Interview: Nashville-based alt-pop artist Ben Kessler

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With only seven songs to his name under his own label and nearly 70,000 monthly Spotify listeners, Ben Kessler writes, records, and produces all of his music from a storage room turned full studio setup. 

The 21-year old Philly-born, Nashville-based artist and producer fuses acoustic pop with an electronic twist. His latest release, “Concrete” has a melodic pop sound tinged with that irresistible singer-songwriter essence. Inspired by Kevin Garrett, Flume, and James Blake, Kessler’s smooth vocals and authentic production is a true representation of creativity and pure talent. His songs are unpredictable; taking alternative adventures with groovy instrumentation. Earlier this year, Music Business Worldwide named him one of the “Hottest Independent Artists In The World,” and he is not stopping anytime soon. 

With all this time on our hands, we spoke with Ben about his music-making process, his proudest moments, and doing it all on his own from his parents’ basement. 

What’s up, Ben? How are you doing?

Hey hey – I am exhausted, but good. Can’t complain. 

How’s the COVID life treating you?

Untouched, as far as I know. So, fine. I’m about ready for all of this to be over with. 

Where are you right now?

I’m usually in Nashville, but I’m back home outside Philly right now. I’ve never actually been to Montreal, though. Seems dope. 

Have you been to Canada at all? 

Years ago I was in Toronto I don’t know why, but I haven’t been back. One day. 

What did you study in school? 

I studied English at Vanderbilt. Grew up in Philly, went to Nashville for school. Now I’m back here for a minute. Hopefully. 

If you studied English, how did you get into music?

It’s more the other way around. It’s more like “How did I get into school?” I was always doing music in high school. I had a singer-songwriter acoustic project while I was in high school, but I still wanted to have a college experience. I realized I really wanted to do music and school is a great (and expensive) excuse to be in Nashville. I wanted to finish my degree and at that point, I was already in too deep. 

English was a good degree to be able to have time to do other shit – like music. 

I saw this comedy bit recently about studying English — 

Is it the John Mulaney one?

Yeah yeah yeah! 

I use that all the time. It’s so good. When he says “You’re paying for a bunch of books you never read.” That’s totally it.

“Paying tuition to study a language you already know.”

That was me. 

How did you get into music then? What did you grow up listening to?

It’s kind of all over the place. When I was in high school – that’s when I really got into music. My parents were never really intentional listeners, so there wasn’t any specific kind of music in the house. So I thought if I really wanted to do this, I needed to know… things. I forced myself to listen and get invested.

I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, Simon & Garfunkel. When I was doing the singer-songwriter folky thing, I got really into the Greenwich Village ‘70s. Then there’s Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon apart from Simon & Garfunkel – and a lot of stuff that I felt like I needed to know.

How did you continue making music when you moved away to college?

It’s funny – the room I’m in right now is the same room I’ve started in, and it’s taken on so many different forms. It’s this storage room in my parents’ basement that I took over. When I was in middle school, I made it into a little studio and I would make YouTube videos. I did everything in there when I was in high school. Then whatever room I was in, in college, I would build a little studio setup. This year I finally had my own room instead of being in a dorm, and now I’m back here at home. 

I’ve worked in real studios a fair bit, but you don’t touch half the shit that’s in there anyways. And it doesn’t feel like my space. 

You have all you need. Did you always know you wanted to pursue music full-time or is that your post-grad plan?

When I was in high school, I made an EP in this room. I sent it out to a bunch of local radio stations. I remember I gave a burned CD to a radio DJ and she put it in rotation. So I was like, “Damn, if I could make an EP in my basement and have it be played on the radio station that my parents listen to, then I could actually make something out of this.”

There’s been a lot of little moments like that.

How old were you then?

Oh man, like 14-15. 

Since you’ve really grown up making music, what do you think your music says about you now?

It says that I’m really insecure and self-conscious (laughs). Like what does it reveal about me?

Yeah! 

I don’t know. Maybe that’s it: that I’m really anxious and uncertain about everything – I think that’s part of it for sure. There’s a lot of nuanced feelings that I can’t express in normal words so I just put it into the songs. I feel like my music builds out a more complete picture of what I’m trying to say than I would ever be able to actually communicate… if that makes sense.

Totally. What’s your songwriting process like? 

I sit right here. It’s always changing – but right now, I’ll find a production idea that feels inspiring or feels different with some sort of texture. Whatever it is that makes me feel like I want to write something over it. 

