When Jesse Ruben takes to the stage at the WHYY Connections Festival at Penn’s Landing on Sept. 7, he will be doing more than just performing in front of his biggest crowd to date.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing Penn’s Landing,” the 27-year-old singer/songwriter from Upper Dublin Township says. “In fact, I’d rather play the Electric Factory than Madison Square Garden — I grew up seeing shows there! Not that I would turn down the chance to play the Garden,” he quickly adds.
The festival gig is just the latest triumph in what has been a year of success for Ruben. His third release, Thoughts I’ve Never Had, Vol. 1, has garnered his best reviews and most listens of a career that began when he graduated from the Berklee School of Music in 2008.
Based on his lineage, it’s no surprise Ruben made music his career. Both his father and grandfather have been professional musicians, leading the locally based Peter Scott Ruben Orchestra and the Harold Ruben Orchestra, respectively — although Ruben says that family friends handled the musical duties at his Bar Mitzvah.
Ruben says he never really thought about going into the family business until he entered his teens. “When I started playing guitar in high school and when I began writing songs, it was the first time my life made sense,” he recalls.
His quietly arresting style, built on the strength of guitar-forward melodies and lyrics that feel as though a friend you have never met has decided to confide in you. If that description sounds like it could fit any number of young male performing artists out there, Ruben agrees.
“There are so many people who do what I do, it comes down to a question of what makes you different,” he says. “What I wanted to focus on was making a difference, making an impact.”
A traumatic, life-changing event led to Ruben’s initial involvement in tikkun olam. In 2005, his best friend, Zack Weinstein, was in an accident that left him a quadriplegic. As a way of dealing with the situation, Ruben wrote “Song for Zack,” which drew the attention of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, a leading organization for helping those with spinal cord injuries. He has played numerous shows for the foundation, and this fall will run in his fourth straight New York Marathon to raise funds for the foundation.
His association with the Reeve Foundation has led directly to the creation of his own initiative to help motivate students.
“After the marathon experiences, I wanted to write something to inspire people,” he says. The result is the anthem-like ballad, “We Can,” which he says straddles that “fine line between inspired and cheesy.”
Ruben knew his song had struck a nerve when he received a call from a school in Courtenay, British Columbia. “They wrote to thank me because they were using it as the theme song for their I Can Initiative,” a school-wide program that had every student from third through 8th grades create their own ways to effect change in their community. Projects that Ruben saw when he went to visit Courtenay in January included community gardens, suicide-prevention meetings and electricity conservation.
Ruben was so impressed that, with the help of nonprofit consultants, upon his return to his home in Brooklyn, he began to pursue his own I Can initiatives at schools in the United States.
“I’ve been talking to about a dozen schools around the country about starting this project. If I had learned that I could make an impact on the community when I was younger, it would have made a difference in my own life.”
Ruben also has his childhood in mind as he writes the songs for his next album. “The songs that saved my life as a kid had meaning,” he says. “I want to make music that, when people are having the best day of their lives, the only thing that could make it better is to put a Jesse Ruben song on. And when people are having the worst day of their lives, they say, ‘The only way I’m going to make it through today is if I have a Jesse Ruben song on.’ I want to hit the whole spectrum.”
Although, Philly boy that he is, he would be fine with the Wells Fargo Center.
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