MEL­LOW WITH AGE

As he has ma­tured, Ben Lee has found it eas­ier shake off the neg­a­tive per­cep­tions – not just from oth­ers, but from him­self as well. The Aus­tralian singer-song­writer heads on a na­tional tour this month

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - LIVE & LOUD - IAIN SHED­DEN

There was a de­gree of ca­ma­raderie about Ben Lee’s show­case per­for­mance at the Great Hall in Toronto, part of Canadian Mu­sic Week ear­lier this month, not least be­cause also on the bill was the Le­mon­heads’ Evan Dando.

It’s 21 years since Lee, then 15, paid trib­ute to Dando in song, when the young Syd­ney mu­si­cian and his band Noise Ad­dict re­leased I Wish I was Him. Since then the two mu­sos have col­lab­o­rated of­ten, on tour and in the record­ing stu­dio. What’s more, both of them have been able to sus­tain ca­reers as solo artists long af­ter their re­spec­tive bands broke up. In Toronto, for one night only, they were re­united.

“He’s a funny per­son to have spent such a for­ma­tive part of my life with,” Lee says the fol­low­ing day, hold­ing court in the front room of a Toronto B & B. The en­vi­ron­ment is hardly rock ’n’ roll cen­tral, but it’s one to which the singer, who re­leases his new al­bum Love is the Great Re­bel­lion to­mor­row, has be­come ac­cus­tomed.

Like many solo troubadours in the mod­ern rock world, Lee, who has been based in Lau­rel Canyon in Cal­i­for­nia for seven years, in­cludes fans’ homes – and even his own – on his tour­ing sched­ule.

“I’ve been do­ing on­line stream­ing con­certs,” he says. “I’ve been do­ing Gi­groom, where I do con­certs in peo­ple’s houses, and they are all pretty good at gen­er­at­ing money and they al­low me to connect with my au­di­ence, so what do I have to com­plain about?”

Lee, la­belled pre­co­cious and worse by crit­ics when he burst on to the Aus­tralian scene in the late 1990s claim­ing to be Aus­tralian pop’s saviour with al­bums Some­thing to Re­mem­ber Me By and Breath­ing Tor­na­dos, has a hum­ble streak about him. He has ma­tured in the wake of be­com­ing a par­ent five years ago. That ma­tu­rity is one of the things re­flected in the up­beat songs that make up Love is the Great Re­bel­lion.

The record­ing is in sharp con­trast to his pre­vi­ous al­bum, Ayahuasca: Wel­come to the Work, a rel­a­tively dense col­lec­tion in­spired by his ex­pe­ri­ence with the pow­er­ful Peru­vian psy­choac­tive drug ayahuasca.

“Be­ing a par­ent has just made me grow up and re­alise I was in the wrong ar­eas, wast­ing en­ergy, pick­ing the wrong bat­tles,” he says. “It’s made me pur­sue the things that are re­ally im­por­tant.”

Thus we have tracks on the al­bum such as Good­bye to Yes­ter­day, I’m Chang­ing My Mind, Big Love and The Uni­verse In­side.

“Th­ese lyrics are some of the strong­est I’ve writ­ten,” he says.

The al­bum was pro­duced by Brad Wood, who has been at the con­trols of Lee’s work reg­u­larly since his de­but al­bum Grand­paw Would in 1995.

Lee pre­views some of the ma­te­rial at the Toronto show and it is well re­ceived, but it’s the songs ev­ery­one knows best, such as Cig­a­rettes Will Kill You and Catch My Dis­ease, the singer’s two big­gest hits, that cause the au­di­ence to surge to­wards the stage. Lee says he is re­signed to play­ing the old songs peo­ple want to hear, although he’s not en­tirely happy.

“I don’t thrive play­ing my older ma­te­rial,” he says. “I’m in­ter­ested in what’s next.”

The peak of Lee’s suc­cess came 10 years ago with the re­lease of Awake is the New Sleep, a mul­ti­ple ARIA win­ner. Its cen­tre­piece Catch My Dis­ease won ARIA sin­gle of the year and APRA song of the year in 2005 and 2006 re­spec­tively. Since then his out­put has been con­sis­tent and crit­i­cally praised with­out be­ing so com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful.

He still has a loyal fan base, how­ever, here and over­seas, which is a lit­tle ironic given his long-held views about peo­ple who come to see him.

“I’ve al­ways thought of the au­di­ence as the en­emy,” he says. “That’s very im­ma­ture. I think I per­ceived the level of in­ti­macy and ex­pec­ta­tion as lim­it­ing, much like in the way peo­ple start dat­ing and get­ting in re­la­tion­ships and say: ‘Oh, you’re cramp­ing my style.’ Then you re­alise later that within monogamy there is the free­dom to be your­self, sup­ported by an­other per­son.”

Ben Lee says be­com­ing a par­ent five years ago has helped him fo­cus on the im­por­tant things in life.

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