Jesse Ruben, Caitlin Crosby

Jesse Ruben

25-year-old, Philly-bred singer-songwriter Jesse Ruben freely confides that he's done a bit of "obsessing" over his second album, The Ones That Matter.

Not that such anxiety is evident on the highly accomplished disc, the follow-up to Ruben's self-released 2008 debut, Aiming for Honesty. Adding full-band accompaniment to his lush, soulful pop-rock, Ruben also stretches impressively as a writer on The Ones That Matter, achieving a near-novelistic sense of character and setting on finely hewn tracks like "A Lack of Armor," "Bleeker and Sixth," and "Unbreakable." His relentless attention to detail pays off handsomely.

He makes no apology for meticulously fine-tuning all aspects of his work and presentation. "Every time you create something you have an opportunity to say something new – or at least something honest," he says. "I take that opportunity seriously."

Ruben's expansive and deeply compassionate point of view has resonated strongly with an ever-growing audience, whom the performer has cultivated with virtually nonstop touring and persistent online networking; as a result, he's sold some 5,000 copies of Honesty on his own.

He often receives emotional messages from fans declaring that his songs have crystallized their feelings, commemorated milestones in their lives and even helped repair broken bonds. "One woman wrote to me and said she and her daughter didn't get along, but when she drives the girl to school every day they listen to my music – and it's the only time they don't fight," he marvels. "The songs I wrote in my basement helped her relationship with her daughter. How could I ask for more than that?" Indeed, his compositions have connected so powerfully with listeners that several cover versions have been posted on YouTube.

Such moments of connection helped inspire the title of The Ones That Matter. Ruben had compiled a list of some 80 candidates, but it was in the aftermath of the recording process that he realized what the disc should be called.

"I was on an epic road trip," he remembers of this epiphany. "I realized that as much as this album is about music, it's ultimately a representation of who I am – and all that amounts to is all the incredible people I've surrounded myself with, and the places I've spent time, and the stories and jokes that came out of those experiences with those people. That's when I understood that the only logical name for the album was The Ones That Matter."

Recorded during a record-breaking snowstorm in Charlottesville, Virginia – where producer Chris Keup (Jason Mraz, OAR, Parachute) and partner Stewart Myers (Mraz, Lifehouse, Rachel Yamagata, Mandy Moore) have their studio – the disc afforded Ruben a chance to fully appreciate the devotion of his pals. "I had some of my best friends in the world come down to help me finish the record," he relates. Other players on the disc include drummer Brian Jones (Mraz, Yamagata, Moore); and keyboardist Daniel Clark (Ryan Adams, kd lang, Moore). Meyers handled bass on several tracks.

The profound gratitude Ruben felt upon finishing the album snowballed in the coming days. "I wanted the title of this record to express my thanks to everyone who mattered – not just my friends who worked on the record, but their friends. The people who gave me a couch to crash on, made me dinner, drove me to the train station. Everyone who came to my shows, and walked up to tell me what the songs meant to them. I'm thanking them all with this record."

Ruben's story begins in the heart of a musical family. His father and grandfather were both professional musicians, performing at weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, corporate events and other gatherings in Philadelphia and its environs. Ruben recalls watching in awe as his dad's band rehearsed rock, pop and R&B hits. He began taking piano lessons, but lost interest during his adolescence. "I had told myself I couldn't play guitar because that was my dad's instrument," he notes. "Then I realized how stupid that was." His father bought him a cheap guitar with the promise of a better instrument if he made progress; the guitar felt right in Jesse's hands, and by age 16 he was writing songs.

The artist cites singer-songwriters like Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor as his greatest influences, but also admits a fondness for the standards penned by Cole Porter and the Gershwins. While he's loath to compare himself to his idols, he says he takes courage in their stories. "Paul Simon wasn't always hailed as a genius," he points out. "At first, he was a 20-year-old kid with a guitar who dreamed up these incredibly ambitious songs. Realizing that helped me give myself permission to write what I wanted to write."

He only applied to one college: Berklee College of Music in Boston. His first year there was a struggle, as he plunked out rudimentary solos in guitar classes filled with fusion-shredding virtuosos. But once he was able to focus on songwriting, Ruben blossomed; regular gigging soon followed. "By the time I graduated," he points out, "I was on the road pretty much every weekend."

As a live performer he racked up odd experiences like playing backyard barbecues, singing at a daytime Sweet 16 party, and even serenading a couple of fans on their anniversary (he showed up in their kitchen with his guitar, at the woman's bidding, to surprise her boyfriend). The gigs gradually got bigger, and soon Ruben was paying his rent with engagements across the East Coast – becoming adept at getting around by commuter rail, booking cheap flights, promoting his shows and maintaining contact with fans via Facebook, his blog and the comments on his YouTube video posts.

The online community also came in handy when he was recording his debut album. "I had no money, and five of my friends held a Facebook fundraiser for me," he reports. "They presented me with a giant check for $2,500 on my twenty-first birthday." And though elements of this initial effort seem distant to him now, Ruben credits Honesty with giving him a leg up in building his audience; in addition to the brisk sales of his debut, he continues to enjoy rapturous fan feedback about its songs.

Upon graduating from Berklee in 2008, Ruben was already living out of a suitcase in his battle-tested Toyota. "If I had my choice, I'd be touring all the time," he volunteers. "I love the lifestyle – sleeping late and getting up and driving and playing and meeting a bunch of people and doing the same thing the next day. I love not having to worry about cleaning my room or doing dishes; I'm cool with living out of a suitcase; I'm just working toward the day when I can trade the Greyhound for a bus of my own."

