INTERVIEW- Growth happens: Ben Lee on evolution
Australian songwriter Ben Lee made headlines by breaking up with Claire Danes and joining with kindred spirits Kweller and Folds at the height of the definite-article-band-name craze, creating a pop supergroup called (of course) The Bens.
That was 2003, when he really began showing up on American radars. Then again, these may be the same American radars that can't seem to find bin Laden or Iraq's WMDs.
Because by that point, Lee had been enjoying chart success at home for several years and was on his fourth album as a soloist, having signed his first record contract 10 years earlier– at the tender age of 14– as a member of the band Noise Addict.
Now 28, and despite having spent half his life in an industry that's arguably best known for its many vices and corruptions, he possesses the demeanor of a child who's not yet jaded enough to have discovered lying.
Let's see how much longer that lasts.
The Hook: Why do you think you were able to get rolling in the music industry so quickly?
Ben Lee: It was just a compulsion to make music– especially after I saw Nirvana play.
The Hook: What changed about that compulsion as you got older?
Ben Lee: Ultimately I've gotten better, more focused on what I was trying to achieve with my music. There was more ego in it before. Now I want to put something into the world that gives people a positive feeling, makes them feel happy. I'm more interested in the service of the music.
The Hook: Then why is there depressing material on your last album?
Ben Lee: The positivity is not at the exclusion of darkness. There is sadness, there is darkness, there are these sinister sexual elements that make up life. The positive comes into play in the way you approach those things. It's not that if you're a positive person you'll never get depressed, because that's bullsh*t. It's not to say, "Don't admit darkness," it's just that it's all beautiful. It's part of what it means to be a three dimensional person. A lot of this new age culture doesn't allow for that.
The Hook: How are you more focused?
Ben Lee: When I got started, being a professional musician wasn't anywhere in my mind. It was always a hobby, even though I got a lot of acclaim. It didn't feel like I had to be committed. And I didn't– I was in high school. These days, I work very hard. I'm very ambitious. But that doesn't really mean anything unless you talk about how you can add to the fabric of pop culture.
The Hook: So what does pop culture need?
Ben Lee: Well, I can only say what I can add to it. It's like a discussion. A discussion never needs anything; it's just fun to be a part of. What I'm doing is not that far from what someone like Christina Aguilera is doing, really. The form we're using is just pop songs. The twist, the thing I can do, is try to use the pop song to elevate the human spirit, to give people an experience beyond the three minutes. A lot of people will tell you that Bruce Springsteen or U2 changed their lives. There's no doubt in my mind that a pop song can do that.
The Hook: So who has done that for you?
Ben Lee: Someone I really think is remarkable is Jay-Z. We take for granted that in rap music there are people who come from different... degrees... of backgrounds. This is someone who was a crack dealer, and he's now running a major label; I think he's offering something quite profound in something really listenable.
And then there are guys like Neil Finn or Ben Folds– great pop songsmiths who, as they grow and change, have reflected that in their music. I think there are a lot of people who develop one style and then spend the rest of their life pretending to be 21.
The Hook: Are you still pretending to be 14?
Ben Lee: No. I think there are elements of what I was doing when I was 14 that I try to hold on to. There's a sense of rebellion, a sense of "Well, why shouldn't I?" And the simplicity. But the subject matter and the way I'm talking about it ultimately reflect where I am in my life.
The Hook: You've dabbled in collaborative projects over the years; why do you ultimately prefer being a solo artist?
Ben Lee: That's a good question, and it's not one I have a very good answer to. I like to write songs while I'm watching television. I don't need anyone else to do that. I like my own company. I enjoy the solitariness of it– mixed with jamming with it and recording– but I want to be my own man. That means something to me; it's kind of old fashioned. There's time for team sports, and there's time for solo sports.
The Hook: Where do you have the most room to grow?
Ben Lee: You know, I don't really look at it like that. I look at things that I've learned to do better. But the flaws, that's what makes you interesting.
The Hook: So the evolution is not conscious?
Ben Lee: It has elements of conscious, the parts where you get interested in something and you study.
The Hook: So what was the last thing you studied?
Ben Lee: Grey's Anatomy. I just watched all of season two.
The Hook: And you find that affects your music?
Ben Lee: Oh, hugely. Everything is everything. Anything that speaks to your heart will change you. Right now I'm courting a young lady, and I'm studying her. I'm learning about her, I'm learning about love. It's good for the spirit. And hopefully I'll get some good songs out of it.
The Hook: So that's how the magic happens, I guess.
Ben Lee: But more than that, it just happens. It's like puberty, you know? Growth happens whether you want it or not.
Ben Lee and Rooney with John Ralston perform at Starr Hill at 9pm on Friday, October 27. $18/$16.