Talking to Ben Kweller is much like listening to him sing. His cadence is rhythmic, and his quasi-hippie, pseudo-slacker demeanor is as identifiable over a phone line as it is through a microphone. On Kweller's new album Go Fly A Kite, his artistic voice is effortlessly distinctive, resulting in the most comfortable song set in a career that has enveloped more than half of his 30 years.
Ryan Wasoba: The cover for Go Fly A Kite has the diagram for an E chord, and you have chords throughout the lyric booklet. What was your motivation for that?
Ben Kweller: Well, it was something that I've always wanted to have as a music fan. I would have loved it if some of my favorite bands did that. I just thought it'd be fun. My fans have requested tabs and chords and sheet music for my songs for years and I haven't been able to do it for them, so this was kind of the first step in doing that.
Do you approach your music from the fan perspective?
When I write the music I don't. When it's time to come up with artwork and that stuff, I try to think of something that would be fun for everybody. I don't try to predict what my fans are going to want. I just do the things I think are cool. It's like, "Fuck yeah, I'm gonna put the chords in there." So I sat at my computer for hours putting the chords over the right words.
Many of the songs on the new record deal with the theme of being misunderstood. Was that a conscious theme?
Well, I think that the feeling of being misunderstood never really bothered me, actually. I think I've been misunderstood by grown-ups and shit when I was a kid. I went through five different piano teachers and they said they couldn't help me because I didn't want to practice. I played music non-stop, I just didn't want to practice Beethoven. I wanted to write my own songs. My fifth teacher understood that and she let me do my own thing. At the piano recital I'd do my own version of "Let It Snow."
But I've found people that do understand me. This time I was mostly inspired by these pictures in my head of things and places and experiences I was going through when I was leaving New York and heading to Austin. It's funny, it's like some days my songs are the most important, personal, sacred thing to me, and then other days they're just pop songs. It's interesting how that can change from day to day in my mind.
Do you think of your songs as a separate entity from yourself?
They're definitely an extension of me, very much so. I never write songs for the sake of writing songs. I've read stories of people like Carole King who go to work and say, "Today we're going to write a song about a dog who lost its owner. What rhymes with dog? Fog. Okay, so the dog is walking through the fog and can't find its owner." I wish I could treat it like a nine to five job, wake up and write a song every day. I can't do that. My songs are very much my diary pages. It's not verbatim, I have to put fiction in there to make it interesting and to keep some mystery happening. But sometimes I want to be completely literal and use real names and places.
This personal stuff seems to resonate well with people. How important is it for you that the songs are universal?
If I cared about that, I would have made my lyrics more straightforward. My song "Falling," which is one of my best songs and pretty universal, [in] the opening line I say, "The wind is cold, alright, back in Dallas." Everybody, when they sing along with me sings, "The wind is cold outside" instead of "alright." If I was worried about being universal I would have said "outside." I sing the way I speak in the songs.
Do you feel like you understand your fans to the point where if you like something, they'll like it as well?
I feel like I've been really lucky that my fans have followed me through all the turns I've gone through as an artist, but I can't change what I do at this point. It goes back to authenticity. If something doesn't feel right, I feel like a faker. I'm not going to start being a faker now. I have a real problem with people that are not genuine, that's why politics really piss me off, too. You have to have your beliefs and stick by them. Otherwise, who the fuck are you? I was on major labels back in the day and the A&R guy might say, "You can't have a harmonica on this song." If you take it off, then you're left with a song without harmonica. And if you love harmonica, that's really sad. That A&R guy is probably not even working in music anymore, but that thing is yours forever, so you might as well put harmonica on it. My niche is a result of me being who I am. The audience finds you. There are marketing guys who say you can find an audience and market to them, but I can't.
You can find an audience but you can't make fans for life that way.
Exactly. If I had done that approach and gone after the beer-drinking college kids when I made "Wasted and Ready," they wouldn't have followed me further into my career. And that's how I know they're real and they understand me.
In your first band, Radish, you were just a teenager. And you were in your early twenties when you did your first solo record. Is making music any different now that you're 30?
Music does the same thing to me. It makes me high, it's the best drug ever. And the feeling I get when I step on stage is still amazing. Definitely the age thing was always an issue early on. I think it was lazy journalism most of the time because they would focus on my age and wouldn't have to listen to the music. I mean, I'm not mad at anybody. We find things that make our jobs easier, and my age was a big hook. I was always happy when people would actually write about the artistic merit instead of something out of my control like what year I was born. The biggest difference between then and now is that there's more of a story, more to write about.
Instinctually, you'd think that age angle would be a benefit because people would hear the music, if only out of curiosity. That's something older artists don't experience.
You're probably right, because you see it as an outsider, and you can probably compare what I've done in my lifetime to other artists. I should give more credit to people because what I was doing in Radish was impressive, but for me it wasn't impressive because it's just who I was. I was this guy who wrote songs, and I wanted to be taken as seriously as anybody else who wrote songs. I didn't want people to give me a handicap or a free pass just because I was young. And that's probably the only time in my life where being misunderstood bothered me. I felt misunderstood. Now I see that I wasn't because I was fucking fifteen years old. So actually, they understood it very well. I was the one who misunderstood myself.
This interview just turned into one of those therapy sessions where the patient makes his own revelation.
Yeah, I just made a breakthrough, dude.