We caught up with beloved singer-songwriter Ben Lee to deep dive into his 30 year career and how he is entering his next creative chapter.
It has been 29 years since Ben Lee first arrived on the Australian music scene as part of Sydney-based band Noise Addict, and 24 years since his breakthrough third album Breathing Tornadoes, balancing both his hooky pop and acoustic folk sentiments with the unexpected experimentation his musical catalogue would go on to become filled with.
Now, 2022 marks the beginning of a new, more creatively open, chapter for the beloved singer-songwriter and producer. A renaissance as some are calling it – or ‘Benaissance’ as Ben Lee humorously refers to it, before quickly acknowledging he can’t actually take credit for the pun.
We’re chatting to Ben Lee a few weeks before he was set to begin his national tour for single ‘Parents Get High’ – the latest track taken from his forthcoming 20th album I’M FUN!.
Open and forthright, it seems like it is a really good time to step into the world of Ben Lee, album number 20 proving that he is still as much of a brilliant, charming, tongue-in-cheek, hook-filled songwriter as ever. Where at times he may have been met with animosity or indifference, now there is more a universal understanding.
If Ben Lee’s solo career was a person, they would be almost 30 years old, probably settled into their careers, maybe starting a family. Thus is the importance and longevity of Ben Lee’s artistry – his place in the Australian music landscape just as important today as it was almost three decades ago. In fact, maybe even more so.
The I’M FUN! era began in mid-2021 with single ‘Born For This Bullshit’. Alongside Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis – AKA Sad13 – the twangy, indie-pop cut did everything to remind us of what we love most about Lee as an artist and a person, the video only adding to it.
Across its ten tracks, the album dives through tales of growing up, celebrating being a weirdo and embracing positivity, all the while balancing Lee’s hard-earned wisdom with a youthful wink.
As well as being a testament to the full scope of Ben Lee’s songwriting – moving through different sounds and moods with ease, and at all times managing to sound quintessentially ‘Ben Lee’ – I’M FUN! also features an array of, sometimes surprising, musical guests. From Zooey Deschanel to Camp Cope’s Georgia Maq, Beastie Boys’ Money Mark to Megan Washington, Lee covers a lot of musical territory – from genres to music generations – here. Collaboration is something he has always done very very well.
Recently returning to Australia after spending almost two decades living in The States – following the release of his upcoming album (the first he has released while based in Australia for some time) we can only hope Ben Lee will become a regular on bandroom stages around the country.
While the chaos of his early touring career doesn’t follow Lee as closely anymore, there is still an unshakeable sense of spontaneity that he continues to hold dear – before it was greenness that may have fuelled it, now it is a purposeful choice to step outside of the safe zone that three decades of performing naturally affords you.
On record, it manifests itself in a creative freedom most artists, at any stage of their careers, can only dream of. From collaborative albums with the likes of How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor and Jessica Chapnik, to albums about the psychoactive South American drug, Ayahuasca. And now, across the ten tracks found on I’M FUN!.
If there is one thing we’ve come to learn about Ben Lee, it’s to be open to the unpredictable – which is no mean feat this far into his career. But that’s exactly what you’re going to get on his forthcoming album.
Ben Lee chats hard-earned wisdom, growing up, and album number 20 I’M FUN!
This era has been described as the ‘Renaissance of Ben Lee’ – how are you feeling about everything right now?
Ben Lee: “It’s funny, because when I used to hear artists who’d been around for a while talking about gratitude for still being able to do it, I would feel like, ‘yeah…’ but now, very few of my peers that I started with have the opportunities that I have. And it’s not about how big my records are or anything, but it’s that I can work with the people I want to work with.
“I have enough cultural capital to get my ideas heard. They don’t all work, they don’t all go, but they all get a shot. And I feel so grateful for that. Because there’s perseverance and everything, and obviously there’s whatever talent you have, but there’s also good luck and bad luck. And it’s really good luck to have a long career.”
This album, the lead song, the video – that all plays into this notion of getting your ideas over the line. What made you decide, ‘Born For This Bullshit’ – that’s the one we’re starting with?
“It was just a good mission statement. The thing about great singles to me is that whether or not they are hits, they feel good. Bad singles only work if they are hits and you later get cringed out about them.
“There was something remarkably straightforward about reminding people that not everyone can do what I do. It’s not the greatest gift in the world. I’m not solving climate change, but it does require a certain kind of punchiness in order to tolerate the ups and downs of the creative journey in the public eye.”
We’ve heard I’M FUN! is all about growing up and celebrating being a little bit weird, which is a very nice mission statement to have – but what does the album mean to you, especially at this point in your career?
“People used to chuckle when I would say I want to peak in my 70s, but I think it’s becoming less humorous now. I am doing the best work I’ve done in my 40s, 30 years into my career, and so I can do another 30. I want to keep improving.
“For me, this was a chance that – I think coming out of the way my old material like ‘Catch My Disease’ and ‘We’re All in This Together’ had reconnected with people during the pandemic – I think I knew that I’d have people’s ears for a minute and if nothing else, I understand what opportunity is. Since I was 14 years old, I’ve understood that opportunity is this [very brief, open-shut moment]. I was determined to offer something of value and something really high quality.
