Friday, April 18, 2014
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Hard-won harmony: a conversation with Ben Lee

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Self-taught singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ben Lee. (Photo by C. Taylor Crothers, © 2005 New West Records)
While many of us hit our 30s still unsure who we'll be when we grow up, there are a few lucky individuals who are called early and go toward a seemingly prescribed destiny. Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee is, without a doubt, one of those lucky few.

St. Paul, Minn. — "I tend to think that music chose me," he states simply.

And it chose him good and early; a self-taught singer, songwriter, and guitarist, Lee released his first full-length studio album at the ripe old age of 16. "Grandpaw Would," an 18-track collection of acoustic experiments and burgeoning pop potential, this debut brought the Sydney native international attention. Confident, ambitious, and euphoric, he dove happily into life in the public eye.

"I never wanted privacy or anonymity," Lee says. "I tried keeping a journal when I was a kid, but I got bored. I remember thinking 'What's the point? No one's reading it.' Isn't that funny? I always wanted to share my truth with anyone who would listen."

I was making music about standing out and being different, Traditionally these aren't qualities that are encouraged in the national identity. So I decided to burn some bridges.
- Ben Lee

Surprisingly, that truth-sharing was warmly embraced abroad, but not so much at home. American pop audiences - wunderkind-wise from the days of Little Stevie Wonder and before - were more than prepared to embrace Lee's unassuming lyrics and memorable melodies. But it took his Australian fanbase a bit longer to tune in.

"I was making music about standing out and being different, " Lee explains. "Traditionally these aren't qualities that are encouraged in the national identity. So I decided to burn some bridges."

That bridge-burning spree included putting forth the claim that his 1998 release "Breathing Tornados" was the best Australian album ever made - thereby incurring the wrath of every AC/DC fan in the known universe. But despite this wall of ill-will from Aussie critics and listeners, Lee's proclivity for penning maddeningly hooky pop gems won him the attention and respect of such musical luminaries as the Beastie Boys' Mike D, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, and the Lemonheads' Evan Dando.

"Evan and I connected," Lee says of his ongoing friendship with Dando. "I think humor is one of the things we share the most. Also, as much as he would never probably admit it, I think he's quite a spiritual person. He is a seeker of the truth in his own way."

Since the very start, Lee has run with a powerful crowd. Many knew him first as Claire Danes' longtime honey - and although the two split up years ago, there's no doubt that association gave him a touch of glamour. But it's Lee's enviable mob of musical cohorts who've most influenced his sound and his career path. Lee has toured with Ben Folds and Ben Kweller as The Bens; penned songs with Jason Schwartzman; and recorded with everyone from Kylie Minogue to our own beloved Har Mar Superstar. And he's grateful.

"The opportunity to share music with such wonderful, interesting people is a huge blessing. [Collaboration is] a dance. You each bring your own take, and have to merge them together and let them procreate. But it can only happen if it's natural."

If you're sensing that Lee has abandoned his swaggering egomaniac persona, you're quite right. When his father passed away in 2001, Lee began to explore spirituality as a way to cope with his loss. By 2003, he'd connected with Indian spiritual teacher Narayani Amma and found the path to inner peace he'd been seeking.

As it turns out, Lee has made peace not only with himself, but also with his countrymen. His youth and bravado worked against him for years in Australia, but at long last the man and the land seem to have reconciled. His fifth studio album, "Awake is the New Sleep," recently won three ARIA awards (the Australian Grammy equivalent ) for single of the year, best indie release, and best male artist.

The new album has garnered praise in the U.S. as well, and Lee certainly seems to have hit his stride with this recording. Although "Breathing Tornados" was unquestionably an artistic breakthrough, it had the jagged edges of a passionate-but-unfinished work. Where Lee's other recent works are aggressive and ardent, "Awake is the New Sleep" is rounded and gentle without being passive. Each song is brimming with potent pop hooks, deceptively simple instrumentation, and earnest vocal delivery. Emotionally engaging, unassuming lyrics and deeply personal subject matter make this album irresistibly intimate. And Lee's organic approach to songwriting is doubtless responsible for the unaffected quality of its 14 tracks.

"I don't think I can boss songs around," he explains. "They call the shots. I try not to judge my songs. I don't think my opinion on them really matters. They are events in time that needed to be expressed, and they were."

This philosophy of songwriter-as-conduit is the foundation on which "Awake is the New Sleep" was built. And not only does it appear to breed gorgeously crafted pop songs, but this mindset has become a tranquil place for the songwriter himself to inhabit. And whether it's borne of Lee's spiritual awakening, his 10 challenging years in the business, or some combination thereof, it's what works. So let's hope he sticks to it.

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