Ben Kweller might just be the nicest person I’ve ever interviewed. Right at the beginning of our chat, he opens up to me and tells me that he has to go to his wife’s grandmother’s funeral tomorrow, creating a sense of intimacy that you rarely expect from phone conversations. His soft, melodic voice is simply a pleasure, and I feel like we’re friends already, somehow. As if we already know all his secrets from his music and the pair of us are just catching up.
We’re lucky enough to have him tour Australia with The Delta Spirit even without a new record release – but for now, Kweller’s spending his time in the studio. Kweller says that in between constant touring appointments, he’s working on his new record, which will be released early next year. “It's good, I'm really excited, it's called Go Fly A Kite and it's really energetic, full of electricity; it's really a cool record. I'm excited about it,” he burbles, “[there’s] a lot of electric guitars, piano, acoustics, and harmonies. It's just really big and fun sounding. But there's also some heavier lyrics, kind of darker, with some of the songs. I'm really looking forward to finishing it, ‘cause I can't wait for people to hear it,” he gushes happily.
Unlike he has in the past (as on 2006’s Ben Kweller, on which Kweller decided to play and record all the instruments in the interests of creative control), Kweller has enlisted his regular drummer and bassist to come down to Texas to help record. The songs were still all written by the man himself, however, which is how he has always worked. “That's how I became a solo artist,” he explains, rather poetically. “I found myself in a room when I was 18 and no one else was there and I said, ‘Well gosh, I guess I'll just be Ben Kweller.’”
And as he’s always performed and recorded under his own name, he’s always functioned as a solo artist, which is a big part of why his songs are so open and honest… and often autobiographical. “When you have a band, as the main songwriter, sometimes there's this pressure that you are representing the other guys in the band through your songs,” he muses. “So when I moved up north when I was 18, I noticed that all my songs were really autobiographical, personal, and I wasn't really speaking for anybody else except me, so that's how I really became ‘Ben Kweller’, I guess,” he muses.
Writing from the heart is easier when your band members are also your close friends; at least, Kweller believes so. He explains that his good relationship with his band is one forged over time and shared experience – and that it makes the music better. “They have a lot of respect for the songs and they know that they're coming from within me,” he figures. “They know my life… who I am and my family; they definitely know me intimately. So they're really good at finding ways to relate with the words, through their instruments.
“I've been really lucky with musicians,” he adds. “I've only played with three drummers in my life, they've all just been incredible, and we're all best friends. I've only played with two bass players so it hasn't changed much throughout my career.
“As a solo artist, your songs are usually more autobiographical and personal, but then you enlist these peoe, your friends, to help you play them,” Kweller continues thoughtfully. “I think that is a nice process,” he says.
Even if playing really honest, personal songs for his band is fine, sometimes Kweller’s uniquely raw and heartfelt songwriting needs to be ‘encrypted’ because the material is too sensitive. “Well I've definitely been uncomfortable before when I've played the songs for friends, and I know the song’s about that person… I'm playing it for them and I'm like, ‘Shit, I hope they don't find out!”” he laughs. Kweller remembers a song called Wendy written for a girl who died tragically in a car crash when they were both 16 that he hadn’t played for a long time. “I wasn’t really ready to let go of it or let anybody know about it apart from me and God and Wendy,” he says. But with his last album, last year’s Changing Horses, Kweller felt like the song would fit, and even though the band didn’t have the same emotional connection, it worked. “To them it's just another song – play G here, go to F sharp,” he comments.
“I'm pretty open you know, I am who I am, I've always been that way: I don't have anything to hide,” Kweller admits earnestly, explaining how his personality is a big part of why his music is so honest. “Even when it came to girls, I've never been one to play games or to play it cool – I'm so not good at playing it cool. If I like you, I am going to tell you. I want that from other people, I want to know where I stand, I'm not good at reading into behind the scenes or between the lines, I take shit for face value.
“So I'm definitely not scared to play songs for people much, but there have been moments.”
He’s an honest man: that much I can surely gather – so honest he’s made me blush a little. “You know the best quote I ever heard about honesty was by Mark Twain,” Kweller offers. “He said, 'The best part about telling the truth is you don’t have to remember anything,’” he grins.
With his next record to be released in April on Kweller’s own label, The Noise Company, one hopes that this honesty will continue to flourish in his music. I wish him all the best for the funeral, too, although I’m not really sure if that’s what you say in this situation? He thanks me either way. “I’m playing a John Denver song,” he replies simply. “It was her favourite song. You have a good day.”
BEN KWELLER teams up with fellow mighty funsters The Delta Spirit for a huge double-headline tour, and plays The Hi-Fi next Wednesday October 6 – tickets from thehifi.com.au. His latest album, Changing Horses, is out now through Shock.