Ben Kessler
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Ben Kessler

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States | Established. Jan 01, 2013 | SELF

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States | SELF
Established on Jan, 2013
Solo Folk Singer/Songwriter

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"The Kid is Alright: Teen Folk Phenom Ben Kessler"

Ben Kessler can’t help but grin from ear to ear when the crowd of 300 at Chaplin’s music cafe in Spring City showers him with an ovation after the final notes of his poignant folk tune “Too Lonely.” Once upon a time, the former vaudeville theater’s stage presented the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; on this fall evening, it’s hosting the record-release party for Kessler’s four-song EP, So It Goes. A few minutes later, as he begins glad-handing friends and family and selling T-shirts to new fans who’ve come out after hearing the Blue Bell resident’s music on WXPN, he says, simply, “Everything went really well.” It’s typical understatement from a musician who’d be mighty impressive even if he wasn’t only 16 years old.
While most of his peers are off longboarding, playing ball or trying to figure out how to meet girls, Kessler is busy pondering how best to navigate his emergence into the ever-more-chaotic music business. “It isn’t easy, and I have to do a lot of juggling,” he says. That’s all the more true for someone who spends five days a week in a high school classroom, sweating the SATs and college applications on the horizon. “It’s like I’m leading a double life.”
It was only a year and a half ago, in August 2013, that Kessler decided to focus most of his extracurricular hours on songwriting and performing. Nine months later, last May, he was one of four songsmiths to win the Philadelphia Songwriters Project—quite an accomplishment, considering how many of the other entrants have been writing and playing longer than Kessler has been alive. “I was absolutely blown away,” he says. “Who would have thought that I would win?”
Then again, Kessler, a careful student of the history of music, is well aware that he’s entering a fertile period in the life of a songwriter—that much of the greatest material in the annals of rock was penned by those 27 and under. “You look at what Bob Dylan and what so many others have done before they were 30,” he says. “It’s undeniable. I’m going for it now.” He’s already flown out to Los Angeles to meet with producers. While opening last summer for David Wilcox at the Tin Angel, he picked the veteran folkie’s brain. And when he opened for Lewis Watson at World Cafe in November, he asked the young British bard, who’s six years his senior, for tips about moving to the next echelon.
It’s difficult to fathom how Kessler would achieve so much at such an early age or have such vision without supportive parents. His mom, Karen, is the president of the altruistic Children’s International Summer Village, and his dad, Lon, an amiable dentist, first lit the musical spark when he pulled out a guitar in front of the five-year-old Ben. By the time he was seven, Kessler had begun taking guitar lessons while his brothers, Sam and Gabe, focused on sports. “I’m fortunate since I found my passion early on,” he says. “A lot of people are well into adulthood when they finally figure out what they want to do, but this was evident to me early on.”
Though he’s a veritable Dane Cook on social media, Kessler keeps fairly low-key about his exploits at Wissahickon High. “I tell my friends what’s happening, but it’s not like everyone there knows what’s going on,” he says. “Recently, one of my teachers was listening to [DJ] Helen Leicht on XPN—and I was sending her an email. That was just a funny little thing. He has no idea what else I’m doing outside of class, and that’s fine.” (Leicht, for her part, describes Kessler as “definitely a Philly artist to watch.”)
But he’s not going to be able to keep his catchy, literate folk-rock on the down low much longer. Recently, he played the iconic Bottom Line in New York, where Dylan, Randy Newman and so many other legendary singer-songwriters honed their skills. “It was surreal playing where so many artists I admire once played,” Kessler says. And he made his Philadelphia Folk Festival debut in August: “It was so cool seeing my name on the Folk Festival shirt,” he says. “I got to watch Janis Ian perform on the side of the stage because of my artist pass.”
Meanwhile, he continues branching out: He recently entered the National YoungArts Foundation contest, dedicated to discovering the next wave of visual, literary and performing artists. More than 10,000 entered; Kessler is one of 600 selected to travel to New York in May to cultivate their skills. “That’s a few months away,” he says nonchalantly. And while he’s planning to double major in music and business when he heads to college a year and a half from now, he doesn’t have a school in mind yet. “But the odds are pretty good that it will be in a city with a music scene like Los Angeles, New York or Nashville,” he says. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I’m still part of the Philadelphia music scene, which I love. There’s no pressure here. It’s a great place to incubate. This is where it all starts.” - Philadelphia Weekly


