"One foot on the gas, one foot on the brake." Thus opens "Cruise Control," Ben Kessler's brand new EP, but given the paradox in that one line, it might as well also be his artistic mantra. Kessler, who has been playing guitar since he was six and started releasing music at 18, makes blissfully good, endlessly catchy indie pop, all on his own; he writes, plays guitar, produces, and even mixes. But that inner push-pull has been there since the beginning. The refrain in his very first single? "Even when it’s good, it never feels good enough."
Kessler started working on "Cruise Control" last May, during the height of the pandemic, right after he graduated from Vanderbilt and moved back to his childhood home. That unsettling, in-limbo time evidently worked for his already-introspective artistic proclivities. He kept the irresistible hooks, but the lyrics are even more thoughtful, wistful, vulnerable. In "Lying:" "I talk a lot about the future but I'm barely standing right here." In "Love You Now, Love You Later:" "All these feelings cut too deep to have a place or time." In a world where artists come with their identity pre-packaged and therefore at its most marketable, "Cruise Control" is a breath of fresh air. Kessler is an artist for our times -- confused, conflicted, openly wrestling with who he is, what the world is, and ultimately, earnestly searching for solace and understanding.
Kessler implies his journey as an artist has been a mostly passive one; he's a self-described "overthinker," one who refuses to make decisions until he absolutely has to. But sometimes we make decisions by our actions, right? Consider that Kessler has tirelessly pursued music since middle school. He had his parents driving him to open mics in Philly as a teenager. He recorded an album in high school. He released a song a week his freshman year of college, where he majored in English, he half-jokes, so he would have trouble finding a job and thus have no choice but to pursue a career as a musician. He spent weekends DMing the Nashville music community until he got into sessions as a producer. He went to London for a semester abroad and spent the whole time inside his tiny dorm room, figuring out his sound.
That drive (whether conscious or not) has paid off. Kessler has 290,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, 14,000 followers on Instagram, write-ups in Flaunt, PAPER, Ones To Watch and Earmilk, and perhaps most impressively, a track newly remixed by Mike Shinoda. Will the success help him to feel any more sure of himself? Likely not. That's who he is as an artist. He contains multitudes. Lucky for us, they make for very good music.
Quadio talked to Ben by video chat from his home outside Philadelphia.
It kind of feels like you do everything when it comes to music. When did it all start?
Really young, around first grade. One of my guitar teachers was super into production, and he got me set up with a little mixing board and gave me the software. I was always wanting to do more than just play guitar. He pushed me to start writing, as well. In middle school, I was starting to write a little bit, playing around with GarageBand, doing YouTube covers like everyone else. High school was when I first recorded, I guess it was an album. It was long. I remember really struggling to find things to write about because I was just trying to copy my influences, and also sound cool, and also write things that I could sing. Obviously, nothing happened with that, so I was like, "I should do something more," and started playing out in Philly, doing open mics. That's when I started taking it seriously.
Were there other teenagers at these open mics?
Yeah, there were some of us. It's funny. It feels like I'm just starting, but I've been taking it too seriously for too long. I don't know why I keep saying the word "serious," but it's always been a serious pursuit. I think the reason why was just that no one else was doing music, and it was like if I really wanted to do it, I knew that I would really have to do it well, because otherwise I would go to college, and graduate, and it would be harder to justify or start after that.
That's pretty career-conscious for a 15-year-old.
Maybe. I don't know if I really understood it then. It was also just fun. It's the kind of thing where if you think about it too much, then it'll disappear. I was just kind of like, "If I just keep doing the same thing, putting one foot in front of the other, at a certain point, I'll have to make a decision." I guess that point would have been a year ago, when I graduated. It was like I knew that I just had time until then to figure it out.
So you just kept making music in the meantime?
Yeah. In college I studied English. People were like, "Why English?" I was like, "Well, I want to give myself the least chance of getting hired so I can only have to do music, so I have no choice but to do music." No, it was a good major. For music, I knew I wanted to do stuff outside of Vanderbilt, in Nashville, so I just had to reach out and get out of that bubble. I would just spend weekends just DMing everyone. The guy that's now my best friend, we met by me DMing him. I would do that with everyone. There was a period of time my freshman year, maybe for a whole year, when I released a song every week or two weeks on SoundCloud. I did that, just because I didn't know who to write with, and I was just like, "I need to be doing more." Those never got any attention, but that's what I would send to people. For my sophomore and junior years, I was doing sessions and producing -- I never considered myself a producer, but I would get into a lot of sessions by being a producer, just because there weren't a lot of people in Nashville that could produce that weren't doing country. So I was learning, both from other producers and from being in sessions.
