October 17, 2012 - 3:11pm
BY ADAM DEPOLLO
It has been a big year for Ben Sollee. The progressive indie-folk cellist has released two albums: Live at the Grocery on Home and Half-Made Man, showcasing his impressive live performance talents, his eclectic songwriting and introspective lyricism.
The Lexington, Kentucky native has been steadily building up his clout in the music industry since he first appeared as a founding member of the Sparrow Quartet with Abigail Washburn, Béla Fleck, and Casey Driessen in 2005. He released his first studio album as a solo artist, "Learning to Bend", to critical acclaim in 2008.
With the addition of these latest releases, Sollee now has three solo albums, an album in support of environmental awareness produced with Daniel Martin Moore of My Morning Jacket, and a long record of impressive live shows under his belt.
Sollee’s music defies definition, drawing on a wide range of influences, tinged with R&B, Blues, Folk, Jazz and Soul. His sound is united, however, by the earthy resonance of his cello and his soulful, powerful, and yet delicate voice. His lyrics feature, on the one hand, a study of his own experiences and thoughts, and on the other intricate storytelling and an earnest desire for positive change in the world reflective of his political and environmental activism.
How did you develop your unique cello style? What are your influences, how did you get started?
Well, I mean it’s a pretty organic process. There was never a moment when I decided to do something wacky. I grew up in Kentucky. My grandpa was a fiddler, my dad played R&B music, and I picked up the cello in public schools. And the type of music the cello was taught through was classical music. So I spent a lot of time doing that, but I also spent a lot of time playing all the other types of social music. So I guess over time those lives came together to be the style it is now, whatever that is.
Did you ever, when you were younger, listen to cellists who influenced you at all, or was it other kinds of musicians?
You know, my main influences were other types of instrumentalists and songwriters. Oh gosh, there's just so many … I mean Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong … gosh, the Flecktones, stuff like that. It’s kind of a big range, and then a lot of folk music.
Could you tell me a little bit about how you got your start in the music industry and your earlier musical endeavors?
Gosh, just in my hometown Lexington, Kentucky I started playing with this radio show called the Woodsongs Good Time Radio Hour, and started playing in the house band. And I got to see hundreds of artists coming through and tell their story and play their music, and that kind of gave me a really good sense of the pace and pulse of the music industry, and gave me the opportunity to play lots of music with lots of different people. And then, you know, I started collaborating with different musicians and started going out on the road — Otis Taylor, Abigail Washburn, Sparrow Quartet, all those folks — and eventually I started working on doing some of my own solo stuff, and I guess that's how it grew out.
So I just got done listening to your new album, Half-Made Man, and I noticed one thing: It’s a lot more electric than your previous work, and it seemed to me like you were playing the cello a little bit less. So could you tell me a bit about what was pushing you in that direction?
Well, yeah, the cello is interpreted in a lot of different ways in my music, and on Learning to Bend as well as Inclusions there’s about as much cello as there is on this new record Half-Made Man — it’s just interpreted in a little different way. The first sound that you hear on Half-Made Man is cello, and many of the sounds that you hear throughout the record that are different are cello.
The biggest thing that kind of pushed the sound of this record is the band that we put together. It was a collection of musicians that I’ve known from the past that are good friends and that I trust very much. And we just all got together and decided that we were gonna arrange things as a team, as a family, and together just play it live to tape. And so that, in contrast to my previous records where there’s a lot of arranging and orchestrating and overdubbing, this was a process of exploring as a team. And that gives you the ability to go a little bit further in every direction and kind of do so with no safety line of having to be on some time of click or path or pattern. You just go there, and I think that gave us the opportunity to be a little bit more electrified. But, you know, from the standpoint of instrumentation and amounts of different instrumentation, there’s more electric guitar on this record, but other than that it’s about equal parts what it's been for previous records with the almost mixtape feel of changing from song to song.
So I know that you were the principal producer on this new album?
Yeah, I mean really the production principle was to invite really great players and let them play music.
And I know that you were working with some musicians from My Morning Jacket, and you’ve worked with them a lot in the past, so could you tell me a bit about your relationship with the musicians from My Morning Jacket?
Well I mean they’re good peeps, and you know Jim has become one of my mentors in a lot of ways. He’s just really honest and sincere about helping out not just me but a lot of musicians. They encouraged me to make this live record and then Hall from My Morning Jacket played all the guitar stuff on this record, so he has a very distinct sound and style that I admire so much, and so that’s how it relates to this record. But really Jim (James) and I kind of got to know each other through making the Dear Companion record that we made, and that record was us celebrating Appalachia and trying to raise awareness about mountaintop removal strip mining.
Can you tell me about, first, your environmental activism in Appalachia?
