Philly native and Nashville lingerer Ben Kessler is making indie pop music that melds two inherent truths of today: as humans, we are looking inwards more than ever before, while in music, our sonic landscape continues to push boundaries with digitized, vibe-y production. Fold one into the other, or vice versa, and that’s the avenue you’ll find Kessler wandering down.
LISTEN TO ‘CRUISE CONTROL’ ON SOUNDCLOUD OR ON YOUR FAVORITE STREAMING PLATFORM
On his debut EP Cruise Control, which the pandemic has forced him to create from his parents’ basement on the heels of graduating from Vanderbilt University, he finds himself growing into this intersection of songwriting and production.
The EP consists of five songs, two of which have already been released as singles.
“I knew I wanted to do the EP at the end of 2019,” says Kessler, “and have it come out in the year after finishing up at Vanderbilt.”
“I was waiting to graduate, and the plan was initially to do that, then stay in Nashville and make the EP. But, obviously, the floor disappeared from under me; all my friends were moving, my lease was up, and it felt like my world was shutting down. Music was changing, too, and it suddenly wasn’t clear what releasing would be like.”
Needless to say, Kessler explains that the EP was born out of a place of uncertainty and anxiety.
“I love writing about inward-looking things, and I want to make music that is self-aware and reflective. ‘Cruise Control’ [the title track] was the first song I wrote for the EP, and it was one that I had written early on, had kind of forgotten about, and then rediscovered it. I thought, ‘Oh, this says everything I want to say with this EP, and it’s all in this one song. That’s perfect.'”
The song ‘Cruise Control,’ is definitely a bop, starting off with an immediate flurry of stressed-out, emotive lyrical contradictions.
One foot on the gas, one foot on the brake
All the things that I love, all the things that I hate
I breathe deep or I suffocate
I feel numb or I feel everything
His voice wafts atop woozy keys to start, but the production builds into so much more, eventually layering his singing with warped, pitched-up vocals that give way to a very electronic bridge. The track ends with the warped, pitched-up vocals once more, this time isolated, and leaves you craving more. (Every PR release says that a track will leave you ‘craving more’ but I am being 100% serious when I say that.)
Kessler was inspired by acts like Coldplay and John Mayer when he was young, then as he got into high school and older, his taste expanded, and he began closely following the careers of indie juggernauts like Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes. When he was barely a teenager, he was going to live music shows in Philly, and he burned his first EP on a bunch of physical CDs to pass out at a radio show.
“I would go to these free Friday concerts hosted by Philly radio station WXPN, and radio DJ Helen Leicht took my CD and put it on nationally syndicated radio. She’s been so supportive always, and that radio placement helped book shows in Philly and New York. I’d also see these really great acts at these shows, people like Ingrid Michaelson, Ray LaMontagne, even Kevin Bacon.”
Like many new artists trying to make it in the music industry, Kessler has had that initial struggle: how can he juggle making music for him and making what the industry wants? What does the industry even want?
“Suddenly, whatever type of pop song that is doing well commercially becomes your (and the industry’s) main definition of what makes a good song. So when people hear I’m a singer-songwriter, they either want me to go co-write in that direction or do a very stripped-down, acoustic-only sound when I’m making my own stuff. That doesn’t feel like me.”
When I mention ELIO, an up-and-coming indie pop talent who is being creatively managed by none other than Charli XCX, Kessler lights up. ELIO, though a burgeoning artist herself, has already pinpointed lively pop music with killer songwriting and sharp, futuristic production; she and Kessler both draw inspiration from The 1975, funnily enough.
“Production is so important; it can really transform an artist. I think you can take a lot of demos and put the hyperpop production spin on it, and that’s what a lot of people wanted me to do. But I wasn’t enjoying those sessions. I was like, ‘well this song could be a hyperpop song, but can’t we let it exist in another sound or genre?’ And I think this EP shows that sound I’m trying to accomplish, where I can be inward-looking with my lyrics while experimenting with the production and keeping the energy there.”
Lately, Kessler has been listening to artists like SG Lewis, Verzache, Jim-E Stack and Jimi Somewhere. When I ask about who his dream collaborator would be, I get two answers.
“High school me would say John Mayer. Current me would say James Blake.”