Philadelphia-born Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jesse Ruben is a fighter. Not in any relation to physical contact, but in spirit instead. The 32-year-old was once diagnosed with Lyme disease, which was described as the most difficult obstacle that he had to overcome in life thus far. "It was three years of not knowing if I'd ever get better, play music again, write, or pick up the guitar", Ruben shared.
This did not dampen his passion for music. Thanks to his support system consisting of friends and family, Ruben got better through proper medical treatment and proceed to share exactly how the journey felt through his music, specifically on 'This is why I need you' which is produced by The Click Five's frontman Kyle Patrick.
Kindness begets kindness as Ruben is an advocate of philanthropic causes such as raising awareness for Lyme disease. He co-founded 'The We Can Project', a service learning program that teaches elementary and middle school students that they can make a difference to others in their community. Familiar? Ruben wrote an inspirational song 'We Can' after finishing the New York City marathon back in 2011. Its context reminded people to never doubt their capabilities and to just keep achieving their dreams.
We had a chat with the strong-willed soloist to know more about spreading positivity through music and touring with The Click Five's Kyle Patrick.
ESQ: Welcome to Singapore, Jesse! Firstly, what sparked the decision to be a musician and why did you pursue it among other professions?
Jesse Ruben: Thank you so much! I absolutely love it here. I’ve wanted to be a musician for as long as I can remember. My father is also a professional guitar player and singer, and I grew up watching him perform. When I started writing songs at 16, I knew that this was what I was going to do with my life.
ESQ: Tell us more about your EP, Hope, and its positive messages.
Jesse Ruben: It’s the first thing I’ve put out in a very long time and I really wanted to focus on positivity. There are so many crazy and scary things going on in the world right now, especially in the US, where our president is the worst. I wanted to write and release songs that gave people a break from their burden and something that could help them feel better no matter what they are going through.
ESQ: What prompted you to start 'The We Can Project' and how do you think musicians can leverage their influence to be advocates of philanthropic causes?
Jesse Ruben: First of all, amazing question. I didn’t set out to start an organization to help kids, it just kinda happened. The We Can Project is a program for students to find ways to give back to their communities and to learn new skills. It’s based on a song called “We Can” that I wrote after running a marathon with Kyle Patrick (it was over 42km). I wanted to inspire people to do scary things. Teachers started using it in their classrooms, and it grew from there. I really want to bring it to Asia as well.
As a musician, it can be really easy to be self-centred and self-focused. Running this program allows me to work on something that’s much bigger and more important than I am. Right now, at this point in our history, we cannot simply make art or music and sit back. We have a responsibility to speak about the causes and topics that are important to us.
ESQ: You wrote ‘This Is Why I Need You’ after conquering Lyme Disease at a young age. How did you rely on music to motivate yourself to overcome this obstacle?
Jesse Ruben: When I was really sick, I actually had a difficult time listening to music, because I felt so bad that I couldn’t enjoy it. It was really my community that got me through that time. My friends, my family, my doctors, other members of the Lyme world that pulled me through. Once I started feeling better, music really helped me transition back into my “normal” life. Getting to travel, and write, and perform again after years of not doing those things was incredible.
ESQ: You are currently touring with Kyle Patrick of The Click Five. Are there any valuable and memorable advice given by him?
Jesse Ruben: He’s great at keeping me focused. He constantly tells me to focus on doing the best job I can and to always be myself no matter what. It can be easy to try and change who you are to get people to like you or to not make people mad or uncomfortable. But he is 100% himself, and I really admire that about him.
ESQ: How do you find, and capture originality in the sea of trendy manufactured productions in the music industry?
Jesse Ruben: It’s really just about making the best music you can no matter what. I have never sat down to try and write a 'hit'. I want to write songs that are personal, vulnerable and moving. All I can do is focus on writing MY songs, not trying to copy everyone else. And then hoping that people like those songs.
ESQ: Who is your music hero and name a song that changed your life. Why did it stir you?
Jesse Ruben: I have had so many! Growing up, I was obsessed with Frank Sinatra. I just love his voice so much. And then there were all these amazing singer and songwriters from the '60s and '70s, people like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Simon. John Mayer changed my life too. I heard his first album right when I started playing the guitar, and immediately I wanted to do what he was doing.
A song that I constantly come back to is 'A Case Of You' by Joni Mitchell. Just a timeless, gorgeous, unbelievable song. Its lyrics hit me every time.
ESQ: What's the most significant musical moment that happened to you since your career debut till now.
Jesse Ruben: I think everything that has happened with 'This Is Why I Need You'. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Kyle Patrick and I recorded this song together in his apartment in Brooklyn, and now it’s been streamed millions and millions of times all over the world. To come to Asia and meet people who have connected to this song, who love it as much as I do, has been incredible. I cannot wait to come back here again.
ESQ: What’s next for Jesse Ruben besides your upcoming album and who would like to collaborate with in the future?
Jesse Ruben: This is a very exciting time for me. I’m recording a full-length album this month in Austin, TX. I just finished the first draft of a musical, and I’m doing a headline tour in the US in June to promote Hope.
As far as collaborations, there are so many talented people out there. I definitely want to keep collaborating with Kyle, and there are a bunch of really cool Asian artists I’ve met on this promo tour that I want to write with as well.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.