With one day off, he books show at Radio Radio
Thursday, July 27, 8 p.m.
Radio Radio, 1119 E. Prospect St.
Tickets: $12 at the door
Ben Lee is a busy young man. In his mid 20s, with a dozen years on the international music scene already behind him, he refuses to slow down, even for a second.
How driven is he? While touring with Dashboard Confessional, he broke away for two days to play a show in Osaka, Japan. (“You can’t turn down a festival with Santana and KISS,” he says.)
And when Dashboard Confessional was unexpectedly booked to play NBC’s Today Show this week, canceling a Midwest date in the process, Lee decided to use the day off to play a hastily-arranged show at Radio Radio on Thursday night.
A Sydney, Australia, native, Lee came to prominence at age 14 when his pop-punk band, Noise Addict, was championed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and the Beastie Boys’ Mike D.
His solo debut album was released on the Beasties’ label. Since then, he’s collaborated with such different acts as Evan Dando and Kylie Minogue, become a tabloid-press fixture due to a romance with actress Claire Danes and released a handful of albums.
But his most recent album, Awake Is The New Sleep , is his most successful outing to date. While his overwhelming ambition led him astray on previous projects, the new disc captures Lee at his most brutally honest and direct.
While en route to a show with Dashboard, Lee talked with NUVO about the reasons for his success.
“The fact that I just go out and play it, because I love it, is what connects,” he says. “We live in this incredibly complicated world right now, you know? I mean, I just got back from Japan, and now I’m on the tour bus and I’m talking on my cellphone and the guy sitting next to me is on wireless Internet.
“There’s so much insanity going on that you forget the real power of an individual speaking from the heart. There’s nothing more powerful than one person’s honesty. And all the major changes from the world come from that. So I always think of that great quote from Gandhi. ‘You think one person can’t make a difference in the world? Have you ever tried sleeping in a room with one mosquito?’”
As much as any young artist, Lee’s early success was both rewarding and a hindrance. He says that he feels he’s finally broken through the barrier his early acclaim set up.
“Up until this record, [my past] was a challenge,” he says. “It wasn’t a burden, but it was there all the time. Finally, now, I’ve made a record that’s by far outsold and critically and commercially excelled everything I’ve ever done. But until you do that, there is that specter hanging over you. You know, it’s terrible to be 19 and hear, ‘He peaked at 15.’ Nobody wants to hear that! Especially when you know in your heart it isn’t true. And you’ve got a lot to offer the world. But having that kind of praise and acclaim, and realizing how fickle tastes are in that sense, was an important part of my journey.
“It made me realize that being the hip songwriter on every tastemaker’s list — that wasn’t a goal I wanted to court long-term. Having it, and losing it, in some ways is the best way of seeing its value.”
Also standing in his way was the fact that many people knew him not through his music, but through his famous friends.
“It was the Beastie Boys or Evan Dando or Claire. There was always something. But, again, it was part of me learning about how the public imagination works. But I still hold the resolve that the truth coming from an individual, whether in song form or whatever, cuts through all that. Eventually.”
While Lee has achieved the breakthrough he’s sought for so long, he doesn’t feel he’s had to change the way he approaches writing, performing or recording.
“I don’t think the essence of my songwriting has matured all that much. My music is so simple,” he says. “It’s always been about me. I’ve never made a record separate from what I was going through at that time. I took that for granted. What else would you write songs about, except your life? I’ve always been interested in writing catchy pop songs, not necessarily from a left-field perspective, but just by being honest, you inevitably become a bit left-field. I do think my work has become more direct. I’ve probably cut out a lot of the ways I was trying to become something I’m not. When you’re a teen-ager, you’re trying on different masks and different faces. Producers would suggest things and I’d try them, because it’s good to experiment. I feel more and more that my music is less influenced by anyone else.”
With more than 40 songs written for his next album, and a slew of tour dates booked in America and internationally, Lee doesn’t have the time to chart out his long-term future. But when pressed, he reluctantly takes a guess.
“Whatever I become, I hope it reflects my passion. I think it’s fair to expect from myself that it will always be an honest progression. I’ll never make work because I think I should, I’ll make the work that my heart needs to make at that time. And if that means epic jazz trilogies, then I look forward to that. Bring on the augmented seventh chords!”
Opening for Lee at Radio Radio will be Ryan Ahlwardt and Steven Cooley.