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Sam Roberts Is Looking Ahead with a Blank Slate

The Canadian alt-rock hit-maker talks about his eighth album, The Adventures of Ben Blank

by Stephan Boissonneault 

Photo by Dustin Rabin

A few years ago, the Juno-award-winning alt-rock singer-songwriter gem, Sam Roberts, toyed with the idea of putting out music under the pseudonym Ben Blank. To see how people would respond, he wanted to release music without having his name attached to it. 

After he decided on the alias name, however, he ran into a creative wall. Writing songs from the perspective of Ben Blank, a true hypothetical character, felt inauthentic, and nothing he wrote really stuck.

“Songwriting is just a much more personal thing for me, and separating myself and my experience from it, with no personal attachment, became a hard thing to do,” Roberts says. “So the character of Ben Blank became more of a vessel.” 

That vessel’s story was the impetus for the upcoming album, The Adventures of Ben Blank, a concept record of sorts about a character deciding to rewrite and untether himself from his past histories to move toward an uncertain future. “I think it came from just an urge or an impulse that exists in my life,” Roberts says. “I’ve found myself wondering sometimes, ‘Well, what if I just started over again?’”

But any sane person would ask: Why would someone like Sam Roberts want to start over again? People all over the world, especially Canadians, essentially grew up with his music. From 2002 to 2003, his debut album, We Were Born in a Flamewhich of course had the hit singles “Brother Down” and “Don’t Walk Away Eileen”was spreading over the airwaves like wildfire, earning Roberts three Junos. By 2018, the album was certified Double Platinum. He then released Chemical City in 2006, another album that eventually went Platinum. And since those times, he’s been releasing quality albums, all of which have pushed his alt-meets-roots rock sound into new territories while winning or being nominated for some sort of award.

“I guess I’ve always questioned, does something rise to the surface because it’s good, or is there something more at play? Is it because there’s a name attached to it?” Roberts ponders. 

It’s hard to understand where Roberts is coming from after listening to a song like “Afterlife” on the new album. Perhaps he’s always been the one who doubts himself the most, but that song, which starts off with a sort of new wave flavour and morphs into an ethereal alt-rock banger, further proves that Roberts is still a sympathetic hit-making machine. 

His classic wordplay is there, burrowing deep within your brain stem and popping up minutes after your first listen. The message of the song is clear: life is too short to talk about and hope for the golden gates in the afterlife. Give yourself to the here and now. 

We Were Born in a Flame celebrated its 20-year anniversary this year, but Roberts is following his own advice and living for the present, soon releasing his eighth studio album and taking it on a winter tour.

“I think that’s just kind of been the mindset, the spirit of our band since the very beginnings,” he says. “Be reverent or respectful of the opportunities that we’ve lived and been given, but keep your eyes focused ahead.” 

It all really goes back to the point of The Adventures of Ben Blank—this idea of renewal and reinvention of the self. 

“The idea of shedding your old skin from time to time and seeing what the sun feels like on the new skin,” Roberts adds. “That’s what a music career should feel like.”