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
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.