Philadelphia-native Jesse Ruben has been playing a string of sold-out shows this winter with his singer-songwriter pals Chris Ayer and Matt Simons. Before taking the stage at Philly’s own World Café Live, Jesse opened up about about his latest E.P. reaching #5 on the iTunes singer-songwriter charts, his work with the Christopher Reeve Foundation, and his thoughts on the music industry.
Nicole: Welcome back to World Café Live! How are you feeling about your show tonight?
Jesse Ruben: So good. I love being back here and I love being home. A lot of my family is coming that I haven’t seen in a while, and my tour mates Chris and Matt are incredible. So it’s going to be a good show.
N: Your latest E.P., Thoughts I’ve Never Had Before, pt.2, was a big success, reaching #5 on the iTunes Singer-Songwriter chart. Could you tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the album?
JR: I figured that putting out 11 acoustic songs at one time would be a little bit overwhelming, so I wanted to split it up. I also thought that with parts 1 and 2, the groups of songs complemented each other in general. Part 2 is actually the songs that I wrote that I wasn’t ever sure I’d release. I wrote them for me, and then I just one day realized, don’t be a wuss. And I put them out and the response has been really great, it’s the highest chart that I ever did. I got #5 which is really cool.
N: So music has definitely been a big part of your life for a long time, but what do you love most about making music?
JR: I love that I get to have a positive impact on people. I have a really strong intention for when I’m writing and performing, I want people to feel safe and comfortable and taken care of. And to have people write to me and thank me for what I do, and inspiring them to sing or run of whatever it is, that’s the best thing for sure.
N: What is the process of making music like for you?
JR: It depends man, it depends. Every song is different. Sometimes they come out in a couple minutes, sometimes it takes a really long time. But I basically realized a long time ago, you don’t have to have a huge idea. A lot of people think: “I don’t have anything to say.” A lot of songs of mine that people like the best came from really simple ideas, you know like “Bleecker and 6th” is a story about people meeting on a street corner. That’s not a revolutionary idea, right. You don’t need to have these grand ideas, you just have to be very specific with what you say. And yeah, I sit down with a guitar, I might have an idea walking down the street or a melody idea or whatever, and you just sort of mess around with it and build on it and hopefully it builds on itself. And if you get to the end, what I say is if I’m not the same person when I finish a song as when I started, then I know the song is done. But that could take forever.
N: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician, or was there a certain moment when you really decided that music was for you?
JR: I started playing piano when I was five or six, and I loved music. When I was in elementary school I knew my relationship with music was different from other people’s. Even with my friends I’d be like, “Oh my god, I just heard this song, you have to listen to this song, it’s going to change your life!” And they’d listen to it and be like, “Well this is cool but I don’t really know, but I just think its cool.” I got my first acoustic guitar when I was 16, and it was the first time my life made sense. The whole world of it, in a second, I’m supposed to be writing songs, you know? And I heard that first John Mayer record, “Room for Squares,” three months later, and my whole life made sense. That was it for ever.
N: Are there any artists in particular who you feel have influenced your music?
JR: Yes, Bob Dylan in terms of his confidence in his writing and the lyric stuff that he did. Ray LaMontagne. Ben Folds is the best conversational lyricist I think that exists. I think his words are unbelievable, I think it’s stuff that you would actually say in conversation which is really impressive. Musically you have James Taylor, Paul Simon is my all time favorite, Jackson Brown is very close. Because they wrote in a wide range of styles, very proficiently, which I think is amazing and I’ve tried to do as well. So you know, just a lot of amazing writers. And then you know, just the great American songbook stuff, which is like here’s how to write a good song. We did it for you.
N: Tell me about your recent trip to Canada for the “I Can” Project – I read your blog post and it sounds like it was such an inspirational experience.
JR: How much time do you have? And you talk about why I like playing music. That was, you have the power of the Internet. This teacher, from a school on an island on the other side of the continent, wrote to me just originally to thank me for what they were doing. Which was they had this “I Can” initiative to inspire the students, they were using “We Can” as the theme sang. She just wrote me to basically tell me that and thank me for that, and then at the bottom, it was like would you ever consider visiting? And I called her and was like of course. And it became this really amazing thing where it started as an idea that one of the teachers had, and it spread really organically to the staff and then to the students and then to the other schools and then to the parents and then to the community. So when I got there, you had like 200 people waiting at the airport, they put me on the front page of the paper with the kids, and they were playing we can on the radio. With the whole community, the conversation went to complaining about things to how can we make a difference. So when you have elementary school students donating 600 pounds of food to a food bank, knowing that a good portion of those students after school are going to eat at that food bank, the amount of giving that these people did with very little was so unbelievable. And we filmed the music video for “We Can” which has been amazing. I’ve just never been embraced by a community like that before. And I have a very special place in my heart for the Comox valley, for sure.
N: You’ve also done some great work with the Christopher Reeve Foundation, how did you become involved with them?
JR: One of my best friends, Zack Weinstein, he’s an actor in L.A., but he became paralyzed 8 years ago, and that was really hard for a lot of people, myself included. It was very difficult to watch him go through that. So I wrote this song on my first record, called “Song for Zack.” So I sent it to the Reeve Foundation, since they are the big spinal cord injury and paralysis research and grants nonprofit, and they really loved the song. I met the people there and I played some of their benefits and I handed out posters and shows, I just did whatever I could. And then in 2010 I was talking to them and I was like, “I’ll do whatever you want, put me on a street corner shouting from the rooftops, I don’t care!” And they were like, “Why don’t you run the New York City marathon for us,” which was insane. It’s so funny now cause we’ve shifted the conversation around running so much in my circles of people, but at the time when I agreed to do that for the fist time it was literally like saying I was going to go to mars. And I said, “I’m gonna run the New York City marathon for the Reeve foundation!” and then a bunch of my friends did it with me, and I’ve done it for the last 3 years, and now its expected. It’s become a part of me – people ask me about music and they ask me about running and they ask me about the marathon and they ask me about the Reeve foundation. And it’s all just part of bringing awareness to these things that are really amazing. And I mean they do really amazing work. The people that work there are incredible, the work they do is really close to my heart obviously, and If I can do anything at all to move that forward, then it’s a life well lived.
N: How do you feel about releasing music independently?
JR: I don’t know any other way. I would love to have a big company that would love to put a lot of money behind what I do, at the end of the day I’m the one that gets to upload it and hit okay, and decide what comes out and what the artwork looks like. I think I would have a hard time without the freedom to make all those choices. But what would happen with a big company, if a lot of people heard the songs. What the reaction would be? That would be nice. I’ve had some really amazing things happen to "We Can," what if 50 million people heard that song. What would the world look like? What would my life look like? What impact would it have then? Because just the impact that it’s had now on my online community has been incredible, so what if we expanded that exponentially. I think it would be pretty interesting
N: What's the craziest thing a fan has ever done for you?
JR: I don’t have anything too weird. I posted on a blog one time that I was really into plaid shirts, and I used to have these two girls that came from really far and they would bring me huge bags filled with plaid shirts. Now it’s pretty cool, I like Twizzlers a lot, so people give me Twizzlers, which is bad cause I eat them all. The people who come see me are usually pretty cool, I get a lot of letters thanking me and stuff. I get wedding proposals, but you know, nothing too weird.
To find out more about Jesse, you can visit his website at www.jesseruben.com/jesseruben.