Zen and the Art of Fingerpicking

Pensive budding Buddhist Ben Connelly

Pensive budding Buddhist Ben Connelly

Ben Connelly pops his head up from a bowl of grilled beef salad that he's been twirling with a pair of chopsticks. His eyes are bright behind the square frames of his glasses and his whole face beams with boyish exuberance.

"I'm training to be a Zen priest," he proclaims, which is an interesting admission coming from just about anyone. Coming from Connelly—a 38-year-old, Iowa-bred single dad, former bike messenger, and recovering drug and alcohol addict—it's particularly intriguing. Yet when prodded further, he confesses that he has no idea whether he'll ever actually be a Zen priest or not. Nor does he necessarily consider himself a Buddhist. It almost doesn't seem to matter.

Tucked in a booth of Quang Vietnamese restaurant in south Minneapolis, Connelly appears to epitomize contentment. It's rare—and strangely refreshing—to meet someone who is quite so ambivalent about why he does what he does, why he loves what he loves. Everything is simply okay, just as it is.

Connelly, who spent about five years singing and playing guitar with Steeplejack, a late-'90s favorite among local alt-country fans, has been recording and performing as a solo singer/songwriter for the past decade. His latest album, his fourth on his own, is aptly titled The Great I Don't Know Why.

"I like how it's about not knowing," Connelly explains. "I think not knowing is a very valuable place to approach your life. When I don't know, there is so much more available. There are so many more possibilities in not knowing."

That sentiment of living in the present, of genuinely accepting without angst and desire what is and what will be, is imbued throughout the 12 tracks on The Great I Don't Know Why. According to Connelly, the lyrical theme of the album is "time and impermanence," but to the average listener, it seems to be about just being cool with whatever.

The very first words of the opening track, "I'm Through Wasting My Life," could be a mantra for Connelly's philosophy on living: "Let's call in sick, call in crazy, call in dead/The sun, this bed, you and me are all that I need/What's a job? what's money? when I got you here, honey/I smother the alarm and baby we're free."

Connelly, an accomplished fingerstyle guitarist, played almost all the instruments on his new album, including guitar, organ, piano, harmonium, bass, and a foray into hand percussion and Indian instrumentation such as the tabla for the first time. His only guest was Peter Anderson, who sat in on drums. Staying true to his independent, self-sufficient style, Connelly recorded the album himself at his home studio in Uptown.

"It has a somewhat accidental quality. A lot of it was recorded as demos, so they don't have some of the polished qualities that a studio recording would have. There was an immediacy to that," he says. "A lot of the recordings were made never with the intent of being heard, but when listened to them they had an intimacy that I really liked."

That intimacy, jagged and raw at times, is what sets Connelly apart from the typical singer-songwriter strumming an acoustic guitar. His music is brutally honest and beautiful, sobering yet liberating.

On "You're Never Gonna Bring Me Down," it's just Connelly and his guitar, and it is gorgeous. His playing is wonderfully lyrical and sweet, the delicately picked notes like a spring rain dancing off new leaves. His voice, breathy and sleepy, stirs calmly below. You almost feel a pang of jealousy when he mutters, "You all look so busy/In the streets and fields down there/I've got no other occupation/Than growing out my hair."

Connelly shows off his considerable guitar prowess on "Message in a Bottle Full of Sand," an aggressive rural blues tune full of chunky, flittering, and fiery strumming and picking. Unlike his voice, which sounds strained at times, his guitar playing comes across as effortless.

Connelly's particular brand of indie folk reflects the influences of musicians and songwriters like Elizabeth Cotten, Leonard Cohen, and Jay Farrar, and he manages to do them justice.

"I'm probably influenced more than anything by just talking to people, people who share their lives with me," Connelly says. "My work is about trying to understand and express the deeper parts of what it means to be a person. That's not something I can really do by just investigating myself. I like to write music that's not about me. Songwriting for me is not about therapy for myself, or even really about expressing myself. It's about making something to give to people...that hopefully helps them feel a connection to everyone." 

BEN CONNELLY plays a CD-release show with Aby Wolf on SUNDAY, MARCH 1, at the BRYANT-LAKE BOWL; 612.825.8949