Ben Jelen first introduced himself to us with his debut album Give It All Away on Maverick Records in 2004. With the poptastic single Come On he shot an arrow into our hearts and took us through the album track by track with piano laced lovelorn tales of heartache and longing.
Well, it’s now 2007 and Ben’s back ands better than ever. He’s got a new label, a new album, and a whole new fierce energy that pulsates through every song. His latest work of art, Ex-Sensitive, is more of a love letter to the Earth and a cry for help to it’s sometimes thankless inhabitants. The songs, rich in depth and texture, exude high energy, unsurpassed passion, and creative song-writing. The album, produced by legendary Linda Perry, delivers songs that are reminiscent of a 60s/70s sound, one might even describe as Beatlesque. Intricate strings work their way through the songs and his unique voice is showcased throughout the keyboard/piano driven pop, rock, soulful songs.
It’s not too often that we are presented with a conscientious pop star who actually practices what he preaches, so for that, we salute Mr. Jelen. He’s the real deal, a genuine article, a musician who we can be proud to look up to! Inspired by the environment and his travel to other countries, Jelen’s lyrics beg for us to wake up and take care of each other and the world we live in – to shed our emotionless ties to technological devices and find what really drives us within our souls. This album gets better every time we listen to it, something new pops out, a new sound a new instrument, a lyric we may have missed – it’s magical from start to finish.
Recently wrapping up his tour with Pet Yorn, Ben took some time to sit down with me to discuss his latest album, his passionate stand on environmental and political issues, and of course his ultimate frisbee championship title!
Interviewed by: Mary Ouellette | November 2007
So you’re back with a new album on a new label, how did your relationship with Linda Perry and her Custard Records come about? How did you find each other?
My manager and I kind of wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to meeting Linda Perry. Based on that first record, I don’t know if she even wanted to meet me at all but we kept going in and I finally met her and played her some songs and she liked what I was doing. We agreed to get together and write a track and record something. So we did that and one thing led to another and it just kept on going from a song to a record to a record deal. The whole thing sort of fell into place bit by bit.
Linda produced the new album, what kind of impact did she have on the process?
She played a huge part in the record. I’d come in with a hokey song on guitar and she’d put me on the organ and surprise me. A song I may have played so many times and was old to me, she would make new in the studio and the magic would come out – she’s really good at that. She really wasn’t ever pushing me into anything unless she felt I needed to be there. She was careful about not imposing her vision on me, which is the mark of an awesome producer.
Lyrically this album is a real departure from your debut Give It All Away. What sort of things happened in your life between the releases to provoke the new songs?
Wow. I think in the world the ongoing Iraq war has definitely influenced what I’m thinking about. I had a death in my family that also influenced things. My frustration with global warming and how no one is listening, and it’s a real issue. Our government isn’t even believing in the problem and that just frustrates me so much. There’s songs about not necessarily what to think but just keep dreaming and that sort of vibe.
A lot of the songs have a real 60s/70s sound about them and some of them are even Beatlesque…where did that sound come from?
Well I listened to The Beatles a lot when I was a kid. My Mom and Dad played them a lot along with The Stones. I recently went back and checked out the whole Beatle catalog in much more depth than I had, so I’m 25 and I’m really checking it out this time and figuring out their chords and what they did and why it was cool, and really getting absorbed in that. That happened while I was writing this new record too. I listened to Pink Floyd a lot and Signor Ros and atmospheric stuff too.
What’s your favorite Beatles album now that you’ve gone through the catalog in depth?
My favorite album is Rubber Soul.
Let’s talk about the video for the song Pulse, you worked with NRDC (National Resources Defense Council) on the video and it carries a pretty heavy message, can you tell us about it and what you hope people will take from it?
I hope people take away not just the environmental message that’s portrayed in the video, but what I was trying to do was take it a step further and include all the things that environmental collapse creates like war and drought and famine. All kinds of other problems and it all snowballs but triggering it can be something as simple as a drought or an environmental problem. I hope that people also take from it that they need to vote for the right leaders.
Watch Ben’s video for the song Pulse
This album seems to display you more as an all around musician and songwriter, what do you think are the biggest changes in yourself as a musician since Give it All Away?
A big change happened when I went to India for a month. The music there really influenced me, it’s all based on one drone throughout the music and the other notes work against it so I came back with all these sample drones and I started playing my violin to them. It’s definitely invaded its way into everything I do, this idea of being in a key but with much more fluidity. I love it, I love listening to it and I know it’s starting to influence me more and more.
Since the album is relatively new, can you take us through a few of your favorite tracks lyrically and musically and what they mean to you personally?
I like Pulse, that one actually starts with that idea of a drone, and sitar..and then the violin comes in. That kind of starts like that, lyrically it’s about there being a pulse between all of us and that should be enough for us to take care of each other, and that we’ll learn to curve before we break.
I love Just A Little, that was a song that Linda sent me as an MP3 that she had written, I just loved it and told her I definitely wanted the song and that she had to let me sing it.
There’s a lot of strings on the album, is that you playing all of them?
I play the strings on Just a Little for example, that’s just me playing my violin a whole bunch of times but then Short of the World is a string section. I play the violin on Pulse, but it’s one group called “The Section” that we kept using.
