Child prodigy

Ben Kweller returns to Texas for a September 19 performance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

Ben Kweller's maturing talent belies his youthful appearance

Ben Kweller is just 22, but he looks even younger. And he's got the demeanor of a happy kid at a carnival or a flea market, eating funnel cakes, playing skee-ball, marveling at the nice day and the blue sky and all the pretty girls.

But there's plenty of adult in the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Texas singer-songwriter too. He's married and focused on taking care of his family, and he's content in his tiny apartment. He's got a successful career creating boisterous pop and folk music that's clever beyond his years, playful beyond his peers.

People think that being a child prodigy ages you, changes you, messes with you - and it does, but maybe not in the way you imagine. "The only thing it's done is that it's helped me find my voice a lot faster, so in that sense I've aged," says Kweller, who grew up in the Dallas area and was all of 15 when his former band, Radish, released its major-label debut. "I just got a head start. I was on tours around the world and meeting people when I was 16. I definitely entered the real world early on. That just gave me lots of different experiences."

People think that being a child prodigy has its price because you often miss out on what others see as vital life-changing moments. But shouldn't being different, being extraordinary, not caring about all that other bullshit, shouldn't that be the entire point of having a special skill early in life? "It's the only thing I've ever known," Kweller says of his music career. "I don't have any regrets."

Sure, he never went to his high-school prom, but he was recording music in Alabama and there was a prom at the hotel he stayed at, so he just went to it with some girl he didn't even know. "It's been a great journey," he says. "I've never been satisfied with anything normal."

Kweller's latest exceptional album, On My Way, overflows with hopeful pop songs about longing, settling down and redemption. It's part Violent Femmes and part Beatles, and it shows off both Kweller's soft and fierce sides. He's a lover and a fighter, a realist and a dreamer, willing to compromise but also defiant. Kweller is pictured with wolves on the album cover, and there's a good reason.

"I like wolves and how they live in packs," he says. "They're family-oriented, but they're total warriors too."

The album's title track starts amusingly enough, as Kweller tells the story of a man who wants to kill somebody with karate he learned in Japan. "I wouldn't use a bullet," Kweller sings, "'cause a bullet's a disgrace."

The song, though, turns into a revelatory meditation on how anybody can be capable of almost anything, no matter how destructive - and how just one innocent child, one friend, one woman "pretty as a flower" who loves you back can turn a murderer and a thief into a brand new soul.

"It's a really serious song," Kweller says. "Just that first part is a little comic relief." The point of the song, Kweller explains, is that "you can be on the brink of anything and also that it's possible to change, for better or worse. Sometimes, life just takes you by storm."

And sometimes you just want to shut out all the noise. Consider Kweller's song "My Apartment." It's a tribute to his modest Brooklyn pad, and a love song about the suffocating subways and grimy sidewalks and small spaces that so many people in New York complain about. Being on the road all the time, Kweller says, makes him appreciate the simple parts of his life.

"The few times I am home, I feel thankful to have a place to get away from everybody and be alone."

— Ben Kweller

"The few times I am home," he says, "I feel thankful to have a place to get away from everybody and be alone. I'm not a hermit, but sometimes I do just like to sit around and watch TV."

He's in that apartment as I interview him, listening to records, getting ready for a three-night stand of sold-out shows in downtown Manhattan. "I do feel like New York's a magical one-of-a-kind place," he says. "It's my favorite big city in the world. I don't think I'd ever live in another city. I think if I ever moved, I'd move back to Texas, but I'd always like to keep an apartment in New York." (Kweller will briefly return to Texas for a Sunday, September 19 performance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival).

Every other place he's ever been, he's been the youngest one on his block, mostly doing his own thing. But now he's in a city full of prodigies, newcomers like Conor Oberst (who just moved to Brooklyn) and old pals like Evan Dando. Somewhere in between are various members of the New York rock scene who sound nothing alike but have all played their part in a significant rock resurgence.

"I was always the youngest kid in my group of my friends until I came to New York and started to meet people in New York," he says. "Now I'm totally being inspired by my friends." •


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