Writing songs is hard and it takes a lot of energy and it’s the worst thing in the world when you’re four hours into writing something and you’re like, “I hate every second of this.” Sometimes I’ll have a vibe or a concept that I want to write about. I have a list of ideas, and words, and phrases on my phone so I’ll dig in there until I find something that actually works. Then I’ll tie in some melodies. Sometimes I’ll have a melody and accidentally sing a word and it’s a whole song and that’s kinda cool. It changes, but it’s been consistently production first. 

It’s cool to see ‘Written, recorded, produced, etc. by Ben Kessler’ on your song credits. 

(laughs) I feel like such an asshole when I write that. 

I love it!

You and my mom. No one else gives a shit. When I see an artist with a bunch of credits, I do feel like it adds something to the whole picture. 

Do you think it’s easier or harder to do it all by yourself?

It’s harder in the sense that when I have an idea and I’m stuck, I don’t have anyone to lean on. I bounce ideas off friends, but at the end of the day the tiniest things – like vocal takes, or the way I say certain words, every little detail – I’m so indecisive. I have to make all the decisions all the time. Constantly. So getting out of my own way and making those decisions is really hard. 

But I will say, that I’m never able to fully express my ideas when I’m working with other people. I’m getting better at finding ways to collaborate that extend what I’m doing rather than inhibiting it. It’s a lot easier when I’m working by myself to make things that are authentic and honest because no one else is touching it. 

Do you have a favourite part of a song or lyric of your own?

On the last song I released, “Concrete,” the bridge was made as a joke. I was like, “What if I took the whole song, split it, and made it this weird electronic-vibey thing?” At first, it was stupid and it was so stupid that I kept trying it. I think the moments in that production came together in a cool way. 

With that, when have you been the most proud of yourself? 

Hmm.. there are two moments that I can think of. The first was having some people in the industry give a shit. When I was in high school, it was just me in my basement trying to write stuff that I thought those people would like. When I finally had that external validation from people in high places, I was patting myself on the back. I look back on years before that and no one cared. Having people give a shit has been really meaningful.

The other half of that – I remember the release for my second song, “Known Like This,” I was in Nashville and I had a bunch of friends over. It was the first time I released a song while I was around other people. It was a really cool feeling to obsess over something and have it be completely mine – a song that only lived inside my room. Then it became everyone else’s, and seeing people excited about it was a cool moment. 

So cool. Can you tell me more about your label that you release everything under?

I hadn’t released any music, so I just made it up. It’s always been my dream to have some sort of artist collective. I don’t know what it’s going to become. It’s really nothing right now, but it will be someday. 

Growing up, were your parents supportive of you?

Ben Kessler: Yeah, fortunately. In high school, my dad always wanted to carry my guitars and feel like a roadie. I think it’s because his life is so far from anything creative, so he was excited for me. I started playing music because he had a guitar and I wanted to play. My mom was musical when she was younger, but I really took it on myself. 

What do you play at home? Your guilty pleasure song that you just keep to yourself.

In high school, I would always play, “Hallelujah.” It’s the most overplayed and overdone song. I didn’t get that at the time – I just thought it was a classic song. I don’t play it anymore, but I still will. I stand by my choices. I think it’s a great song.

What can we expect in the future for Ben Kessler?

More music. I’m getting started on an EP, so a lot more music in a more cohesive form. I’m planning on moving back to Nashville when all of this dies down. 

What’s the first thing you’re going to do if there is an after-COVID?

I haven’t really thought about this. Probably hug a friend. 

That’s very wholesome.

Wait no, it should be hug my grandparents. That’s better. 

What would you title this chapter of your life right now? 

Oh man. I don’t know. 

I guess it’s hard when everyday feels the exact same.

It’s funny though. I’m very much shifting chapters right now. I’m in the start of a new chapter since graduating, but I haven’t been able to contextualize it at all because I’m just stuck here. 

I’d title it, ‘Settling In.’ No, I need something more profound than that. But for the first time in my life, I have a lot of structure – this is all I’m doing all day. I feel very fortunate that I’m able to spend all this time working on new stuff, so I’m enjoying this. 

Wait, I don’t like ‘Settling In.’ If I think of anything clever, I’ll let you know. 

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Listen to Ben Kessler’s latest release, “Concrete” out now via YVB.

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