"Interview with young songwriting champ Ben Kessler"

Ben Kessler is kind of like a musical superhero: normal high school student with dreams of college by day, soulful pop/folk songwriter making the rounds at progressively larger Philly venues by night. After being chosen as a winner of the Philadelphia Songwriters Project’s annual songwriting competition in May, the 15-year-old Kessler has been floating from show to show making friends, learning how to use his powers for good.

Kessler was a student at the School of Rock in Fort Washington, where his teacher introduced him to songwriting and recording. “When I was 10 or 11 I found an old mixer in my uncle’s basement and I built myself a studio space,” he says. Learning music production, he says, is all about trial-and-error and watching tons of Youtube videos.

“I recorded my first album at home in my studio, and once the album was finished I asked my guitar teacher, “I recorded this album — now what?” and he said, ‘now you have to perform it.’”

So he started playing open mics in the area. At one place he’d make a connection that would lead to another gig, and another, and before he knew it, he was headlining at The Bitter End in New York City.

Though Kessler had all that talent ready to be adored, it was the songwriting contest that helped him to find his audience here in Philly.

“This is the first year I’ve submitted,” he says. “I was actually sitting in Biology class, researching ways to get my songs out in Philly when I probably should have been studying. I found the Songwriting Project, emailed [Philly Songwriters Project founder] Dena Marchiony and submitted my songs.” Two of his dreamy pop songs, “We Think We Know” and “I’m Here” landed him a spot on the Songwriters Project summer tour, which includes a spot at Philadelphia Folk Festival in August.

Kessler is currently working on recording his first professionally recorded release, a four-song EP. at Turtle Studios in South Philly. Besides that he doesn’t know what the future will bring. With college applications and homework to worry about, who’s got time to worry about the future? - Philadelphia City Paper


"Ben Kessler Soars at Summer Debut at Tin Angel"

Most of Ben Kessler‘s press has been concerned with his age. At just fifteen — soon to be sixteen — Kessler is creating beautiful, complicated, often subtle music that is far beyond his years. And while his youth is impressive, the plain fact is that Kessler is a frighteningly talented musician, regardless of his age. His set Thursday night at Tin Angel proved his skill and more; he was entertaining and wholly impressive.

Kessler kicked off his set with a host of original songs, each as well-crafted as the last. With the fortunate combination of songwriting talent, a good voice, and stunning guitar skills, Kessler’s music is the whole package. Early on in his set, Kessler dipped into hallowed territory by pulling out a cover of Leonard Cohen‘s “Hallelujah“, but he took his duty seriously. A general cover of “Hallelujah” takes the same chords and the same pick pattern as the original and maybe shakes up the vocals a little. Kessler brought an entirely new structure to the song, generally sticking to the chords but varying the presentation. In truth, he only kept to the basics in the chorus, and the new structure of the song was both refreshing and exciting.

His original work is every bit as exciting as his covers, and he applies the same creative energy to both. Covers were just different enough to sound fresh and originals were just familiar enough to be inviting. Among his originals, one of the best was “I Am Here”, a soft, climbing song with the best lyric quality of his set. He draws the listener in with complex intros that lead into understated chord progressions and lyrical power.

His work has all the elements of a traditional singer/songwriter (there are many similarities between his work and John Mayer‘s), but where Kessler has those traditions beat is in his skills as a guitarist. His ability to pull out complex melodies like they’re simple chords is what sets him apart. During his entire set at Tin Angel, his fingers flew up and down the guitar, especially during his cover of John Butler‘s “Ocean“. The instrumental track was stunning, captivating, and intimidating in Kessler’s hands.

The allure of Kessler’s work points toward a promising career. He has the skills to produce music that’s both familiar and entirely new at the same time while holding on to a certain amount of subtlety that brings maturity and gravitas to his work.

