So, get this: I wasn’t actually supposed to do this interview. Sarah, who still works at FL, had actually put down my name and number to interview Ben Lee instead of Albert Santos, a guy I met through Last.FM of all places I believe. Anyway, I was in the shower when I was told that the call had come through for the interview. I quickly dried off and got them to call me back in 10. Sure enough, I was interviewing Ben Lee on the fly. Not only did I do the interview, I did an entire feature to go along with it – all without being asked. Normally, I wouldn’t be such a pushover – but this was Ben Lee we were talking about!
For context, Ben has been a hero of mine for around fifteen years. His album Breathing Tornados was the second album I ever bought, and I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the man, his music and the lengths he’s taken it. Yes, he is indeed a “precocious little cunt,” as Bernard Fanning put it. But make no mistake about it – he is my precocious little cunt. This was completely unexpected, but totally awesome.
– DJY, July 2013
“I love pop music, this is how we do it…”
With a simple chord progression and an endearingly positive message one thing is exceptionally obvious – Ben Lee is back and as always, in good spirits. Getting on the line with the man feels much more like a conversation with an old friend rather than a scheduled interview. He is chatty, extroverted and at this point of 2009, already somewhat reflective.
“It’s been a very exciting month,” he says contently. “Since getting engaged and really getting focused on the new album, it’s been really creative time for me. I feel like I’m in kind of a new time of my life- a new era.”
Lee is referring to two of his latest ventures- his marriage to actress Ione Skye and working on his upcoming seventh album, The Rebirth of Venus. Both of these events, Ben reveals, have initiated a reflection through his music.
“I think, for lack of a better term, as you get older you get more… balls as an artist. Probably like everyone else, I’ve spent a little too much time at various parts of my career wondering what would make everyone else happy, instead of doing what I wanted to. So as I get older, I care less and less and also realise that all of the best moments in my career have come from when I did exactly what I wanted to; which is a bit of incentive.”
He goes on to name check a cut from the new record that reflects exactly this state of mind – What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? The song, according to Lee, is about “taking the path of least resistance- to risk criticism and ridicule and doing whatever makes you happy.”
Ben’s next exposure to Australian audiences will be as a part of the Big O tour, where he will be performing alongside Scottish chorus masters The Fratellis (of whom Lee is quite the fan) and UK dance-rockers The Music. With him will be his new band, including acoustic musician/brother of Rose, George Byrne, and Jessica Chapnik. Chapnik was Lee’s partner in crime on The Square soundtrack and is also well known for playing notorious Summer Bay killer Sam Tolhurst on Home and Away. “I always tease her about shooting up heroin in a dingy,” he laughs.
The ironic twist for Lee when it comes to The Big O – a tour that takes in all of Australia’s biggest Universities throughout Orientation week – is that he only went to university for two weeks. “Give or take” he cheekily clarifies. “I did Communications at UTS. I didn’t NOT enjoy it, I just…” his tone of voice shifts to the laughing guilt of how one would confess to enjoying a Miley Cyrus song – “…I had an idea for an album. And there was a deadline where you could get your money back.”
Despite his cameo appearance at university, Lee is very much looking forward to the shows. “In the States, I do a lot of colleges. I think it’s kind of a natural time when people really get into music. Basically, you’ve got the independence for the first time in your life to live whatever kind of life you want. but you haven’t yet been corrupted as a part of “grown up” civilisation. It’s a really exciting time to be a music fan.”
So what next? After Rebirth is released and the Big O tour is completed, Lee has two more records in the works. The first is a Noise Addict album with Lou Barlow from Dinosaur Jr which Lee describes as a “really weird, lo-fi, homemade pop record.” The second is a mixtape that has been in the works for several years and consists of a series of songs that Ben has written and gotten other people to perform. Lee truly is a working musician.
Seven albums and ten years later, Ben Lee is incredibly grateful to still be recognised in Australia’s music scene and hopes this recognition will continue with his new release and beyond. “Even people that don’t necessarily like my music know it’s been a part of the culture for a long time,” he explains. “It’s really bizarre having been around for so long and having people tell you that my music was the first album they ever bought, or that they listened to me in high school… it’s still a treat.”