Ben Lee Wakes Up & Moves OutOf An Indie Rock Ghetto
Wed 23rd Feb, 2005 in Features
Ben Lee is experiencing a rebirth. The 26-year-old singer/songwriter, who was once infamously called a “precocious little cunt” by Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning, has woken up and emerged from the numbness of his old life.
“These things don’t happen on the physical plane,” Lee explains on the phone from his friend’s home in Brooklyn. “You go through changes and it’s in your dreams and it happens when you’re on the train and you suddenly feel different. This is the psychic world. This is how I see these kinds of rebirths.”
Of course, Lee also acknowledges the physical changes that have happened in his life over the past few years that have lead to this change. While making his last album, 2003’s hey you. yes you, Lee wrote a song called No Time for Sunshine which didn’t make it onto the final cut. One of the lines of the song is “I don’t know if anyone’s got what I’m after/What I’m after, a disaster”. “I wrote that and then my life was starting to fall apart and change and all these traumatic things happened,” says Lee.
First, Lee was dropped by his old record label, The Beastie Boys owned Grand Royal, due to financial difficulties. Then, in late 2003 came the end of his long-term relationship with actor Clare Danes, who left Lee for fellow Hollywood actor Billy Crudup. Finally, Lee decided to live without a permanent home – “It’s sort of being like Batman – when I see the signal I go” - and has been travelling around the US, touring, establishing his own record label Ten Fingers, and crashing at different friends’ places ever since.
“But on a deeper level something changed in my heart,” Lee says. “I don’t have words for that. That’s why I just wrote an album about it. I just changed. I opened up. Something feels different.”
Awake Is The New Sleep is Lee’s first release on Ten Fingers and sees Lee reunited with producer Brad Wood, who worked with him eight years ago on his first solo effort Grandpaw Would. It’s an honest album that contains a sometimes vulnerable optimism – The Debt Collectors and at other times a confident enthusiasm for the future – the contagious joy of We’re All In This Together. The gorgeous Ache For You, a song Lee wrote about the trouble of falling for a friend, almost didn’t make the album because “it just ended up sounding like John Mayer... it was a bit below adventurous”. The song was saved from mediocrity by a swampy percussive groove.
Gamble Everything for Love, the first single off the album, has proved to be a huge summer hit. The song earned the former Bondi local the 15th spot on Triple J’s Hottest 100 for 2004 and has been getting airplay on commercial stations. “It’s based on a Rumi poem,” Lee says of the song that was written after his break up with Danes. ”[Rumi] says something like, ‘Gamble everything for love if you’re a true human being.’ That line really grabbed me.” Speaking about love, he says, “I always think ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ You get disappointed. I can handle that.”
The fear of disappointment is something that he doesn’t let impede his music career either. Although you wouldn’t think it would cross Lee’s mind much, as he has been solidly working in the industry since his band Noise Addict was discovered by Sonic Youth and The Beastie Boys in 1993.
“Every time you put out a record you go through it,” admits Lee. “You’ve got all these hopes for the ways it’s going to connect with people and sometimes I think, ‘why am I putting myself through it again?’. It’s because the benefits far outweigh the risks. I have to believe. I have to be optimistic. I have to have hope. Because a life without those things doesn’t seem worth getting into.”
Lee’s unhampered honesty shines through on all of the songs on Awake Is The New Sleep, to create his most personal and tender album yet. “I feel like I tried to make a generous record and I think people sense that. And really, unless you’re a cynical person, the more an artist puts themselves in their work, then the better it is,” Lee says. “My mission is bigger than music. My mission is to bring joy to people that have forgotten they’re alive. There’s so many people working jobs or in university – they don’t feel options. And music was always about allowing yourself to dream.”
And, surprisingly, it’s Jay Z’s music that allows Lee to dream. (Although Lee asserts that it shouldn’t be surprising that he has an eclectic taste in music.) “Jay Z is empowering. When I put it on it makes me think, ‘yeah I can do it’,” Lee says enthusiastically. Rapper Kanye West is another of Lee’s motivators. When talking about West’s appeal, Lee starts rapping one of the lines of a song at a languid pace: “First I took the streets, then I took the charts. First I got their respect, then I got their hearts.” Lee says, “I think it’s important to have that fighter’s spirit sometimes, like Bob Marley. Because it is a war. It’s not a war that has to be fought violently, but it is a battle. And it is a battle if we want the world to open up and feel compassionately. We have to be the soldiers on the frontline of that.”
The indie rocker’s love of pop doesn’t stop with his high regard for Jay Z and Kanye West. To be part of mainstream pop culture, with the adoration of fervent teenage fans, is something that Lee would readily trade in his alternative scene for. He loves the idea that in the pop world, a 16 or 17-year-old could listen to his songs on the radio and get excited because it exposes them to so many more possibilities for the pop genre. “You know, I want to operate in that world,” Lee says sincerely. “I’d much rather have that than be in some weird indie rock ghetto. I don’t just want to play for some snobby music people that don’t express their love of music. I want to play for regular people.”
It’s been nine years since Lee called his album, Breathing Tornados, the “greatest Australian album of all time”, which earned him the verbal bashing from Fanning and a barrage of criticism from the media. But he’s grown up a lot since then.
“I think it’s everyone’s duty to go through a phase of being a snotty little punk and I went through it and I’m totally unapologetic,” Lee says laughing. “I don’t want to be one of those guys who hits 35 and says I never had a childhood. I had one man, and I fucked up and embarrassed myself and I’m proud of all that stuff.”
Stay tuned to FasterLouder.com.au for upcoming tour dates.