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Spotlight Interview: Ben Kweller

Ben Kweller shakes my hand. “It’s great to meet you. We talked on the phone, didn’t we?”

He’s referring to an interview I did with him a year ago. Kweller asks if I’d mind waiting around for a while so he can talk to fans. The club has a strict midnight closing time, and he doesn’t want them to get kicked out before he gets a chance to greet them. For the next hour, Kweller takes photos with smiling fans, signs CDs and engages people in conversation. The 26-year-old rocker has a reputation for being an uncommonly nice guy, and it’s easy to see how he came by it.

Kweller has certainly had plenty of time to be made a cynic by the industry. First signed at 13, he played in a now-defunct punk group called Radish. They managed to gain the attention of the media, partly due to Kweller’s youth, and they even played The Late Show. Kweller made his solo debut on ATO Records when he was 20, and now at 26, is a veteran of the music business. Yet, he still seems to approach his performances and his fans with the enthusiasm of someone to whom this is all very new.

After Kweller has literally spoken to every fan clamoring for his attention, when the club has nearly empty, he approaches me again. “Let’s head somewhere and talk,” he says. My wife and I follow him outside.

The nationwide tour Kweller is on has been tiring. The AC in their van has gone out and there will likely not be time to fix it before the band has to be in Jacksonville tomorrow night. Still, Kweller is excited about the upcoming dates. “We end at Austin City Limits, and I’m playing with Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket,” he says.

To play with a musical icon of Dylan’s caliber seems a tall order for a young indie rocker, but for Kweller, it seems entirely appropriate. Even from his first album, Kweller seemed to carry a classic rock sensibility. His music belies his young age. With his two subsequent albums, Kweller has honed his skill, and his music has taken on a quality that seems to hearken to rock’s early years. It evokes Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, without feeling intentionally retro. Kweller’s next project, he tells me, is to record a country album. “I’m recording in Willy Nelson’s studio,” he says. “I’ve always had a little bit of country to my music, so it seems like the next step to record a straight country record.”

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Part of Kweller’s evolution as a musician is due to his maturity. At 26, he is already a committed family man, with a wife and one-year-old son, Dorian. “[Being a father] is amazing,” he says. “He’s the best part of my life.” My wife and I tell Kweller that, after six years of marriage, we have yet to work up the courage to have children. “You guys have to do it,” he says adamantly. “You have to take the plunge. It’ll change your life, definitely. But, every sacrifice you have to make is totally worth it.”

Conversing with Kweller, it’s easy to see how fans become attached not only to his music, but to him. He is genuinely engaging and open. As we tell Kweller goodbye, he hugs my wife like an old friend, grasps my hand, and smiles. “I’ll see you guys soon.” We walk back toward the club, both of us still smiling from the exchange. “Take the plunge!” he yells after us.

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