You know, I mean, preservation is a tricky thing because everything changes. But I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing land and communities to dig up a rock to burn for electricity. So in that light, I think that mountaintop removal is particularly devastating for the environment and the communities of those places, and these are communities that are a huge part of my heritage as a musician, in Kentucky, and as well as our heritage as Americans. I mean, a lot of the American pioneer identity comes from, you know the images in Appalachia, and so I think when we make choices as a culture to cut down a mountain, and make it really hard for people living on this mountain, it’s not fair and it’s not humane. And in the end it comes down to just as much a civil rights issue as it comes down to being an environmental issue. So it’s something I care very much about and I’m connected to in so many different ways: My grandfather was a coal miner, and my family stripped part of a mountain to be able to afford to be able to do things in their lives. So, I come to it in a very humanistic way, saying people need something in that region, and it’s a shame that they feel like their best option is to tear down a mountain.
Could you tell me a bit about some other activism you’re involved in?
Well, I mean one of the other main things that I work on consistently is supporting livability in the structure of the cities. I have a huge belief in community and growing community, and I believe one of the best ways to do that is to build proper infrastructure for people to be able to bicycle, to walk their way around, through public transit, to feel like it’s the backbone of the community. And so, when we do the bike tours, we try to support that by enjoying the infrastructure. In normal tours, we try to support that infrastructure by getting people to bike, and walk, and take public transit to the shows, and if they do we give them a $5 voucher to the merch table.
I wanted to ask you about your bicycle tours too. What was your inspiration? Have other musicians done that, or is that unique to your tours?
Yeah, it’s not unique to me. There’s been quite a few musicians using a bicycle to get around. For me though, the bicycle tours have never been about being green, or even sustainable — it’s more about slowing down, using the limitations of the bicycles to engage with the community. And that’s the contrast to a pace of life, as a musician, that involves a lot of planes, trains and automobiles where you spend a lot of time in between places. It was really fatiguing for me, so when I saw the opportunity to put all of my stuff on a utility bicycle, tried everything and I was like “wow, I want to be that.” And we started to do it, and we enjoy it a lot, and we try to do a third of our touring each year like that.
In your songwriting process in general, do you think you spend more time with the music or the lyrics? What’s the order? Do they come together at the same time?
It comes lots of ways, friend. It comes sometimes in a simple phrase, or sometimes it a melody idea I’ve been sitting on for years. It’s one of those things, again, when it feels really profound is when I can usually complete a musical idea, and that's when things come to life. So, if I can’t finish it, I usually don't have a full understanding of the story yet.
I know, as you said, you worked with the Sparrow Quartet, and it seems to me like you’ve done a wide range of musical things. Do you have a particular favorite? Do you like more that quartet setting, or do you like more the solo work you've been doing?
I mean, I like it all. Collaboration is really big part of my musical health, so I really like collaborating with folks, playing in small changer ensembles, playing in big rock bands, doing solo stuff every once in awhile. I think the variation is what I like, and I try to pursue that.
Do you have a favorite place to play, or a favorite venue when you’re touring?
I mean, not necessarily. Being at home, and being with people. I mean I love playing in Philadelphia. Ann Arbor is always a nice place to visit. New York's always fun but exhausting, Portland, Oregon is a lot of fun to play in. I mean, what I love is engaging with the communities, and in that way we always have our own unique experiences there. Some of my favorite places to play are like Savannah, Georgia, you know D.C.
Your music seems to have a really wide appeal amongst people. It’s not quite one genre. So what, if you had to guess, would be the part of your music that really attracts a wide-ranging audience?
That’s a good way to ask that question — I’m not entirely sure. I think the thing that’s going to attract people is not just the music, but the wider story. I don’t think it’s enough anymore for an artist to simply put out a record or to write a great song. I think people are consuming more of you than in the past: they want to know why you wrote the song, and how you got to the show, and what kind of show you’re putting on, and what organizations you’re working with, and so on and so forth. So I think that would be a big part of attracting a wide audience, and I then I think just putting on good live shows is really the biggest part of growth. I mean, there’s no substitute for that these days because it’s not about selling records. You can work as hard as you want to write a hit song, but people are just gonna trade it around. You have to be able to show up at a venue and just throw down, and have a great experiences with your band and with your audience, and have a meaningful exchange. That’s just all there is — it’s gotta be there.
Do you have any new projects in the works, is there anything you really want to get started doing?
Yeah, I wanna start working with some orchestras, the ones that are left. I wanna sort of dig in with them and try to get some of those new sounds we're hearing in more mainstream music underneath their fingers and bows, and into their mouthpieces, and really make some cool sounds. I also want to do more work with ballet and theater. This past year I had two ballet premieres in April that I wrote scores for, and I want to do work for film and TV. I like seeing music used in context with moving things. I like that a lot.