"I'm staying out of New York for a while," Ruben sings in "A Lack of Armor," although that self-imposed exile may soon be coming to an end, as the singer-songwriter plans a move to the Empire State from his temporary base in Nashville. But for the time being, Ruben's true home is the road – where he'll no doubt continue to touch lives, have offbeat adventures and add new names to the ever-growing list of The Ones That Matter.

Caitlin Crosby

"I have a couple of breakup songs," singer-songwriter/actress Caitlin Crosby says of the material on her evocative new EP. "But the ones I'm most passionate about are about issues that could have an impact on someone's life, maybe make them feel less alone. And this record doesn't sound like anything I've ever done."

With its sophisticated, smoky sonic palette -- crafted by producer/co-writer Boots Ottestad (Robbie Williams, Macy Gray) -- Crosby's new seven-song set is a marked departure from her 2009 release, "Flawz." "While recording, Boots and I talked a lot about vintage artists and the warmth of their sound, I was then inspired to go in the direction of an artist like Dusty Springfield...I really wanted a departure from my previous work."

That meant velvety, Phil Spector-ish orchestration, grooves in the Memphis/Muscle Shoals mold, spy-movie guitars, swoony background vocals and more. Ottestad's approach made sense to Crosby, who'd fallen in love with the retro-soul vibe of Adele and the folk revivalism of Mumford & Sons.

The EP's diverse, cinematic musical backdrop adds edge and intrigue to Crosby's lyrics about women who give themselves to undeserving men (the soulfully sad "Save That Pillow"), the emptiness of L.A.'s party-hardy club scene (the strutting "Is This the Good Life?"), redemption in the midst of despair (the smoldering, syncopated "Gasoline"; the mountain gospel of "Cracked Me Open") and yes, a former flame (the spare, spooky "Boy in the Benz"; the vintage sounding buildup of "Consolation Prize"). It also showcases colors and nuances in her singing that will surprise even her longtime fans.

While she's proved her ability to navigate exciting new musical territory, Crosby -- who plays guitar and piano on the album in addition to handling vocals -- has stayed true to the themes she's explored throughout her work as a solo artist: loving yourself despite your flaws; the struggle to protect your soul from a predatory, materialistic world; the power of love and spirit to lift us out of even the direst circumstances.

As ever, for Crosby, these aren't just ideas to weave into lovely songs -- she has committed herself to providing uplift in other ways, notably with two websites, (which uses jewelry made from vintage keys to help spread positive messages and has proved "key" to helping participants transition out of homelessness) and (which encourages visitors to celebrate their flaws rather than trying to live up to impossible, unfair standards).

It's reasonable to say Crosby has showbiz in her genes. Her dad is a manager of actors, and her mom was a model and actress before becoming an agent. "Acting was just a natural thing to do," she recalls. "I did musical theater, played Sandy in Grease." She was in a production at Beverly Hills High when she auditioned, at the director's urging, for all-girl pop group Foxy Nova. She got the gig, and the group signed with producer-writer-star-label owner Babyface. At 17, she got an eyeful of the star-making machinery.

Crosby co-wrote material for the group from the outset, ultimately participating in some 150 tunes during her tenure. But the songs that meant the most to her -- ones urging self-esteem and self-empowerment -- didn't fit the pop-vixen pigeonhole. "The label was always, like, no! Write songs that are racy and sexy and push the envelope," she remembers. "I couldn't do it. It went against everything I stood for." After a few years of the "drama and scandal" that surrounded that world, she'd had her fill; having deferred attending Loyola Marymount once for the band's sake, she finally said her goodbyes and headed off to school. "I swore off the music business after that," she explains. "I quit and everyone was mad. I was just done." The portrait of frenzied but unfulfilling nightlife in her new song "Is This the Good Life?" echoes that period.

Alongside her studies she focused more on acting over the next few years, and appeared on an array of TV series, including Malcolm in the Middle, That '70s Show and Seventh Heaven. Without really consciously shifting gears, she found she'd changed her career's direction.

But she continued to write songs, mostly as a creative outlet. And when she got up and sang "Finding Feelings" (which, she notes, was inspired by a break-up) at a friend's club show, she drew the attention of producer Eric Robinson, who worked with Marshall Altman (Marc Broussard, William Fitzsimmons). Robinson and Altman asked to work with her, and she found herself back in the studio. "I thought, 'Oh, Lord, I can't believe I'm getting back into this,'" Crosby notes.

This time, though, all the material reflected her beliefs, emotions and priorities. "Finding Feelings" struck a chord with online listeners (it even earned MySpace props from Kelly Clarkson, who also turned up for one of Crosby's gigs), and "Flawz" was released in 2009.

"A lot of those songs I'd written so long ago that by the time I recorded them they were old to me, she relates. "It was more pop-rock. But the songs were about trying to be confident with our flaws, and that's what my website is about. I wanted to put out songs that would help people."

As she began to craft the material that would eventually form the new EP, Crosby met with producer Adam Anders and signed with his Deep Well Records. Adam hooked her up with Ottestad and their co-writing proved fruitful thus resulting in an exciting new creative partnership resulting in an EP that will be in the Summer of 2013.

Though she hasn't ruled out further TV and film work, Crosby is focused on her music now -- and on spreading the positive messages in her songs. With those themes placed in fresh musical settings, they're likely to resonate with a whole new listenership.

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