Teenage Talent Ben Kessler Prepares to Steal the Stage at World Cafe Live

If you’re looking for a show that will flood you with regret about how awful your high school garage band was, then Ben Kessler‘s show at World Cafe Live on January 11 is perfect for you. Kessler may be just sixteen-years-old, but he carries the humble grace of a veteran musician along with the enthusiasm of a new songwriter – not to mention that his soothing, soulful voice and complex guitar compositions sound far more mature than sixteen. With his September EP release So It Goes, Kessler said goodbye to his homemade studio in his parents’ basement and welcomed along a full band at Philadelphia’s Turtle Studios. Though only four songs long, So It Goes spans a wide range of music, from the boisterous brass horns and acoustic riffs on “These Days” to “Missing You,” a mournful ballad that belongs at the climax of a dramatic romance flick. As Kessler gets ready for his show at World Cafe Live, Rock On Philly got to chat with him about recording his EP, Kurt Vonnegut, snapped guitar strings, and more.

So It Goes by Ben Kessler

Rock On Philly: Listening to your music at first, I assumed you were in your twenties, but you’re sixteen – what motivated you to start taking music so seriously at such a young age?

Ben Kessler: That’s the one question I don’t know how to answer. It kind of happened, I guess. I was always just drawn to the playing and the writing, and it just went from there.

ROP: Have you seen your music change a lot over time so far?

BK: Yes, definitely. Even over the past year alone, I mean, because frankly I don’t know what I’m doing… I guess no one really does… But I really don’t. So I’m always learning and figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

ROP: What do you think is the most important thing you have learned so far as a musician?

BK: Beyond the music itself, just keeping and maintaining relationships with people is really, really important, because that alone has helped me with pretty much everything – getting shows, press, and other stuff like that. In the music itself, I guess keeping it simple is important. That’s something I’ve heard a lot, and something that I always try to think about while writing – just keep it simple and straight-forward as possible so that the music can appeal to as many people as possible.

ROP: I noticed that your first EP release was entirely instrumental – why was that?

BK: That was actually because it was for a school project – I really didn’t have enough time to write lyrics and all that. So I just went with an acoustic thing. And, then, the next one I did when I was at home, when I wasn’t at school.

ROP: What exactly was that school project?

BK: Basically, my class was assigned to pretty much do whatever we wanted – I think it was over a seven- or eight-week period, and I wanted to do something music-related, so I thought I’d do an EP. I was too embarrassed to do the whole singing thing, so I started with an instrumental EP. And then I realized that it was very possible to write and release music like that, so that’s when I kind of started getting more into recording and releasing.

ROP: Have you always been both singing and playing guitar, or did one come after the other?

BK: I started playing guitar when I was five or six, and I don’t know why, but I was always really embarrassed to sing, so I never did. I went to the School of Rock, which is a music school, and I took lessons there once a week for a while, and they also have performances, so I guess when I was ten or eleven, I sang one song at one of the shows and it was really bad and everything, and then I got into the writing side of it and realized I had to sing as well, and then I had to start playing and singing at the same time. It was kind of a natural progression, but guitar definitely came first.

ROP: Speaking of writing, I have to ask whether or not your EP title, So It Goes, is a Kurt Vonnegut reference.

BK: Yes, it is! The couple of people who have realized that haven’t treated it as a reference. They treated it as me copying his words, ignorantly, but no, so that was a reference.

ROP: Do writers like Kurt Vonnegut (who aren’t musicians) influence your work at all?

BK: Not currently just because I don’t have time to read much, but in a lot of the songs I’ve written, Kurt Vonnegut has played a role, and J.D. Salinger and The Catcher In The Rye played a role, and those are really the only two writers that have influenced my song-writing, but I’m sure that there are others who have influenced me subconsciously.

ROP: Are there any songs on the So It Goes EP in which we could see the influence?

BK: I think the title is really the only thing. Vonnegut uses “So it goes” as a way to transition between ideas, and use it in an ironic context. I kind of thought of that title and I applied how he uses that to how I want this EP to play out in my whole career as a transition between what I did and what I’m doing now.

ROP: What was it like transitioning from recording in your basement to recording in a studio with a full band?

BK: The main thing that I always think about that’s different is the collaboration, because when I was in my basement there was no one telling me what was right, and what was wrong, and what couldn’t work, and what could work. I was playing things that I didn’t know how to play, so it was really sloppy, and it was a lot of fine-tuning a lot of time. The collaboration [while recording in a studio] really brought out a whole new side to writing and recording that I hadn’t thought about before because it’s very, very precise.

ROP: You have a show coming up January 11th at World Cafe Live – I’m going to challenge you to convince our readers why they should come out for that.

BK: Well, I’ll be performing with a full band, which I’ve only done once before. I’m playing a lot of new songs that aren’t recorded, that I haven’t played live yet before. And, there’s going to be a surprise announcement, if that’s an incentive!

ROP: What’s the weirdest thing that has happened to you during a performance?

BK: There have been several shows where drunk people have tried to talk to me during my set… I played an EP release show for So It Goes about three months ago, and I was coming to the end of the main set, and I had two encore songs, and they were written on the setlist, so I announced to the crowd, “Okay, this is my last song,” so I finished the last song, and someone from the crowd looked on the setlist, and screamed so that everyone could hear that I was going to play two or three more, so that ruined my whole encore thing. I’ve had a pretty normal gigging experience, I guess.

ROP: That may change soon…

BK: I hope so, I need stories! Well, this isn’t weird, but I did break a string… I was tuning a string during my set, and I was talking about how if I were to break a string, my set would be over and all that kind of stuff, and sure enough, my string breaks, so [the venue] had to turn on the house music and I had to go up to the center of the stage and fix my string.

ROP: Last question: what was the last song you listened to?

BK: I’m trying to think, it was like an hour ago… I have it on my phone… It was a Nickel Creek song, “Hayloft.”

Ben Kessler will perform at Philadelphia’s World Cafe Live on January 11. Tickets can be purchased online for $12 here. Watch him play “We Think We Know” at the New York Songwriters Circle below:

Images courtesy of the artist.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: When Boy Meets Music: Catch Ben Kessler at Tin Angel 6/12! - Rock On Philly

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