“It was awesome,” Kessler recalls. “It was surreal playing where so many artists I admire once played.”
Barely a month later, Kessler found himself in a Philadelphia studio once inhabited by Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder and the Rolling Stones, recording with a band whose credits include James Taylor, Amos Lee and John Legend. “It was nothing like recording by myself,” Kessler marvels. “With players that strong, interaction and trust are a huge part of the process.”
The resulting album, So It Goes, is comprised of moving, hook-laden tunes, full of rich imagery that belies Kessler’s age. “A lot of the record is old-school rock’n’soul, very much a Philly thing,” says Jay Levin, who produced alongside renowned guitarist and songwriter Ross Bellenoit. “Ben’s songs are really deeply romantic, not at all sarcastic or shallow like you might expect from a teenager, and he’s growing as an artist at an incredible pace.”
Kessler is a gifted guitarist who pens soulful, confessional tunes with the depth of early Fiona Apple and the rough-hewn neo-soul textures of John Mayer. His singing by turns evokes the indie vibe of Ben Folds and the searching colors of early Paul Simon records. While Kessler’s precocious musicianship invites comparisons to the teenage Steve Winwood, his homespun songwriting is more akin to Jackson Brown or Amos Lee, while his breezy R&B inflections recall Dave Mason or Eric Clapton’s early solo work.
His studio rhythm section – pros with a combined 80 years in the music business – were also won over right away. “I was very impressed with Ben’s comfort level and confidence,” raves legendary bassist Chico Huff. “He was fearless and totally at home in the studio.” Adds famed drummer Fred Berman, “That guy is talented and mature way beyond his years.” Indeed, in addition to his musical prowess, Kessler has developing industry contacts rapidly and managing his own career.
The engaging and imaginative entertainer has opened for David Wilcox, who analyzed Kessler’s songs and gives a ringing endorsement. Kessler has also talked music with Matt Nathanson and shared the stage with such singer-songwriters as David Poe and Robby Hecht. In August, Kessler was invited to appear at the Philadelphia Folk Fest, after showcasing at Bethlehem’s Musikfest just weeks before, all while crafting his first professional album at Turtle Studios in South Philly. He debuted the new record to a sold-out show at the end of the summer.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Kessler says. “This is what I want to do.”
Kessler proved to have a knack for penning tunes as a young teen. While his peers wasted time as gamers, Kessler honed his craft as a writer and performer. At 14, Kessler crafted songs in earnest and hit the open mic trail. His previous album The Start garnered spins on WXPN, even though it was self-produced in his parent’s basement when he was just 15. But the roots of Kessler’s obsession go back even further, to when he was just five-years old.
“My dad had a guitar he kept in the closet,” Kessler says. “When he brought it out, it was such a cool, special thing, When I was that young, that guitar was unattainable.” By the time Kessler was 10, the guitar was akin to another appendage. “That’s when I started writing,” he says. “It wasn’t very structured. It was free-flowing. I was trying to just get a handle on songwriting. I was compelled to do it.” The following year, Kessler joined The School of Rock, where a teacher challenged him to produce his own recordings.
At the moment, the pragmatic Kessler hopes to balance a career in music with college. “I don’t know if I want to go to a music school,” Kessler says. “I want to learn about business, but I’ll be compelled to still write and make music — I can’t just shut that off, it’s my passion. It’s there now, and it will be there in college and beyond.”