His Tin Angel show marks the start of his summer tour. Check out his website for dates. - Rock On Philly


"OUR LATEST OBSESSION – BEN KESSLER"

Ben Kessler is a 16-year-old singer/songwriter from Philadelphia, PA. I had the pleasure of seeing Ben perform last monday at World Café Live in Philly, during his opening set for Lewis Watson. During his performance, I fell in love with his voice and was completely shocked that he is only 16. He has a maturity and stage presence that is nothing short of a musician with years of experience. According to his Facebook page, Ben composes, records, and produces his own music–a few more elements that make him talented and able beyond his years.

Though he is extremely mature in performance and production of content, Ben’s music still holds a distinct younger sound due to the themes of his lyrics. Ben sings songs that his audience can relate to, which is quite refreshing as he does not try to seem older than he is or appeal to only a more mature audience. That being said, his music can be enjoyed by all ages, but it resonates particularly with younger audiences. While listening to his music and seeing him perform live, it is undeniable to see a spark of a possible young John Mayer type.

For being unsigned and only 16, Ben has released an impressive amount of music. In March of 2013, he released his first EP Three. On the credits it says, “Written, recorded, mixed and mastered by Ben Kessler in his basement,” which nods to his major abilities to create his own music. In December of the same year, Ben released another EP titled The Start. This record is an obvious example of John Mayer influences particularly in Hero, as well as a bit of possible Ed Sheeran influences on I’m Here. His most recent EP is called So It Goes. This record is different from Ben’s others because it was recorded in a professional studio in Philadelphia, with various other production and musical contributors. The songs on this EP don’t stray away from Ben’s homegrown feel, they just showcase Ben’s impressive vocal and musical abilities even more than before.

As of right now, Ben is staying close to his roots and playing mostly in Philadelphia. His next show will be a full-band headlining gig on January 11th of next year at World Café Live (we will hopefully be in attendance!). We are expecting big things from Ben for next year, and we know he is going to be a huge hit-it’s only a matter of when.

Ben’s latest EP So It Goes is available for purchase on Bandcamp and to stream on Spotify. Tickets for his upcoming show at World Cafe Live are available here. - Capitol Sounds


"INTERVIEW: BEN KESSLER"

Street: How would you categorize your style of music? BK: I always consider my music to be in the “singer/songwriter” genre, for that has always made the most sense to me...However, it is hard to really say what signifies a true “singer/songwriter” song, or if the genre even exists. So, for the sake of simplicity, you can say that my music falls primarily into the folk and soul genres, with a splash of pop/rock and a bit of everything in between.

Street: Can you talk a little bit about your personal musical background? BK: Sure! I was around 4 or 5 when my dad started playing his guitar for me, which he’d had since he was a teenager. I remember it always being carefully kept in its original case, hidden in the very back corner of his closet. Because of this, I always thought of the instrument as some sort of magical, sacred “thing” that was, and always would be, unattainable to me. This was until I was given a guitar as a birthday gift the following year... I started taking lessons within the following year...[Later], I picked up bass guitar, clarinet, saxophone, and more importantly, I started singing!...Since then I've been hooked.

Street: So far, you’ve recorded two EPs – “Three” and “The Start.” Can you talk about the inspiration behind them? BK: My first EP “Three” was actually for a school project. We were given a six-week span to create anything that we wanted. Of course, I decided to write/record an EP! I did not have enough time to write and record full-blown songs with lyrics, so I decided the EP would be an instrumental one. With my second EP, “The Start”, I decided to record to support the start of my little performing career. As cheesy as the title is, I simply wanted a physical product that I could hand out at shows to give people a good idea of where my music was at that time. I think it served its purpose!

Street: How has your experience been with getting your music out there? BK: I have had tons of fun getting my music out there these past 10 months. The ride thus far has been short, though I have met hundreds of new people, been to some pretty cool places, and have experienced some awesome things that most don’t have the privilege of experiencing at my age.

