Jesse Ruben is a Brooklyn based singer-songwriter with four independent albums under his belt.
During his career, his songs have been played on shows such as One Tree Hill, Degrassi, Switched at Birth, and Teen Mom. His latest offering ‘This Is Why I Need You’ was premiered on Billboard and has since been streamed over four million times. He can also count the Today Show’s Hoda Kotb as a fan, after she fell in love with his song ‘We Can’ during her spin class. Jesse will be releasing his fifth album, A Reply To Violence, next year.
Not only is Jesse a talented musician, but he’s a highly active philanthropist too. Alongside running the NYC Marathon for the The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and Global Lyme Alliance in the past, Jesse is the founder of The We Can Project. The initiative aims to help elementary and middle school students to fulfil their potential by trying new things and giving back to their communities. Since its launch, more than 250,000 students across the US and Canada have participated.
We recently had the opportunity to talk to Jesse about The We Can Project, his future music and much more.
Hey Jesse, thank you for answering our questions today! How are you?
It’s my pleasure! I’m really great. I just got back from ten days in Europe last night, so I’m a little jet lagged today, but excited to be back in the States.
How did you first get involved in music? Did you always want to be a musician?
When I tell people my story about becoming a musician, it sounds kind of nuts. But at the time, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. My dad is a professional musician (as was his dad, and his dad, and his dad). Music was always a big part of my life growing up. My sister and I started piano lessons at 5, and I was pretty good but never loved playing piano. I didn’t start guitar until I was 16. The first time I held an acoustic guitar, I knew that I wanted to be a songwriter. A year later, I only applied to one college, Berklee College of Music. It was a crazy idea, to only apply to one school. I have no idea what I would’ve done if I hadn’t been accepted. Fortunately, I was. Now I have a Songwriting Degree, and I get to travel and write songs for a living. I’m a lucky guy.
‘We Can’ is the ultimate inspirational anthem. Over time, it has become meaningful for many people in different ways. Did you ever expect it to impact on so many people?
I think that’s one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of writing songs, is that they can totally take on a life of their own. I was proud of that song when I wrote it, and figured that it would inspire some people to start running. I never had any idea it would grow and grow like it has.
You launched The We Can Project off the back of the song. How has this project impacted on yourself and others so far?
I have always wanted to make a positive impact on people’s lives. The We Can Project allows me to meet with students and communities all over the US and Canada who are inspired by the song. I am blown away by the ideas that kids come up with, and the way it can connect a community by giving them an opportunity to rally around a cause that really matters. I love that I get to be even a small part of that.
The We Can Project has already achieved a great deal. What are your project goals for the next few years?
I have a couple of “I Can” and “We Can” goals. One is to complete the NYC Marathon every year. I used to run to raise money for The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which supports people with paralysis and spinal chord injuries. Now I run to raise money for Lyme Disease research. I also really want to start expanding my audience and touring schedule internationally. I’d love to be performing more in Europe and Asia.
What’s been your favourite memory from the project so far?
There was a school outside of Toronto a couple of years ago that created a “We Can” project called “We Can build a home”. One of the families in the neighborhood lost their house after it burned down. Every month, the school would do a different fundraiser, and on weekends, teachers and students would go and help Habitat for Humanity literally build the house. At the end of the year, they had a brand new house, and presented a huge check to Habitat for Humanity. I got to go the ceremony where the family received the keys. It was a really wonderful, emotional day.
You were diagnosed with Lyme’s Disease when you were 26. What impact did that have on your life and career?
It’s was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with. I’ve always been a pretty healthy person, so to all of a sudden start dealing with a chronic illness every day was not something I was ready for. I had to drop everything and focus totally on my health. No touring, no writing, no e-mails. Before I got sick, my career was going really well. So it was hard to let everything go. It really tested my relationships too. The conversation around chronic illness in this country is often not empowering to the people who are suffering. The way that I describe Lyme is that it takes everything about your life that makes you happy, and takes it away. I couldn’t read, or write, or listen to music. I didn’t spend time with friends or family, because I couldn’t focus. There were days I couldn’t walk in a straight line. My memory became really bad. I was angry and scared and felt sick constantly.
You wrote ‘This Is Why I Need You’ after your diagnosis. Can you tell us more about the song?
I actually wrote it after my symptoms started to go away. You can’t make it through 2.5 years of suffering without a huge support system. That song was for my girlfriend, my friends, my doctor’s office, nurses, anyone who helped me get through that period. It was the first song I had written in almost two years. It is my proudest achievement as a writer. The song has really resonated with people too. It’s been streamed more than 5 million times.
What advice would you give to anyone who is diagnosed with Lyme’s Disease?
You have to be an advocate for yourself, at a time in your life when you are at your weakest point. If a doctor is telling you nothing is wrong, and you know that it is, go to a different one. Find people who will listen to you without judgement. And be kind to yourself. It’s so easy to beat yourself up. If you are tired, rest. It is okay to cancel plans. People who love you will understand. Learn about what’s happening to your body. Find other people with Lyme in your area to connect with. Having someone to call at 3am when I felt like I was going crazy was a life saver.
Your fifth album, A Reply To Violence, is due for release next year. What can we expect from it and how does it differ from your previous four offerings?
I’ve been working on it for a couple years now. I just think with everything going on in the world, and also in people’s lives, that we need music that can help us get through difficult things. Whether that means heartache, or chronic illness, or having a president and government that shows no signs of empathy towards others.
We love that the album title is inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s famous quote, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Following recent tragic events, do you think the title/quote is even more poignant than ever?
I think the sad/scary thing is, no matter when you’d asked me this question in the last couple years, something terrifying would have happened recently. There is a lot of scary stuff going on in the world right now. What happened in Manchester is such a tragedy. Music is supposed to be a place to get away from our problems, not to cause new ones. It should be a safe space. It breaks my heart.
Outside of your music and philanthropic work, how do you like to spend your time?
I love cooking (aka eating), reading, and spending time with friends. I’m on the road a lot so it’s hard for me to see as many people as I’d like.
What else do you have planned for the rest of the year?
I’m playing as many shows as possible this summer, and finishing up the EP. In the fall, I’ll be doing some more touring, and starting to visit schools again with The We Can Project (shameless plug: if you work with elementary/middle school students, check out wecanwecanwecan.com for more information).