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In 1981, Hall and Oates dispatched their private eyes, Olivia Newton-John wanted to get physical, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts loved rock and roll, and Ben Lev Kweller was born in Greenville, Texas. Twelve years later, when most of his peers were primarily concerned with the weird shit going on with their bodies -- the various uncontrollable outcroppings of hair, a voice that sounds like someone stepping on a squeak toy -- Kweller formed a punk band, Radish, and commenced the sort of career that most people only dream of. Now 21 and already a seasoned veteran of the music biz, Kweller is one of the most down-to-earth rock stars out there. Despite his accelerated adulthood, he is refreshingly puppyish in demeanor: When called to the telephone close to the crack of dawn, he answers with an exuberant "Hi!"
After receiving a guitar for his twelfth birthday, Kweller formed Radish with his schoolmates, Bryan Blur and John Kent. The group started gigging in nearby Dallas and within a year had released an EP, Hello, and a full-length album, Dizzy, on Practice Amp Records. In 1995, producer Roger Greenawalt (who had previously worked with Nils Lofgren and Branford Marsalis) intervened and helped Radish work up a demo that would garner label attention. It worked, and in 1996, Mercury Records signed the boys; they released their major-label debut, Restraining Bolt, the following summer and set off on a world tour, with stops at The Late Show With David Lettermanand Late Night With Conan O'Brien and lunch with Madonna along the way.
"I learned a lot from that whole experience, because I was so young," Kweller says. "If I hadn't had all the experience that Radish gave me, I wouldn't be doing as good as I am now, mentally. It definitely grounded me and taught me a lot about who I am as a person as well as a songwriter."
Today, many critics are raving about Kweller's pleasingly fresh solo debut, Sha Sha; Rolling Stone included the album on its list of the top fifty records of 2002. The Texas-grown wunderkind's project is a pastiche of influences ranging from the Beatles to Elliott Smith to Ben Folds to Weezer. Kweller seems uninterested in committing to a certain sound, flirting at times with emo-tinged piano rock and brainiac alt-rock à la Stephen Malkmus, but without the snide irony. He covers a lot of ground, stylistically, but not for lack of originality: Sha Sha reveals a subtle depth, suggesting that early success has had long-lasting positive effects on this kid's psyche.
"I love the juxtaposition of things that don't go together, so I guess all that stuff goes into my music. I like new wave and punk, and then I like to write a country song, and then I like to write a ballad," explains Kweller. "I'd probably be bored if I had to stay in one genre. When I would play my stuff for my friends, they would sometimes say, 'You can't have a country song next to a rock song next to a ballad,' but that's what I like. The Beatles did that, too, and there are a lot of great bands, like Pavement, that have that dynamic. Luckily, I think it's one thing about my music that helps me stand out."
In the course of 24 hours, one can hear a track off Sha Shawhile shopping at Old Navy, then hear it in rotation on a college radio station. Part of Kweller's crossover appeal stems from his talent for cooking up virulently infectious hooks, the kind that you find yourself attempting to sing along to, despite the fact that you have only a tenuous grasp on the lyrics. And what bizarre lyrics they are: "Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti/I am wasted but I'm ready." Fuh? In addition to hooky goodness, Kweller excels at precisely layering Beatlesesque harmonies, providing a lovely depth to songs like the country-fried "Family Tree." It's eminently listenable and wrenchingly sincere, something Kweller attributes to his Radish experience.
"The more you write songs, the more you get better at it, I guess," he says. "And all the life experience I gained comes through when I'm writing and recording an album. I feel like Sha Sha is the first album where the lyrics and the melodies really represent who I am. I can totally look back and say, 'Wow, this is totally me!' I don't feel like I'm misrepresenting myself. There are a lot of things that happened in my life that led up to Sha Sha, like moving away from a small town in Texas to New York, falling in love, going through all these changes."
Despite this sprint into adulthood and the concomitant mature perspective, Kweller still is very much a kid. An extended spin through the "pix" section of his Web site reveals a deep, abiding love for both a Tonkinese cat called Aslan and a gorgeous brunette named Liz Smith -- Kweller's girlfriend of four years, member of the band La, and subject of the lovely tune "Lizzy" -- as well as countless crimes against spelling and grammar and an "efinity" for baseball cards. He is someone who goes to the opera, picks strawberries in North Carolina with his girlfriend, and plays shows with Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield, his childhood musical heroes. Where is the drug addiction? The dry-cleaner robberies? Doesn't anything in this kid's life suck?
Perhaps it's just that Kweller is almost always being pulled in ten different directions. In addition to "touring [his] ass off," the youngster recorded an episode of Austin City Limits with Spoon this past December. Conveniently enough, it airs on KBDI/Channel 12 on February 6, the night before Kweller's Denver show. And after a brief winter sojourn in Argentina, Kweller spent a few days in a Nashville studio with Ben Folds and Ben Lee (Folds has leased the space for a year and plans to record two albums during that time). The trio wrote and recorded four songs together; one of those will be included on a tribute to Hedwig and the Angry Inch along with tracks by Wilco and Richard Ashcroft. When Kweller's domestic tour ends, he'll team up with Folds and Lee again for a nine-city Australian tour, appropriately called "The Bens." After that, he'll come back to New York to start working on his next album, for which he anticipates an autumn release. "I figure I should do an album a year," he says.
Anyone over the age of 25 probably gets winded just thinking about negotiating a schedule like that. One wonders if burnout isn't right around the corner for someone who's barely of legal drinking age but who was writing, recording and touring before completing his final growth spurts. When questioned about his workload in relation to his youth, the baby-faced singer laughs. "That's my life story: 'You're just a baby!'"
Perhaps it's his joie de vivre that surprises people so much. Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were child stars, too, but they already look and act haggard, worn and phony. Whatever Kweller's secret is for retaining the freshness and wonder of youth, it's won him much critical acclaim and fans all over the world. He could bottle and sell it and become a millionaire -- or he could just keep putting it to music and help keep all of us young.