC Music, May 2015

"Ben Kunder's voice sounds like filtered sunbeams..." John Gjaltema, AltCountry.NL (Netherlands), June 2016

"Soulful country-pop with a voice to die for..." Jeremy Searle, AmericanaUK (United Kingdom), July 2016

"The kind of mellow sincerity in his voice to take it beyond generic country-pop…" Chris Young, Toronto Star, May 2015

"A powerful voice that drives home his music’s impressive melodies and dynamics..." Katie Hartai, Ottawa Life Magazine, May 2015

NOTABLE EPHEMERA

A carpenter by trade, Kunder has previously worked as an actor and lived across Canada both on and off the grid. He is father to two young sons, Kai and Jude.