Jelen (pronounced Yellin) is a traveler, scholar, lyricist, and musician. Music was the constant throughout frequent moves from Scotland to England, Texas, New Jersey, and finally, New York. Always in a new place. Ben Jelen’s debut album, GIVE IT ALL AWAY (Maverick), showcases a self-taught musician whose introspective songs are balanced by an optimistic belief in new beginnings. Enjoy our chat with Ben Jelen!
Are you getting a lot of requests from teen magazines?
I saw you were in YM and being called a ‘heart-throb.’ Are you comfortable with that?
It’s pretty crazy. I don’t know about being a ‘heart-throb.’
Is it weird because you have music you take seriously and being a ‘heart-throb’ isn’t seen as the same thing?
There is a balance. As long as I keep the focus on the music the balance will be there. I’m aware there are other things involved, but I focus and dedicate myself to the music and to moving forward.
Is it easy to keep your head with all this happening?
It’s been crazy, but at the same time I can stay pretty level headed. I’m a much grounded person. I can keep one foot on the ground.
Is it because you’ve done a lot of different things and life could be different?
I’ve seen the other side of it. I was an intern, engineer and producer so I’ve seen people come and go. I’ve got some prospect of this life and side of it. Seeing that side, it has helped. It has kept me focused.
Does music just happen?
I usually don’t set time to write music. I usually mess around on the piano or guitar. When it comes to writing a song I have to be feeling something; angry, sad, upset. That is when I write a song.
Are you a self-taught musician?
I was taught violin, but self-taught on piano. I had to be in order to play songs in my own way. I taught myself how to play guitar. It gets easier and easier to teach yourself.
It takes a lot to teach one self an instrument.
I think you have to be tenacious and patient. You have to keep on playing. You’ll get it. It’s natural and you can figure it out if you have musicality.
Was there a piece of music that made you want to learn?
I used to learn U2 and Beatles songs. I also learned Goo-Goo Dolls songs.
When you are writing “Come On” did you feel like you had something?
I think every song has something special and I didn’t want to let go of. I get a good feeling about some songs.
The record is tender and I can see how they want to make you this ‘heart-throb.’
Even at the showcases there are thirty or forty girls there. I think girls can relate to it.
What song did you listen to that you related to?
U2’s “With or Without You.”
Do you ever look at a group like U2 and have this competitive spirit that you want to be like them?
Not really, I try to do my own thing. All I hope for is to grow as a musician. I’ll always be doing music, but I want to get out and take up some issues socially, like environmental issues.
Did you always want to tackle these issues?
Yeah. I’ve always wanted to get involved and have always been aware. I want to make others as aware.
I read that you moved around a lot. That had to shape you.
That definitely shaped me. You become pretty independent and don’t need other people to make your way. You can adapt really quickly and dependent on a very small group of friends.
That sounds like the definition of a musician; independent.
Is part of that independent spirit the same as the one that pushes you to go on when others give up?
Yeah, but you also have to be a dreamer. You have to be able to say ‘fuck it’ and go on.
Being a dreamer, was this a dream?
This isn’t, I don’t think the craziness aspect was a dream. I always loved the idea of putting an instrument in the back of the car and playing somewhere. I love playing for people and the studio environment. Those were dreams and I’ve lived those. I’ve always wanted to work in a studio and it was great to play that part.
When did working in a studio not become enough?
You know I got a degree in Biology and when I got out of school and tried to absorb everything about the studio and sound engineer. I dove into it and did a few demos in down time and worked on my own music. I really just got lucky.
So you saw the studio work as a means to becoming a musician?
Yeah, it was so hand in hand with my music and I was allowed to work on my music while I worked.
Would you be a studio rat even if you weren’t a musician?
Yeah. I have my own studio at home. I self-produced a bunch of the tracks. You can get the basics done at home and take that to the studio and add more things there. And then edit it at home. It’s amazing.
You get ProTools and a cd writer and you are good to go.
I know the possibilities are endless.
Is it tough to know when you are on to something or do you need feedback?
That is the hardest part. You often need someone to bounce the ideas off of. The best producers just use their ears and feel what is good. The hardest part about self-producing is that you become so entangled in the whole thing that you can’t see all of it.
+ Charlie Craine