Studio Sessions

(Soundbite of music)


So what were you doing when you were 8 years old? If you were like me, you were probably learning to ride a bike or collecting Star Wars figurines. It's true. But Ben Kweller was starting his career. That's when the Texas native started to write his own songs. And at age 13, he recorded his first album. Now at the grizzled, old age of 27, he has a new sound and a new album, "Changing Horses."

(Soundbite of song "Hurtin' You")

Mr. BEN KWELLER (Singer): (Singing) Where's that smile at, where'd you take it to? I never thought that anything could hurt you.

SMITH: Now, Ben Kweller joins me in NPR's performance studio. Welcome.

Mr. KWELLER: Hello.

SMITH: So, people love to bring up your age, even at 27. You're going to be 48 years old, and people are going to be saying…

Mr. KWELLER: He's only 48.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Well, for a lot of people, anything they're doing at 8 years old is a phase and clearly, you haven't grown out of it yet.

Mr. KWELLER: No, I haven't. I dove head first into music. I remember I was standing around my dad's turntable listening to "Magical Mystery Tour," the song "All You Need Is Love," and I just kept moving the needle back to the beginning of the song and listening to it. And I didn't know what John Lennon was really singing about, but I just knew the melody was so beautiful, and just something about it made me cry, and that's when I said, I want to do this. I want to make songs, and I want to touch other people through music.

SMITH: Well, your current album does have some really emotional songs on it, but it wasn't always the way. Your first band, Radish, was a little more punk. We're going to listen to a little bit of a clip from 1997, "Little Pink Stars."

(Soundbite of song, "Little Pink Stars")

Mr. KWELLER: (Singing) Seems to me that's how all things are, giving and taking little pink stars.

SMITH: So when you listen back to that, what are you thinking?

Mr. KWELLER: I'm past the point of embarrassment, you know? And I can actually look back and listen to early recordings of that band, and I'm actually really proud of it, and I can say gosh, we were really good for that age, I guess, you know? Basically, that's my high school garage band. It's just - we got a record deal with Mercury Records, and I dropped out of school to go on tour around the world. So it's just a little different.

SMITH: So you grew up in Texas. You moved to New York City. You did some solo work, you played pop. And now with this new album, you're back to Texas. What happened?

Mr. KWELLER: I came up with the concept for this new album, it's called "Changing Horses," back in 2004. I wrote the song called "Hurtin' You," and I was like, man, this belongs on an album with other songs with a similar vein. So basically over the years, whenever a song like "Fight" would come out, had this real country feel to it, I would save it and add it to the list of "Changing Horses" songs.

SMITH: You are gripping your guitar, and we'd love for you to play one of the new songs. How about a little "Fight"?

Mr. KWELLER: All right.

(Soundbite of song, "Fight")

Mr. KWELLER: (Singing) He is a trucker burning the highway. His heart is strong as stone. Counting them yard lines, passing them hard times, riding that black tide home.

You got to fight, fight, fight, fight all the way. You got to fight, fight, fight, all the way. You got to set your sight on the Lord in your life. You got to fight until your dying day.

She is an intern fighting the love burn, rolling out tears like a wave. Oh, that angel's boyfriend left her with nothing, but she'll never be his slave.

You got to fight, fight, fight, fight all the way. You got to fight, fight, fight all the way. You got to set your sight on the lord in your life. You got to fight until your dying day.

Well, I'm like my grandma, short but I stand tall, playing every single card that's dealt to me. You know some days are aces and some days are faces. Well, some days are twos and threes.

So you got to fight, fight, fight, fight all the way. You got to fight, fight, fight, all the way. You got to set your sight on the Lord in your life. You got to fight until your dying day.

You got to fight, fight, fight, fight all the way. You got to fight all the way. You got to set your sight on the lord in your life. You got to fight until your dying day. You got to fight until your dying day. You got to fight until your dying day. All right.

SMITH: That's Ben Kweller in NPR's performance studio, 4A. It's called "Fight," off his new CD, "Changing Horses." So we have one song with a trucker, a woman whose man done her wrong, a metaphor about life as a poker game. I think you covered all the country music bases there, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KWELLER: Guess so.

SMITH: You know, you're a little obsessed with the trucker thing. There's another song on the album that has a little CB talk at the end of it.