I think the song ex-sensitive is a great reminder to all of us that we sometimes take things for granted and our overexposure to a lot of things lends us to sort of not appreciating them for what they really are…and that we should all be a little more active and aware of the world around us…is this the message you’re trying to send?
I wish that I could create awareness here as to how good people have it. I’ve seen not just outside of the Western world but even in Europe it’s not quite as shockingly wasteful and consumerist. The thing I was trying to get at with the them in ex-sensitive is that maybe that’s not good for us, and maybe that doesn’t make us fulfilled and happy and maybe we should think about that. Even though we have all these gizmos and gadgets, there is still more beneath it that we need to be fulfilled.
When you go in and write an album as a solo artist like this that encompasses so many unique sounds, how do you put together a live band to pull it all off and is that something you even consider when you’re writing?
I never do, and I wish I did sometimes. Even the way I write songs, I write them all at the top of my vocal range, and if I’m having an off day it’s really tough to sing these songs. Some of these songs are just impossible to pull off acoustically sometimes and they sound so different that the vibe is gone and so I have to have a band, but that was the idea. Actually this album is very easy to recreate with a band because it was just so raw in the first place. We literally played the tracks live and then overdubbed a few things.
I know a lot of emphasis was put on making this album as organically as possible. Can you tell us all the different instruments that were used?
Let me think, Linda’s studio is massive so every drum sound we did was a different set of drums. We used an electric sitar, I played a kazoo on there. We haven’t done the kazoo yet, we haven’t put in the live show yet, someone else has to do it while I sing. There wasn’t anything all that unusual it was the way that we approached it. We used old synthesizers but it’s all stuff that’s been used for years. The melatron is a cool instrument that actually plays a piece of tape every time you press a button, so it’s like a keyboard and you can just press a chord and all the tapes go and they have pre-recorded orchestras playing that one note so you can play a whole orchestra with this one keyboard.
When you sit down to write, what’s the general process. Do you start with an idea? A lyric? A melody? Or any of the above?
Pretty much anything. I struggle most with the lyrics, music comes very fluidly out of me and then I spend a lot more time on what to say and how to say it. Words don’t come to me the same way, I spend a lot more time thinking about that. Often times that’s where I want and need the help in a co-write situation to have someone to bounce off of. You get bored writing stuff by yourself.
Where do your musical roots come from? Have you always had an interest in music? It seems that your interests are pretty diverse..you have a degree in biology, you worked at a studio..
The music goes way back, I played violin when I was a kid and then sang in choirs and played in orchestras. Then I played in bands in high school and college. It’s always been there for me.
Was it passed down from anyone in your family?
Not really. My dad plays a little guitar but nothing too much. I think that I realized halfway through my biology degree that what I wanted to do was work in a studio. I spent a summer working in a studio and realized that I would finish my degree but that’s where I wanted to be.
Touring with Pete Yorn seems to be a great audience for you, you probably get to reach out to music fans who may not be really familiar with your music yet who would be fans of your style of music. How have the shows been going?
It’s awesome!! This tour has been great for us and we’ve been definitely everyone who buys a cd is someone who’s never heard of me and doens’t have the first cd.
Oh yeah, totally. There’s exceptions but as a rule that’s been what’s going on and its been great because that’s exactly what I wanted, to play in front of new people who don’t have expectations and this is something new and fresh. Pete’s extremely cool, he has such a cool calm energy about him, the whole tour has just been a great experience.
What is the plan after this? Will there be a solo tour?
The plan is to travel in a hybrid around America to radio stations, and giving them my disc. We’re doing it non-conventionally. That’s ne of the great things about being on a small label, I’m way more involved and I like it. Things like radio rather than having an official date where they add it or they don’t, there’s no expectations, we’ll just keep on working towards getting them to play it. It’s a little less stressful.
Ben playing his violin – Photo by Mary
You get to mange your career a little more hands on.
Yeah and they are willing to do things in a non-conventional way which to me is so important right now because things change so fast in the music industry. Ever since I’ve been involved things have turned upside down and back again, instability defines it.
You’ve always had a pretty close relationship with your fans, I’ve never been to one of your shows where you aren’t around afterwards to meet and hang out with everyone, how important is this to you?
Really important. It’s not fake when I go out and talk to people, whoever it is, I really appreciate every last person who supports and buys my cd and who is a fan and listens. It really means a lot to me. There are times when it just gets too crazy to do that and that’s why people dont, I think most musicians desire that kind of relationship with their fans it’s just that when there’s that crazy ratio of 1 million to 1 it’s just too much. For me it’s important to give that back to them.
Rumor has it that you are an ultimate Frisbee champ, where did you get your mad skills?
How do you know that!
I have my sources! I just thought it was funny because I’ve run into so many musicians lately who are so into ultimate frisbee.
Really?? I bring a frisbee everywhere on tour..and then my girlfriend got me these (Ben stands up and flies across the floor on his adult size Heelies!), we have to entertain ourselves out here! I play frisbee all the time, my nickname is Tarzan because I turn into a wild boy out there, but it’s fun, I love it.
Wrapping up, any messages you want to send out to your people?
Thank you again and I’m excited and proud of this record so please check it out!