Interview by Roxanne Blanford
In the summer of 2003 you might have easily found Ben Jelen performing solo on New York Cityâ€™s Lower East Side --- perhaps even for free -- tickling the ivories of his Yamaha and singing original, heartfelt compositions for an audience of three or four (this would include the bartender!).
But by spring 2004, this talented voyager/singer/multi-instrumentalist/biologist (degreed from Rutgers University) was already signed to Madonnaâ€™s Maverick Recording Company, appearing on MTV, selling out venues, gracing the pages of YM, Teen People, and Cosmo Girl, releasing a much-talked about debut (GIVE IT ALL AWAY, touting contributors Jack Joseph Puig (No Doubt, Black Crowes, etc), and The Matrix (Liz Phair, Christina Aguilera, etc). and readying to embark on a full-scale US tour.
Not a bad overnight success story for a 24-year old nomad who has been working towards this moment for the bulk of his young life.
Just a few short years ago, Ben Jelen was working in New York, employed as a producer/sound engineer. Down time in the studio was devoted to working the kinks out of his own music and perfecting his own demos. As fate would have it, Ben was â€˜discoveredâ€™ at a Janeâ€™s Addiction concert by a New York City artist management executive who queried Ben about professional modeling. However, Benâ€™s dreams were housed in other domains, namely, the music world. Still impressed and intrigued, Joseph Janus of Fearless Management quickly arranged a meeting between Ben and Maverick label chief, Guy Oseary.
The subsequent and inevitable signing took place in a mere blink of an eye later.
Magazines and fansites may hail him as a â€˜cutieâ€™ and a â€˜hottieâ€™, and though he does indeed possess to-die-for good looks emboldened by dreamy dark European eyes (Ben was born in Scotland) and a genuinely affectionate smile that has adolescent girls the world over pining for a once-in-a-lifetime date, Ben Jelen is a masterful musician with a uniquely compelling style, incorporating not only piano, but violin and banjo as well.
Having personally borne witness to this passionate genius (being one of the privileged few who partook in that exclusive free show alluded to above), I can honestly state that the emotional eloquence and penetrating lyricism of a Ben Jelen composition effortlessly breathes new life into all the demons and angels dwelling within our collective hearts, with music gently stoking the embers which emblazon the fires of love lost, longings unfulfilled and wisdom gained.
And, as Ben tells it, much of the inspiration for all this comes straight from events that have shaped and formed his own life.
â€œSome songs [from the full-length GIVE IT ALL AWAY] are songs I wrote with buddies of mine. But most of them, I wrote alone, just sitting at the piano: They are completely mine. Because I need to really feel something to write about it, I use my personal experiences. After all, thereâ€™s no love and no life you know better than that which has happened to you. And, having moved around a lot and having lived in so many different places (Scotland, England, Texas, New Jersey, New York), Iâ€™ve absorbed all thatâ€™s been around me. Thatâ€™s how I learn: I absorb.
â€œMy experiences, the music I love, the music Iâ€™ve been exposed to (Dido, U2, Beatles, Counting Crowes, Sarah McLachlan) have all molded me into who I am. My own music is varied, based on all that Iâ€™ve known. So, yes, itâ€™s very personalâ€?.
The debut single â€œCome Onâ€? depicts the tribulations of enduring a long distance relationship through melodic key-driven orchestrations. The listener clings to initially soft vocal inflections till the arrangement gradually expands, builds and swells into a full-blown outpouring of feeling.
â€œThe song sort of floated to the top and was always unquestionably the one we would release as the first single. It had â€˜thatâ€™ feel and â€˜thatâ€™ sound, you know? The memorable thing. And it was also kind of really representative of me as an artist. It was one of those first songs I wrote myself, all about the emotional intensity you can have one minute [in a relationship], and then the wrenching physical and emotional separation you can have the next. It can drive you completely crazyâ€?.
Currently amassing radio adds and MTV rotation, the Pandoraâ€™s Box video concept for â€œCome Onâ€? (a â€˜mishmashâ€™ says Ben), came about as a decision to NOT create a literal interpretation.
â€œWe wanted to make it this visual spectacle, with all this stuff happening with the piano. So, we put our heads together and came up with all these wild ideas, like, The Pizza Guy. He wasnâ€™t even one of the acting extras. He was on the crew, the lighting guy, I think, and was thrown in at the last minute because we thought it would be funâ€?.
Propelled by word of mouth and Internet-generated buzz, (â€œit makes all the difference in the world when you know that real people are appreciating the musicâ€?), the response to Benâ€™s music has been nothing short of overwhelming. Showcase after showcase â€“whether for industry insiders, radio or newly indoctrinated fans â€“ the singerâ€™s popular appeal has been confirmed time and time again.
â€œIt almost seems to have happened overnightâ€?, Ben reflects. â€œAnd, though I know this truly involved a lot of passion and a lot of work and persistence, itâ€™s still all really crazy!â€?
With so much going on in such a short span of time, Benâ€™s barely had a minute of peace to himself. I asked, wondering what his answer might possibly be, if all this music hoopla would suddenly come to an endâ€” tomorrow -- what would he do?
â€œI would probably go hiking for a few monthsâ€?, he laughs. â€œIâ€™ve been wanting to do that for the past two years and now that itâ€™s spring, I think I might hike the whole Appalachian trail!â€?
Well, it seems Ben wonâ€™t be hiking those mountains alone anytime soon. Instead heâ€™ll be hitting the performance trail throughout mid to late 2004, with a full band in tow, taking his music and craft to an entirely new level.
Catch his act if he comes to your town.
That is, if you can get a ticket!