Today’s Ben Lee is not the one you may have fallen in love with when he was a teenage wunderkind from Down Under who caught the ears of Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys.
That suits him fine, but it has been a struggle.
“It’s been quite a battle, in a sense, for me to assert my individuality,” says Lee, now 28. “My concept of music and myself has grown.”
One aspect that hasn’t changed is Lee’s passion for pop music. Not pop in any sort of derogatory sense, but the exuberant, heartfelt kind that moves people emotionally and physically. Lee has it all over his sixth album, Ripe, from the rousing “American Television” and “Sex Without Love” to the longing in “Is This How Love’s Supposed to Feel?”
“I always wanted to be a pop artist,” Lee admits. “I always said I wrote pop songs. They’re three minutes each, catchy and about girls and love. I never said I was writing songs about politics or social change. I’ve always believed in pop music, and have never been condescending towards its ability to move somebody. It’s actually quite a profound thing.”
The problem is overcoming a prevalent perception that pop music stands for the Britney Spearses of the world and not the Ben Lees.
“The idea that we could have songs like we did with John Lennon or Bob Dylan — music for the masses, which is what pop music should be — people are cynical about that,” Lee says. “I don’t know what’s helping people get out of bed in the mornings, but for me it’s a firm faith that I’m doing something that has some relevance to people’s lives.”
Lee has faced consequences for sticking to his guns. His fourth CD, Hey You. Yes You, barely got released. He had to overcome an apathetic music industry that thought he already had his shot at stardom and missed. The success of the 2005 song “Catch My Disease,” used in Dell TV ads and on Grey’s Anatomy, gave him firmer ground to stand on. That’s why he named his latest release Ripe. It’s how he’s currently feeling about himself and his muse.
“I’ve realized there’s been all these people throughout my career whom I’ve watched force things or be lazy, basically trying to manipulate the timing of situations,” he says. “I’ve never really taken that outlook. I’ve always moved with my intuition and my creativity. I’ve found my career’s been on a slower growth pattern than a lot of my peers, but it’s also really been idiosyncratic and great and personal. So the idea of Ripe to me is about being aware of timing and doing things at the right time.”