Karen High Finds a Source of Strength in The Project Matters
Benjamin High lived music. Even though he was born into a family tree from which each new branch sprouted another talented musician or singer, it became clear to everyone even in his early childhood that Benjamin’s passion exceeded any of his relations, each new discovery across the vast world of music sparking more wonder and inspiration.
By age five, Benjamin had begun his first band, The First Graders, whose song of the same name became a jam sung with gusto, rocked out on invisible instruments. It wouldn’t be long before the real ones reached his hands, after which he was trained on the guitar in elementary school, later mastering his vocals and teaching himself drums and keyboard. Benjamin’s followed the trail of every great aspiring musician, playing gigs at parties, bowling alleys, coffee shops, and the church choir. He brokered deals with other aspiring musicians to create mixtapes of their albums, sold through subscription. Each stepping stone led to his solo career which morphed into Green Arrows, a rising New Jersey band that built its audience through word of mouth, eventually cutting its first album Matters when Ben was seventeen.
While the story of Benjamin High should have led to greater success within the music industry, there was instead tragedy. In 2007, at age 19, Benjamin passed away from an undetected heart disease that had already crippled the musician of much of his energy due to heavy fatigue and flu-like symptoms.
In the wake of this tragedy, Benjamin’s mother, Karen High, a retired school teacher, founded the charity The Project Matters, an organization built around the goal of supporting passionate musicians ages 21 or younger. The Project Matters provides everything from guitar strings for their artists to trailers and professionally produced music videos to allow them to tour and find a larger audience (current artists include Escape Directors, Justin and Alina, and Thomas Wesley Stern). Through the organization, Karen not only pays tribute to her son but carries on his spirit through other young artists emerging throughout New Jersey.
In reading The Project Matters’ story, one of the first details that stands out is your family’s rich history with music. What kind of musical background were your sons (and more specifically Benjamin) exposed to growing up?
There was always music playing in the house. Of course, initially, it was the music of my choosing. Crossing genres, it could be anything from rock to country, bossa nova, jazz, or classical. While in the car, either the radio would be on or we’d be playing a CD. Each of my sons studied guitar. Benjamin also taught himself drums and keyboard.
At what point did you realize Benjamin’s love for music was so much more than a hobby for him? What was it like as a parent to see that gift of your child discovering his true calling in life? It was always magnificent to watch and to see his talent go public. I would always be conscious of the crowd and their level of attention. I found watching him an astounding experience. After all, that was my son up there.
I believe he was about 13. He had put together a three-piece and played out for the first time in a local coffee shop. They did covers and mixed in his originals. It’s rather astounding to see your child performing and realizing his natural ability is so strong. I couldn’t even say he was nervous, but he was looking forward to the opportunity to perform. To say it was his calling became more evident as time went by. He wrote more songs than I ever realized, initially did his own recording, playing all the instruments and singing. As a parent, if you’re paying attention, you learn what makes your child happy, and I am grateful for paying attention.
What was it like to watch Benjamin perform onstage?
We always looked forward to the shows and even served as roadies early on. Once onstage, it was always magnificent to watch and to see his talent go public. I would always be conscious of the crowd and their level of attention. I found watching him an astounding experience. After all, that was my son up there.
At what point did the release party for Green Arrows’ album morph into The Project Matters? What did you see in the struggles of young musicians that made you believe you could be of aid?
Well, these projects kind of overlapped. The primary goal after I lost my beautiful son was to complete his album Matters and to somehow get it released. I had no idea how to go about this or how to promote it, let alone have anyone buy it, since his band Green Arrows would no longer be touring. I’ve told the story often of how, while journaling, my pen took on a mind of its own and I found myself sketching 3 rings. At that point I knew I had the album cover. A few months later, during a conversation with a friend who had lost her daughter, I suddenly had the idea to start a non-profit. Again, no clue how to make this happen or really how that idea came to me. It was very sudden. Initially, my focus was just thinking a young band could use help paying for equipment rental to use for a show or buying guitar strings or drumsticks. Kids don’t often have the resources to do even these small things.