“It’s like in your life, right? You assume that your friends and family know who you are, yet you continue to change and evolve. So it’s really important at key moments to reintroduce yourself even just within your immediate circle – even within a marriage – because otherwise, you take each other for granted. And it’s really important in that moment when you look at your partner and you go, ‘Hi, I’m me and I’m here.’ And for me, this album is a bit like that.”
What is this period of time like for you? You have this record completed, you’ve worked so hard on it, but right now it is completely yours – the outside world hasn’t heard it yet.
“It’s the best period. My favourite period with an album is the day between finishing the mixes and anyone else hearing it. I always put it in my ears and walk around and it’s mine.
“The only reason artists make albums is to make their favourite album that doesn’t exist yet. So you make this music and it’s yours and no one’s opinions have tainted it. With any of my albums, my feeling about it becomes inextricably tied to how it’s received. So in some ways it’s sad when it belongs to the world. But in some ways, for instance, with Awake Is The New Sleep, that album has taken on meanings that I would have never had for it in that period that was just mine. So it’s bittersweet.
“The day after finishing, it’s the most relevant the album will ever be to me. Because at that moment I’ve completed what I wanted to say up until yesterday, which is a gorgeous experience.”
Collaboration isn’t new to your catalogue, but on I’M FUN!, in particular, you’re working with some very interesting artists from such an array of musical genres and generations. When you’re working on an album, how do you decide who you want to work with?
“In some ways, it’s very intuitive and non-intellectual because I am a fan and that’s the place I always work with collaborators on. I started being a musician so I could hang out with geniuses. I wanted to get to know people whose work I admired, and that for me is one of the great benefits.
“I was making a lot of friends in the last few years from a younger generation, whether that’s Shamir, Georgia Maq, or Christian Lee Hutson. And then there were people like Jon Brion, Money Mark, and Joey Waronker who I’ve known since the ’90s. So it all came together.
“When I used to break the rules of who I worked with – because I’ve always been into breaking those rules, whether it would be going on tour supporting Vanessa Carlton or having Mandy Moore singing on a record, or doing stuff with Good Charlotte – that used to be really blasphemous in the music industry. Nowadays, no one cares anymore. Now, I’m really in a space of trusting that I’m into what I’m into and it’s cool if I say it’s cool.”
How important is having creative freedom for you? Is it something that has always come naturally to your career or have you had to fight for it?
“In some ways I think I’ve just never been good at selling out. I think I probably would have liked to. Someone sent me a video of something from the Breathing Tornados era, a live concert, and I was like, ‘This was released through a major label?’ The performance was so bad. The arrangements on stage were so bad. The record was really good and the band had a good energy to it, but the delivery of the material was working against it. Now, when I look back, there were certain things I tried to achieve with that record career-wise that I didn’t achieve it’s clear why: because in the live show, I didn’t pull it off.
“People did try, but no one was able to guide me effectively to make smart choices that I probably should have made with that. So, I just think I’m uncoachable.
“Did you ever watch Friday Night Lights? I’m more like the Tim Riggins type of player that’s more like the stallion. Your best bet is to actually rev them up and let them fight their way out, rather than to try and get them to conform because it just doesn’t work. Honestly, I think it would have been better for me at times in my career to conform more, I just wasn’t able to do it. So, there’s that side of it, in the sense that I think artistic freedom for me has just been a non-negotiable.
“It’s incredibly complex, this whole thing of ‘How do you live as a responsible collaborator and cooperator with people that are trying to help you, but also as a leader, which each creative person is?’ We’re all these weird little punk rock CEOs. It’s really hard sometimes.”
30 years into it now – how do you feel heading into a new tour?
“Honestly, in some ways, I think the music is the easy bit at this point. Because 30 years of playing live, around 2003, I think I got pretty good. That was when I got to the point where I don’t have bad shows anymore. Before that, it’s like being at the half-court and trying to get a basket, you just cross your fingers. But then, once I figured it out – how to play live – it became more about how present I can be.
“As a performer, you flatter yourself in thinking that the audience is thinking about you. What they’re actually thinking about is themselves – their lives, values, day, stresses, romantic lives, their job. The show becomes this little container for them to have an experience of themselves. So, in some ways, I think the best forms of entertainment just make the audience feel like, ‘Hey, it’s safe, everything’s going to be okay. Why don’t you go on a little journey and figure out who you are tonight?'”
30 years and 20 albums down, and you’re sounding more refreshed and creative than ever. What is it that you love about making music, that keeps you coming back?
“I’ve tried to run a few times, music’s a jealous lover. I think part of maturing is accepting simple answers. The way you see young people in their teens and early 20s struggling with the meaning of life, when very clearly we don’t have access to those kinds of answers. As you get older, I find, the acceptance, picking your battles more, and realising that the simplicity of ageing is just saying, ‘It is just what it is.’
“It’s weird. Had I not been in a house with an acoustic guitar in it that belonged to my sister, would I have thought about it? Had I not come about at the time of lo-fi music where you could basically be objectively terrible technically, but full of spirit; had I been born 100 years earlier, would I have had the talent to even be involved in culture, musically?
“But it happened. It was the right time. It was the right set of tools. Don’t stress out thinking too much. It’s something I tell my kids when they have to do something big, ‘Don’t think too much, because you’re going to get yourself all worked up for something that there just may not be answers available to you about.’ This is all a very roundabout way of saying, ‘I have no idea but it keeps happening. So let’s roll with it.'”
Ben Lee will release his 20th studio album I’M FUN! on Friday 19 August.
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