Street: You’re currently working on your first professionally recorded EP. Can you provide any information about it? BK: The title of the EP is “So It Goes” and it will be released on September 12th. I will be having a CD release show at Chaplin’s in Spring City on the release day, September 12th, to celebrate. I’ll be performing with a full-band for the first time ever!

Ben-Kessler-session-at-Turtle-Studio-14-L

Street: What's your favorite song that you've written? BK: This is a tough one. I have a love/hate relationship with the songs that I write, which a lot of artists tend to have...However, at the moment, I’m enjoying performing a new song titled, “Slow It Down”. It has a different feel than what I have been performing for the past few months, which is cool for the time being. Changing things up is good sometimes.

Street: Do you have any musical idols? Who are some other musicians that have inspired your music? BK: Anyone that knows me even the tiniest bit understands my near-obsession with John Mayer’s music. I feel that Mayer has really brought the ambiguous, so-called “singer/songwriter” genre to the forefront of today’s music world... I am also a huge Bob Dylan fan, which is an unspoken requirement for all singer/songwriters. Dylan doesn’t need any rationale.

Street: Last, but not least, complete the following sentence: there are two types of musicians… BK: There are two types of musicians… those who go for it and those who wait for it.

You can listen to “Three” and “The Start” online at www.BenKesslerMusic.com. Be sure to check the website for show dates as well. Tickets for Ben’s CD release show are available at www.chaplinslive.com/kessler. - 34th Street Magazine


"Ben Kessler: Philly's Own"

When you look at your young child, you wonder who they really are and what they will become. You question what positive traits they inherited and whether they will avoid your life’s pitfalls while probably succumbing to their own. You encourage and work to protect. You share in the ups and downs. You wonder what will be.

Philadelphia is a parent – always has been; dating back to the founding of our nation. We boast founding fathers, founding mothers, and it should not be forgotten that there were founding youths along the way who were stronger and more mature than their years would typically require.

Today, Philadelphia has a musical son in Ben Kessler. He is mature, talented, casual yet serious, comfortable in his own skin, and taking-on the music industry one day at a time – which is probably the only way to do it.

I first experienced Kessler’s talent at World Café Live in Philadelphia a few weeks ago when he opened for UK’s Lewis Watson. The songs were well-composed, guitar-playing strong, and the vocals refined with a youthful quality. He helped fill the venue to capacity that night and endeared himself to Watson’s fans in a way that led to the opportunity to headline at WCL, which will occur on January 11, 2015. This time, Kessler will be accompanied by a full band – recreating the material that can be found on his debut EP, So It Goes.

When I ask Kessler about his amazing 2014 he states, “it seemed kind of slow but, in hindsight, it was actually pretty fast. After a while, you don’t even realize how fast things are moving.” In reality, Kessler performed at least sixty times in 2014 with much of that activity happening toward the later part of the year as momentum was built. His current schedule for 2015 does not necessarily reflect that level of activity, but shares that there is a method. “I’m trying to plan performances out strategically so that it all makes sense from a business perspective. I don’t want to be over-exposed,” he says.

As for new material and future releases, Kessler says, “The EP is still relatively new and I don’t want to take way from the material that was meant to introduce me to the scene. Something could come later this year or early next year depending on how things go.” He already has plenty of new material, but wants to allow each release to have its time to project and reach his audience as it is and is still becoming.

You also need to keep in mind that Kessler has yet to graduate from high school and enroll in college, which he intends to do. “I love Philly, it’s my home and has been sort of an incubator for me, musically, but I will probably go somewhere else for college. But it will have a music scene of its own,” Kessler assures.

