When Ben Lee first strolled onto stage at the tender age of 14 with his band, Noise Addict, it was his ode to The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, titled “I Wish I Was Him,” that delivered him into the greater Australian musical consciousness. Some 12 years down the road, the youthful veteran has not only established a solo career-eight albums of sublime indie pop and countless accolades later-but also a strong desire to keep it fresh and stay grounded. Returning to Santa Barbara and touting a new album that features collaborations with everyone from Mandy Moore to Benji Madden, these days Lee seems more than happy just to be himself. He recently spoke with Brett Leigh Dicks from his hotel room in Melbourne, Australia.
You’re currently on tour in Australia. What’s the best thing about being home? I love catching up with friends and family, of course. But one of the most fun things is that my career is so big here that it’s always exciting to play these big, packed shows where everyone is singing along.
Do you find it a little schizophrenic to go from playing stadiums and theaters in Australia to somewhere like Largo [a small restaurant-cum-showspace in L.A.] when you are here? I think if you are a real musician and a real songwriter, and you’re not caught up in the glory thing, then the exciting thing about a career is it’s made up of all of these different elements. I would hate it if my career became gentrified and offered just one type of experience. I like that I can go to different countries and play at different levels. And I like that in some places, I have to win over the crowd. The diversity in shows is the fun of it for me.
Having done the Dando Lee Petersson Schwartzman project and toured with The Bens, you aren’t shy when it comes to collaborating either. Do those undertakings also address that need for diversity? I have always wanted my career to be three-dimensional. A lot of people come along and craft an image and want to be in control of how the public perceives them. For me, I have always wanted to offer the broader sense of all my different sides and be 100 percent myself when I am being creative and when I am in the spotlight.
And, unlike many musicians, you aren’t afraid of being light-hearted : Being playful is a huge part of it. And I never want to take it too seriously, so a lot of those things are just ways for me to keep music fun and keep my career fun.
I understand you went into your new album, Ripe, with a wealth of material. How do you go about whittling it down to just a handful of songs? It has to essentially be a product of inspiration. Not everything is going to excite you equally, and a lot of it is also what lasts over three or four years. It’s what you are still vibing on. And then you play it to the producer and see what they’re vibing on. So it’s a natural thing. It’s like buying a house; you’ve got to look at the market, but when you find the one that’s right, it’s obvious that you’re meant to be living there.
You’ve alluded to Ripe being three or so albums in the making. How do you view the release of an album? For you, is this the start of something, or more a culmination? I see it a lot of different ways. Every album release is a huge milestone. On one hand, I have the chance to say to my fans and to the world, this is where I am at the moment-this is the most current explanation of my emotion state. And the other side of it is that I’m building toward having a body of work that I can be playing when I am 80. Each album is a baby step toward adding a few songs to the catalogue that’s going to hopefully stick with me throughout time. So it’s both monumental and just another step forward.
At what point did you realize that what you were doing was going to potentially have this sort of longevity? Surely you had different expectations early on. I think in the beginning, I was more delusional-as we tend to be at the start of something. And I think I was more concerned with greatness than goodness. It was like I was hearing the music in my head and not with my ears. But throughout the years, it has become more grounded and, I think, now I am relating more directly and realistically and honestly with what I’m doing. This is no longer a fantasy.
How far into the future do you tend to plan? On a totally conscious level, there is the desire just to get through tonight’s gig. That in itself often requires quite a lot in terms of resting and eating and showing up and getting in the right headspace. And I am definitely thinking about tours overall. I am also working on a bunch of new projects all at once; there are three albums I am working on at the moment. But there is also a subconscious process at work that is guiding me toward a manifestation of my career that I am not fully aware of.
For this album, you have forsaken the home recording approach for a Los Angeles recording studio. What inspired the change in your method? I just wanted a bigger sound. I was playing a lot of big stages these last few years. I did a national tour of Australia with Missy Higgins and we were playing these huge outdoor stadiums. And I toured the U.S. with Dashboard Confessional. You start wanting a sound that could fill a space like that.
I recall you previously talking passionately about how important it is to maintain a sense of wonder. Is that a difficult thing to hold onto in this day and age? It is kind of weird because I have never looked at myself as being all that different to anyone else in the world. I think when people meet me for the first time, they kind of imagine that I’m going to be like some bitter veteran. Just because I haven’t had Justin Timberlake’s career they expect that I will have some sort of chip on my shoulder. But I have always tried to stay open and have a spontaneous, creative life. I guess for some people the natural response to living and loving and heartbreak and losing is to become hardened. But I have never really seen that as an option.
What are you wondering about right now? It’s funny, you know. I look at all the struggles I’ve had on a personal level-family stuff and relationship stuff-and question why this is happening and what good is it all. But I was up onstage in Melbourne the other night, and I hadn’t played there for a couple years, and I felt a real richness and intensity and even a maturity to the set that wasn’t there last time I played. And that tangibly translated into the music. The audience was sensing it, too. I realized that was the product of all those experiences. I had a moment of great clarity-of how worth it it is to go through the experience of ripening as a human being.
Ben Lee kicks off his North American tour at SOhO on Thursday, November 1, with supporting acts Cary Brothers and Kate Voegele. Tickets range from $15 (advance) to $18 (at the door), and the show is all ages. Call 962-7776 or visit sohosb.com for details.