by Sally McGraw
Youth is not always wasted on the young. By the time Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee was 16 years old, he’d befriended Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, released his first full-length studio album on the Beastie Boys’ (now-defunct) Grand Royal label, and had one of his songs covered by the Lemonheads. While most of us were locked in our bedrooms listening to these tastemakers, Lee was touring with them.
16-year-old Lee came on the scene just before the late-nineties deluge of teen performers hit the American airwaves. But the earnest, hooky, and charmingly-awkward songs on his first release, Grandpaw Would, would set him miles apart from the Disney-manufactured teen-pop parade that followed. And over the course of the next decade, Lee refined his sound – moving from Jonathan Richman-derivative geek-rock toward a quietly polished, uninhibited, folk-pop that thrums with vibrant emotion.
Lee’s staggering talent and relentless ambition have kept his career afloat,
there’s no denying that kismet played a part in both his early and his
ongoing success. What would’ve happened if Fallaheen Records’ Steve
Pavlovic hadn’t stopped by a library book sale to hear Lee’s band,
Noise Addict, in 1993? What if Evan Dando had hated Lee’s tribute song,
“I Wish I Was Him,” – instead of loving it so much, he recorded
his own version? What if Lee hadn’t come to the mainstream public eye
as Claire Danes’ boyfriend?
“I don’t know what would’ve happened had circumstances been
different,” Lee states simply. “But I have always felt destiny calling
me onwards. So I have to assume that there are many roads that could get me
where I need to go.”
Having powerful and talented friends has helped keep Lee on the radar, but
his gang of famous cohorts has influenced his music as well as his buzz worthiness.
Lee has worked with everyone from Aussie pop diva Kylie Minogue to the Twin
Cities’ own Har Mar Superstar, and found every collaboration valuable.
“Forced collaboration is meaningless. It’s gotta have a flow,”
says Lee. “When I’m working with someone I admire, I often hit a
moment when I disagree with something they’re saying and I want to chicken
out. ‘That’s Ben Folds,’ I think, ‘he must be right!’
But then I remember my own musical power, and the fact that they are trusting
my intuition, too. It’s a great test of self-esteem.”
Being surrounded by legends and luminaries from his career’s start has
doubtlessly influenced Lee’s sound. But, ultimately, he is a self-taught
musician, and has an instinctive knack for pairing hypnotic hooks with deceptively
simple lyrics. He seems to have hit upon a foolproof method for creating engaging
has to be a message,” Lee explains. “Whether it’s a story,
a feeling, or a viewpoint – the song has to mean something. Then it has
to be covered in sugar! Think of it like medicine – you need sugar to
sweeten the medicine. The soul of the song is good for you; it awakens your
heart. The hooks and melodies make it go down smoothly.”
His most recent album, Awake is the New Sleep, goes down smoothest yet.
More melodically mature than 1998’s Breathing Tornados, less experimental
and frenetic than 2002’s Hey You. Yes You, Lee’s fifth record
is welcoming, gentle, and ultimately seamless. His brilliantly simple musical
ideas blossom through organic-feeling arrangements and Brad Wood’s deft
production. This group of songs is uncluttered without being austere; Awake
is the New Sleep relies heavily on the sonic staples of guitar, bass, and
drums with few unusual instrumental adornments. But the album never veers toward
the boring or predictable. Lee’s ardent vocal delivery gives each song
a seductive inner glow, and his mercilessly catchy melodies will wrap themselves
around your brain.
Lee’s lyrical style often employs unrhymed, storytelling verses, followed
by perfectly crafted pop refrains. It’s a technique that keeps listeners
in a state of relaxed alertness – the ideal mindset for absorbing quality
pop. And although many songs on Awake is the New Sleep appear to push
a love-thy-neighbor philosophy, others smack of heady heartbreak – lending
the album credibility and balance. Upbeat grooves, such as the party-ready “Catch
My Disease” and the buoyantly melodic “Into the Dark,” stand
out on first listen. But careful examination brings the slightly sinister ballad
“Apple Candy” to the fore, as well as the frustrated seduction anthem
“Get Gotten.” “Gamble Everything for Love” pairs a rhythmic
minor melody with a rolling, repetitive, staccato lyrical line – creating
a song that is at once familiar and utterly new. Although every song on the
album is carefully crafted and emotionally ripe, it is these slightly darker
tracks that showcase Lee’s full musical potential.
potential has long been acknowledged in the U.S. But although Breathing Tornados
went platinum in his native Australia, Lee has endured years of patchy praise
from Australian critics and music fans. With this new album, he’s finally
garnering some serious accolades: last week, Awake is the New Sleep won
three ARIA awards (the Australian Grammy equivalent) for single of the year,
best indie release, and best male artist. Although it must be gratifying and
relieving to be back in the fold, Lee has adopted a wizened attitude toward
the experience of being adored abroad while ostracized at home.
“Looking back it all seems like a difficult adolescence or something,”
he says. “I used to throw stones at windows if I didn’t like them.
Now I just build new windows that I like better. It’s a more joyful experience.”
Ben Lee performs Thrusday, Nov. 3 at the Fine Line with New Buffalo. 8pm.
18+. $12 advance / $14.50 day of show. 318 1st Ave N, Mpls. 612-338-8100.
For more information on Ben Lee, check out his official website at Ben-Lee.com.