Though producing, it's like writing. No one teaches you how to write. You just have the tools. You know how to rhyme words, and you know how to create melodies that repeat, and then that's a song. I use presets, and then I know how to turn the knobs to make them sound different. There are tricks. Mixing is different. That stuff's all YouTube. I'll search up chains, and then as soon as I find something that works, I won't touch it. I learned how to mix out of necessity more than anything else, to save money. I think I'm finally learning to like it a little bit more. It's just super technical, but it's nice because it's creative in a different way -- it's still productive but you're flexing different muscles.
When were you working on your own stuff?
As soon as I went abroad my junior year, my second semester of junior year, that's when I was just completely apart from that whole scene, and wasn't cowriting at all. I was writing stuff that felt cool to me because there wasn't anyone around. I was in London and I brought a whole suitcase of my monitor and my speakers and my guitars and everything. I just had a single dorm, and I just didn't make any friends in my entire… [Laughs] I'm not kidding. I barely went out. I just spent all my time in this tiny room.
Maybe you needed that separation to figure out who you were?
Yeah. I think it's such an impossible thing that some people just get luckier figuring it out when they figure it out. I know so many artists who don't figure out their thing until they're 28. That's fine and it works, but then just as many people, probably more people, it doesn't work then. It's hard to keep the ball moving, rolling, whatever, when you have to lock in with what you have, and then just go. That's why I waited as long as I possibly could. I released my first song at the beginning of my senior year. Then the second song I released, "Known Like This," was the one that got attention from industry people that I had looked up to forever. There were just a few industry blogs that started to pick up a couple of my things. Then that translated to a couple Spotify playlists. Then people that I was cold emailing for five years before that started emailing me. I was like, "Okay, thank God." If that didn't happen... I was doing it for seven years before that, emailing the same exact people, and nothing worked, so I feel very fortunate that... It's not like anything blew up, but it did what I was trying to do for the seven years before.
That brings us to your EP, which you made post-graduation, during a pandemic, in your childhood bedroom. Is it any coincidence there's so much uncertainty in it?
I'm curious how much of that is influenced by the pandemic and how much of that is me just being an uncertain person. I don't know. I guess time will tell. I think I'm naturally just, the stuff that I write that I think is the best is always the most inward-looking, self-deprecating, self-reflective stuff. I think that was just ultra-magnified by only being with myself, and only writing with myself.
On release day, you wrote on Instagram, "For most of my time doing this music stuff, nothing was ever good enough or special enough or cool enough." Were you referring to how you saw your music, or how other people saw it?
I think about this stuff constantly. I tried today to write down something similar to that thought, and all of my thoughts surrounding it, and tried to connect them like a web, because it's so confusing to me. I think what I meant was -- when you don't really have any idea of the person you want to be or the artist you want to be, it's really, really hard to hold yourself to a standard, or figure out what you're trying to do or trying to say because you're the only one who knows it. If you don't know it, other people… It's easy to have someone tell you, "Oh, this is your thing," and that distorts it for you. I think I let those voices influence my perception of myself and the music I was trying to create.
I also think I was really hard on myself and didn't let myself just try things. I think maybe I was trying to also appease other people, because I was like, "This is what they want to hear. This is what will get me into more sessions in Nashville, and this is what these publishers who I wish would reach out to me probably would want to hear."
In the music video for "Cruise Control," you literally end up meeting different versions of yourself. Talk about that.
Yeah, it's all these different perceptions of myself all watching each other watch each other. It's the hyper-awareness of watching yourself... I think it sets the tone for what the song says.
One of the first lines is "I want fame, but I don't want to show my face."
Yeah. I say fame there, it's less capital-F fame, but more fame like just being noticed. There's a line in "Everything to Everyone" -- "Some days, I'm the loudest in the room, most days I don't feel like talking, too." Just the idea, I walk both extremes. It's a paradox. I think the whole idea of "Cruise Control'' is I'm just acknowledging that and trying to figure it out. I don't know if there's a solution. After I wrote it, I was like, "Am I saying that I'm going to walk the middle and not lean into either thing, or am I saying that both sides exist, and I'm going to weave between both extremes, and that's just what life is?" I think it's more the latter. That's why music is helpful. I figure that stuff out in songs. It feels most natural to me to go as deep as I possibly can in a song.