Mr. KWELLER: I am. That's true. Well, my great-grandfather, he was so into CBs. And the house I grew up in in Greenville, Texas, was on a big highway. And so, he used to sit in his bedroom - Pop, you know, with his desk-mounted CB unit. So, I've always loved the truck culture and CB culture. It goes - well, I guess that world comes out more in my country songs, so…

SMITH: Well, listening to you talk about this, you could almost pretend that you didn't have this part of your life that was in New York City.

Mr. KWELLER: Moving to New York was - God, I mean, I have such fond memories. I moved there in '99, didn't know anybody, me and my girlfriend at the time, who's now my wife, and I looked around the room and realized I didn't have a band, and so I said okay, I guess I'm going to be Ben Kweller.

So I made this CD. I printed up 1,000 copies, and it was called "Freak Out, It's Ben Kweller." I had a really lucky break, though. I got a phone call one day from Evan Dando of the Lemonheads. He got a copy of the CD and found my phone number and just called me and left me this message, and he was like hey, Ben, this is Evan Dando from the Lemonheads. I just got a copy of this record of yours, and I can't stop playing it. Give me a call. Let's go on tour.

Mr. KWELLER: And so, for like this 18-year-old guy that just moved to New York with his girlfriend, to get that call, that was like my big break, you know? And I would open up for him every night, and that's really how I got my start in New York.

SMITH: You talk a lot about how you were influenced in your childhood, and that's coming back now. You are a fairly recent dad. You have a 2-and-a-half-year-old son. First of all, is some of this coming back because you now have a son? And I'm curious what sort of music you're exposing him to.

Mr. KWELLER: God, well, first of all, he loves music. Right now, he's really into Guns N' Roses, "Welcome to the Jungle." And he loves Joan Jett, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." He's always saying, I love rock 'n' roll, Dad. I play "I Love Rock 'n' Roll." And he has a little, mini, Ludwig drum set.

He's always playing drums because when he was 4 months old, he was on a tour bus and my drummer, Mark(ph), would sit in the front lounge with his practice pad and warm up right before we went on stage. And so, Dorian(ph) at 4 months old, would just sit there on the floor watching Mark. And I think that really just affected him at that early age, and so he's a little drummer. And so we jam on Joan Jett and Guns N' Roses…

SMITH: Well, and that's how you started. Your dad taught you how to play drums.

Mr. KWELLER: Yeah, drums were my first instrument, too.

SMITH: So, do you stay conscious that perhaps you're influencing Dorian's future direction, his career?

Mr. KWELLER: It's kind of, in a lot of ways, out of my control because there's just instruments everywhere at my house. It's such a big part of my life that it's just probably going to be a big part of his life whether he's a professional musician or not. Me and Liz think it would be kind of cool to have a little diversity in the family. Maybe he wants to do something else.

He has inspired me in so many ways that just go beyond music and everything else.

SMITH: Ben Kweller's new CD is called "Changing Horses." It's available through ATO Records. Ben, thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. KWELLER: Thank you.

SMITH: Can I get one more song from the new album before you go?

Mr. KWELLER: Yeah. We'll end with this song. This is called "Wantin' Her Again." And this is one of those that I wrote, actually, before I moved to New York. I was still in Texas. I think I was about 18 years old. "Wantin' Her Again."

(Soundbite of song, "Wantin' Her Again")

Mr. KWELLER: (Singing) That girl, she has me running back and forth and over again. She says she's going to love me but she just won't tell me when. She won't ever say because she just wants to play. Oh, she just wants me wanting her again.

SMITH: That's Ben Kweller from NPR's performance studio. He's playing tonight in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Later in the week, he'll be in Louisville, Nashville and Athens, GA. You can watch a video from Ben Kweller's visit at

(Soundbite of song, "Wantin' Her Again")

Mr. KWELLER: (Singing) I'm a lonely man, but she don't understand. No, she just wants me wanting her again.

Ooh, she loves to know, ooh, that I need to know. Ooh, everywhere she wants to go. That girl's a crook, got my heart in her pocket book. Oh, she don't need even want to be my friend. Oh, no. She just wants me wanting her again. So don't you breathe a word of this or I will be dead meat. That's right. And you're better off ignoring her if you see her on the street. She'll treat you the same. She hardly knows my name

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