I started the foundation after speaking with the IRS and getting some direction. The application process was daunting, to say the least. The application itself was about 30 pages and the instruction booklet was even longer. None of this included the variety of forms necessary to file with the state. The entire process, including four revisions for the IRS, took 10 months. I received my status just before our first fundraiser in October 2010. Achieving this goal was harder than getting my master’s. Bureaucracy and grief do not mix well. During this time the album release/Maxwells show was set off to the side. Getting non-profit status had become a full time job.
Escape Directors was the first band that The Project Matters supported? What was it about their music that made you recognize their potential?
The band selection, at least the first time around, was simple. We had considered an application process, but I wanted to make the decision myself based on certain criteria. First, they had to be from New Jersey, 21 years of age or younger, they had to write their own music, and each band member had to show some kind of goal in terms of a music career. In other words, even if they did not stay together as a performing group, individually, they would have aspirations to stay involved in music in some way. Lastly, it had to be a rock ‘n roll band somewhat similar to Ben’s Green Arrows. We did not want a garage band that was only interested in summer gigs. The search began on the Internet, searching new, young bands, which took me to MySpace pages, tour dates, and shows, which led to other band names. I checked festivals and investigated hundreds of bands, checking their origins, ages, and of course listening to their music. I played around with this for about two months. Then serendipitously, I think through NJ.com, I came across Escape Directors.
I think in some cases a band receiving our support may feel a sense of responsibility to do well for the sake of the foundation. After all, TPM honors my son. In terms of appreciating support, I think anyone would gain confidence and inspiration knowing someone believes in and is willing to reward their efforts.They had quite an Internet presence, and I was able to get a sense of them as young men, and of course, their music captured me. Ladders was the first CD I EVER downloaded. One day while sitting in my living room,
listening to Escape Directors (Ladders) for the 20th time, Ben’s brother asked from the next room, “Who is that, Mom?” I answered “Escape Directors.” His answer: “They’re good.” This was validation, because up to this point I hadn’t asked for any input in this pursuit. Shortly after, Matt and I went to see their show at the Loop Lounge in Passaic. It was important to see a live performance before deciding. I was sold. I reached out to the band, asking them to check out our website and get back to me if they were interested and we would set up a meeting. They were and we did! We had a good meeting, talking music, goals… so many things. I was very impressed with their maturity, their determination, goals, and manners, and came away with a feeling that this was going to be a wonderful fit. All I had to do at this point was discuss the choice with the Board of Directors, get their votes, and formally offer our help to the band.
Colin Rieser from Escape Directors said that The Project Matters gave the band direction. Why is it important for young artists to know they have this support behind them?
I’m not really sure, but I think in some cases a band receiving our support may feel a sense of responsibility to do well for the sake of the foundation. After all, TPM honors my son. In terms of appreciating support, I think anyone would gain confidence and inspiration knowing someone believes in and is willing to reward their efforts.
The Project Matters is not limited to any one genre of music. Justin and Alina are a teenage brother-sister pop duo that you support, as well as the folk-inspired group Thomas Wesley Stern. Why do you feel it’s important to come to the aid of artists across such a wide spectrum?
I’ve always felt that to be a true music lover, you have to appreciate all genres and the talent within it. While I may not be a fan of rap, I must be able to recognize the ability it takes.
Your husband William and son Matthew are closely involved with The Project Matters, both serving as executive vice presidents. What has it meant for the family to forge together and promote the cause?
We are each other’s resources, inspiration, and shoulders.
What are your daily responsibilities in finding support for The Project Matters? In addition to donations (which can be pledged on the website), are there other ways for people to support the organization?
As executive director, I am responsible for the day-to-day operations of the organization. I wear a lot of hats. I am a teacher by profession, so I’ve had much to learn regarding the corporate world. I read blogs, write our monthly newsletter, build and maintain relationships with industry people, and think up ways to raise money. Each day is different and calls for a different action. For instance, today I’m answering interview questions for you!
In terms of other ways for people to support The Project Matters, I started TPM with $100 and small network of advisors who could offer advice and expertise to the artists we would be supporting. I thought at least, in the beginning, if there wasn’t any financial aid, I could offer some mentoring. This list included an artist consultant (my son Matt), an entertainment attorney, and a major-label touring musician, all working pro bono. This list has since grown to include members of each band we’ve supported, a videographer, and a therapist. So in addition to donations, we always welcome the expertise of individuals who can help our artists.