Ben Sollee is multi-tasking. In one hand, he holds a pen, with which he's writing thank-you letters to people who gave him a place to stay on past tours. In the other, a phone, used to answer questions about his burgeoning folk music career.
"It's good there's folks out there helping us musicians," the Lexington, Ky., native said. "We need to make sure we leave a nice, clean path for them to help others."
If that sounds fairly unconventional by today's standards, it's because Sollee, in many respects, is an unorthodox person. For one, he's typically labeled a folk artist, but his chief instrument is the cello. He was drawn to its low, scratchy sound when his third-grade teacher brought it into the classroom one day.
"I was interested in finding a certain sound; I've always gravitated toward that," Sollee said. "I've always been able to find the sounds I'm looking for on the cello. I chose the cello, but the nature of the cello kind of led me to it."
He's known for a percussive style of playing, which Sollee said he developed by working in different musical settings, often as an accompanist. But when he's playing in the background, he's not just providing ballast; he's studying the soloists, looking for new techniques.
"My goal is to grab musical styles from across the board," Sollee said.
That helps explain why his two full-length records — 2008's Learning to Bend and this year's Inclusions — move beyond the trappings of conventional folk to include elements of bluegrass, jazz, even R&B. As the title of his new album suggests, Sollee takes a (nearly) all-inclusive approach.
"With so many people living in major urban areas, they're exposed to a lot of styles," Sollee said. "We have a lot of inclusion inherent in us these days. If you really consider folk music for what it is — music of the people — then you get those inclusions. I feel that's what modern folk music is."
Inclusions offers such a melting pot of sounds that his manager and publicist don't want to classify it as folk, fearing such a label would prompt many listeners to overlook it. Instead, they've offered up the label "orchestral pop."
"I still don't know exactly what that means," Sollee said. "I think it's more a social cue than a real genre."
He's also known for taking political stances, particularly ones that relate to his native state. Last year Sollee teamed with fellow Kentucky musicians Daniel Martin Moore and My Morning Jacket's Jim James to work up Dear Companion, an album decrying the practice of mountaintop removal mining.
"We wanted to raise awareness, for people to know that basically part of our American heritage is disappearing for coal mining," Sollee said. He thinks organizations that are working on the issue have become more united in their opposition.
"Nobody's competing to be the hammer that drives the nail into the industry," he said. "I also believe there's more conversation going on. But mainly the thing that's going to push this over the edge is just cost — people realizing there's too many external costs in mountaintop removal coal mining and that as resources become more limited, it gets more expensive. We'll move on to something else; that's the hard truth of economics. But I sincerely hope we can make changes before we get to that point."
Sollee's always had a reputation for being outspoken. (He remembers one of his junior high teachers remarking, as much out of frustration as facetiousness, "You just have to march to the beat of your own drum, don't you?")But he's also one of those people who backs his ideology with action. Most notably, Sollee has embarked on three tours by bicycle. The first was relatively modest – from Kentucky to the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee. Subsequent trips, however, took him all over the west and northeast. His "Ditch the Van" tour alone covered about 1,800 miles. He's called each experience "sublime."
"Overall I found it to be a tremendously rich experience," said Sollee, who estimates that his longest bicycle ride previous to these tours had been a mere eight miles. "I grew a lot as a person. I had a lot of beautiful experiences riding around on my bike, as opposed to being in a van where you're just racing from one destination to the next."
That's the point, he adds, not a "green" publicity stunt.
"We were just trying to get outside the normal touring structure and be more community-oriented," said Sollee, who was accompanied on his bicycle expeditions by a backing musician and tour manager. "We really wanted to spend some time in each of these places."
As it turns out, hauling a cello on the back of a bicycle is one of the least tricky parts of non-motorized touring. Justifying how much time is spent on the road (Sollee estimates you can make three to four times the money traveling by van) and meeting the scale of the tour are the biggest obstacles.
"On a bicycle tour, you have to route based on your physical limitations," Sollee said. "As such, you end up riding in areas with a certain amount of density of town and playing shows that are 40-50 miles away from each other. Those shows have to be more intimate just by nature because you can't put on huge shows (so close together)."
He still hopes to dedicate a third of his annual touring to cycling trips.
"It's essential, and cities that invest in that sort of thing — where people feel safe to get on their bicycles or walk — get local scenes," Sollee said. "And where there's local scenes, more people tour too, which brings in more money. It's reciprocal from an economic and physical standpoint."
Such values make the label "idealist" an easy one to ascribe to Sollee. He makes no bones about his optimism.
"I feel like, regardless of the way it all works, most things are going to be just fine," he said. "In the grand scheme of things, just doing good work is terribly important."
Hear: Inclusions (via Bandcamp)