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Jesse Ruben: Bringing acoustic back to pop

Courtesy- Jesse Ruben

Courtesy- Jesse Ruben


For the past year, Jesse Ruben has relentlessly toured up and down the east coast to support his debut album. His quick wit and handsome boy-next-door style makes his performances wonderfully entertaining and carefree. A Jesse Ruben show feels like a group of friends jamming around the living room. Each moment of his shows is filled with his sarcastic and endearing banter, even to the point where he stops himself and manages to laugh out an apology, “Oh man, I’m rambling. I’m so sorry.” He will poke fun at the audience, and don’t be surprised when his audience pokes fun right back. Audiences should be prepared for new songs and wild anecdotes when his new album drops in early 2010. Ruben takes an acoustic stand in what is now an electronic-dominated world.

Ruben began taking piano lessons when he was about five years old, and continued until he was a freshman in high school. Yet, after “wasting a lot of my parents’ money,” he said regarding the piano lessons he dreaded, Ruben discovered his true calling when his father bought him his first guitar in his junior year of high school. “When I started playing guitar it was like, ‘Oh, this is what you’ve been waiting for your entire life.’”

Ruben continued his musical education at Boston’s Berklee College of Music as a freshman in 2004. He entered the classrooms that held young musicians who had been playing guitar for most of their lives. He, however, had only picked up guitar in his junior year of high school. For him, the experience gap was daunting.

“I had only been playing guitar for a year when I applied to music school. If you have any friends that are thinking of doing that, tell them not to, because it’s really scary,” he said. “I was kind of a mess when I first got there.”

Future guitarists should take heed of the warning from Jesse Ruben. However, as he gears up to record his second full-length album, it is clear he made the right choice. Putting the scariness of the classroom aside, the good-natured performer ventured on and developed a strong grassroots following.

After four years at Berklee, Jesse graduated with a major in songwriting and several career highlights. He scored a gig as the opening act on a 10-city East Coast tour with multi-platinum selling artist Ryan Cabrera. He also opened a Bridgeport, Conn., show for Alaskan songstress Jewel in Feb., which to his family’s excitement earned him a resounding standing ovation from a crowd of 1,400.

His song “Lack of Armor” was recently featured on an episode of the teen television favorite, “One Tree Hill.” The track takes you on the journey of a heartbroken lover who just can’t seem to get over his lost love. The same song was a finalist in the 2008 John Lennon Songwriting Contest, as well as the 2008 New York Songwriter’s Circle Contest. The cherry on top of the past year came when Ruben signed his first major record deal with Sony/BMG.

Ruben’s career officially took off in Jan. 2008 with the independent release of his debut album, “Aiming for Honesty.” With songs like “Ace of Spades,” crooning about how one needs the other “like shades of red on Valentine’s Day” and the sickly sweet honeymoon period of relationships, this album will set a mood made for canoodling.

The acoustic pop and slightly folksy album, which has a hint of his influences James Taylor and John Mayer, grabbed the attention of an underground following and led to regular spots on college radio stations, in Kohl’s department stores around the country, and XM Satellite radio. Ruben had no idea his music was being played on XM Satellite radio, but he found out when he was 30,000 feet in the sky.

“I was on an AirTran’s flight and I was listening to XM,” he said. “My song came on while I was listening to it and I just lost it, but of course I couldn’t do anything about it because I was on an airplane. So, I couldn’t tell anyone until I landed three hours later. It was torture. And the beverage announcement came on during my song! Which was amazing, and hilarious, and awful all at the same time.”

His path to success has had some wonderful moments, but it has not gone without a few bumps in the road. “Song for Zach,” a track off of “Aiming for Honesty,” is about one of Ruben’s best friends who, five years ago, suffered a broken neck after a severe fall in Maine.

“Watching a friend go through that was one of the hardest and most painful situations I’ve ever gone through in my life,” said Ruben. “They were waiting for the ambulance to come and somehow I was brought up in conversation. Someone said ‘What is Jesse going to do when he finds out about this?’ Zach said, ‘I don’t know, but he better write a really good song about it.’”

The four months following the accident were spent exclusively on the songwriting that led to what Ruben says is one of his best songs. “Song for Zach” is a beautiful ballad, in which Ruben displays raw emotion in his voice: “You taught me how to fight again by learning how to laugh. I’m adding up the numbers, but I still can’t do the math. And I wish that I had been there, to save you Zack.” Unlike the other songs on the album, Ruben’s voice and heart wrenching lyrics tell the story of Zach better than his guitar.

“You have moments where you think, I could do this everyday for the rest of my life and it wouldn’t be too terrible. But for all those days, there are a million other moments where you’re like, ‘What am I doing, why am I doing this?’”

“It’s really hard mentally to be focused enough and have enough trust in what you do to keep going,” he said. “I’m so happy that I’ve gotten to do everything that I’ve been able to do, but in terms of stuff that I want to do and the amount of people I want to have hear my stuff, it is so far away.”

“Aiming for Honesty” is an album full of the trials and tribulations of a young man’s journey through love and life. Ruben wrote most of the tracks on “Aiming for Honesty” when he was around 17-years-old, but at 23, he’s writing with a bit more experience under his belt. The second album Ruben claims will be just as relationship-driven, but it will feature different kinds of relationships.

“There’s still going to be the girl-boy songs, but they’re also going to be about examining what it’s like to be older,” he said.

“I want to write songs that when people are at their worst day, they say the only thing that will help me get through this moment right now is to listen to Jesse’s stuff,” Ruben said. “And if they are having the best day of their lives, they say the only way that this could get better is if we put Jesse’s record on now. And I want to have songs for all the moments in between.”

In the moment of this phone interview, Jesse’s main concerns were spending time in New York City with a girl friend and enjoying his hometown team, the Philadelphia Phillies, take on the New York Yankees in the World Series.

“I’ve been wearing Phillies gear for the last 36 hours in New York and getting heckled for it. And I love it. It’s amazing.”

 Anshalee Guarnieri can be reached at aguarnie@student.umass.edu.

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