Tickets are still available to see Kessler with his full band on Sunday night at World Cafe Life. As his hometown, we need to support him, wish him well, welcome him back when that time comes, and continue to be a positive source of inspiration as he progresses through the mine-field of the industry. - That Music Mag


Discography

Live at Kettle Pot Tracks - EP, January 2015
So It Goes - EP, September 2014
The Start - EP, December 2013
Three - EP, March 2013

Photos

Bio

“Ben Kessler is kind of like a musical
superhero: normal high school student with dreams of college by day, soulful
pop/folk songwriter making the rounds at progressively larger Philly venues by
night. After being chosen as a winner of the Philadelphia Songwriters Project’s
annual songwriting competition in May, the 15-year-old Kessler has been
floating from show to show making friends, learning how to use his powers for
good."
-- Philadelphia City Paper, July 2014

In
many ways, it all started for Ben Kessler at the Bitter End. Kessler made his
debut at the tender age of 15 at New York’s oldest and arguably most venerable
rock club in 2014. Kessler performed in front of the iconic brick stage
backdrop and belted out songs from a stage in which Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder
and Randy Newman honed their skills. Not bad for a high school junior from the
Philadelphia suburbs.

“It
was awesome,” Kessler recalls. “It was surreal playing where so many artists I
admire once played.”

Barely
a month later, Kessler found himself in a Philadelphia studio once inhabited by
Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones, recording with a band
whose credits include James Taylor, Amos Lee and John Legend. “It was nothing
like recording by myself,” Kessler marvels. “With players that strong,
interaction and trust are a huge part of the process.”

The
resulting album, So It Goes, is
comprised of moving, hook-laden tunes, full of rich imagery that belies
Kessler's age. “A lot of the record is old-school rock’n’soul, very much a
Philly thing,” says Jay Levin, who produced alongside renowned guitarist and songwriter
Ross Bellenoit. “Ben’s songs are really deeply romantic, not at all sarcastic or
shallow like you might expect from a teenager, and he’s growing as an artist at
an incredible pace.”

Kessler
is a gifted guitarist who pens soulful, confessional tunes with the depth of
early Fiona Apple and the rough-hewn neo-soul textures of John Mayer. His singing by turns evokes the indie
vibe of Ben Folds and the searching colors of early Paul Simon records. While
Kessler’s precocious musicianship invites comparisons to the teenage Steve
Winwood, his homespun songwriting is more akin to Jackson Brown or Amos Lee,
while his breezy R&B inflections recall Dave Mason or Eric Clapton’s early
solo work.

His
studio rhythm section – pros with a combined 80 years in the music business –
were also won over right away. “I was very impressed with Ben's comfort level
and confidence,” raves legendary bassist Chico Huff. “He was fearless and totally
at home in the studio.” Adds famed drummer Fred Berman, “That guy is talented
and mature way beyond his years.” Indeed, in addition to his musical prowess, Kessler
has developing industry contacts rapidly and managing his own career.

The
engaging and imaginative entertainer has opened for David Wilcox, who analyzed
Kessler’s songs and gives a ringing endorsement. Kessler has also talked music
with Matt Nathanson and shared the stage with such singer-songwriters as David
Poe and Robby Hecht. In August, Kessler was invited to appear at the
Philadelphia Folk Fest, after showcasing at Bethlehem’s Musikfest just
weeks before, all while crafting his first professional album at Turtle Studios
in South Philly. He debuted the new record to a sold-out show at the end of the
summer.

“It’s
been phenomenal,” Kessler says. “This is what I want to do.”

Kessler
proved to have a knack for penning tunes as a young teen. While his peers
wasted time as gamers, Kessler honed his craft as a writer and performer. At 14,
Kessler crafted songs in earnest and hit the open mic trail. His previous album
The Start garnered spins on WXPN, even
though it was self-produced in his parent’s basement when he was just 15. But
the roots of Kessler's obsession go back even further, to when he was just
five-years old.

“My
dad had a guitar he kept in the closet,” Kessler says. “When he brought it out,
it was such a cool, special thing. When I was that young, that guitar was
unattainable.” By the time Kessler was 10, the guitar was akin to another
appendage. “That’s when I started writing,” he says. “It wasn’t very
structured. It was free-flowing. I was trying to just get a handle on
songwriting. I was compelled to do it.” The following year, Kessler joined The
School of Rock, where a teacher challenged him to produce his own recordings.

At
the moment, the pragmatic Kessler hopes to balance a career in music with college.
Kessler says. “I’ll always be compelled to write and make music -- I can’t just
shut that off, it’s my passion. It’s there now, and it will be there in college
and beyond.”

Band Members