Ben O’Neill was a musician at a young age, at the insistence of his mother to learn the piano, of course.
“Before I could reach the pedal on the piano I was banging on the keys,” O’Neill said.
A Grammy nominated guitarist and recent performer at the Kimmel Center for the venue’s monthly late night sit in sessions, O’Neill has lived in Philly since he attended the University of the Arts, where he studied jazz.
There he studied under his musical hero Pat Martini and eventually went on to work with R&B performers such as Musiq Soulchild, Erykah Badu and Common, as well as fronting his own indie rock band, the MLMs.
Some of O’Neill’s band mates have performed with Jay-Z, Pharell, Robert Randolph, Elton John, Cage The Elephant and more.
“It’s hard to describe the gratitude I feel towards the guys,” O’Neill said. “One night we’re playing the Kimmel Center or the Made In America Festival, the next we’re driving back down the turnpike from playing to fifteen people in NYC and all I have to offer them is a truck stop hamburger. I’m happy that my band has an uncommon balance of talent and love.”
In 2010, O’Neill was nominated for a Grammy for his work on the song “A Tale of Two” by Eric Roberson, a singer, songwriter and producer.
“I’m so grateful for the people who’ve sown into my music,” O’Neill said. “Some of the most talented people I know have performed my music; that’s a humbling feeling.”
His album, Ghosts and Green Shoots, was released in 2012.
“The album title Ghosts and Green Shoots comes from a line in the final song, ‘New Year’s Eve’, in which I attempt to place the listener at a solitary crossroads; one where both the past and the future are clearly visible. The idea is that there are occasions in our lives when we can still feel the ghosts of our pasts, failure, disappointment, unrealized expectation, but also see the opportunity of our futures, the new beginnings, the new growth, the green shoots.”
According to O’Neill, his solo work was driven by his inclination to be an artist “even if it doesn’t pay the bills.” He described his career as being divided into two sections: artistic and commercial.
“I had some great (and strange) experiences with all the different artists I worked for,” O’Neill said. “It’s a strangely powerful feeling when the audience and performers are on the same page. There was a moment on stage with Kanye West when it felt like the whole South Korea must have been moving to the beat I was helping to create. Overall, I’d have to say touring with Common was one of the best professional experiences I’ve had, mainly because he set the tone from the top down, and the tone was one of friendliness and inclusion.”
His most recent performance was at the Kimmel Center, during the monthly late night free sit in sessions.
“It was an honor. It was one of the best shows I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of places,” O’Neill said.
The show was a highlight for him, said O’Neill, and the audience was great. According to O’Neill, Philadelphia has some of the greatest places to play.
Sharnita Midgett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org