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:: Spotlight :: The time is now for Ben Lee

By: Rodney Magazinovic

After maintaining a reasonably low profile in Australia in recent times, Ben Lee is back with a fresh outlook on life. He chatted to Rodney Magazinovic from his Los Angeles base about his new album, 'Awake is the New Sleep'.

Having spent more than half his relatively short lifespan in the music industry it would be fair to say that Ben Lee is a veteran of the scene. Ever since forming his first band Noise Addict at the age of fourteen in Sydney in 1993, he has held the distinction of being one of Australia’s youngest singer/songwriters to make an impact locally. Two years on saw the launch of his solo career with the album Grandpaw Would.

Turn the clock forward to March 2005 and the release of his fifth solo album Awake is the New Sleep is being hailed by pundits as his best effort yet. Lee is reflective about his musical journal so far. “In some ways I feel that now is an interesting time in that I’ve got a real shot of getting [this record] across to a mass audience and that’s a rare opportunity to have in pop music. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this shot for a long time,” says the 26 year old. “At the same time I wasn’t resenting what I was doing while I was working my way to this point, as I was still really involved in whatever music I was making. Even if I knew it was going to be somewhat more marginalised or peripheral, I was still committed to it.”

Being on the cusp of greatness is not a position Ben is unfamiliar with. By his own admission he has had the opportunities to crack the big time in the past but is adamant he wasn’t ready for it. “Previously I wasn’t in the right place, whether it be emotionally, spiritually or psychologically to take advantage of those opportunities. I probably sabotaged them because I wasn’t ready and knew that at some level if I went for it, it wouldn’t be good for me.”

One thing I didn’t expect from talking to Ben Lee was the relaxed nature he conveys. While he is the first to admit that he is a workaholic, he also takes the attitude that everything has a place and order and is dealt with accordingly. He laughs at my suggestion that this zen-like philosophy is part of a new mature Ben Lee.
“Well you know it had to happen didn’t it. You can’t go round burning bridges forever!” Yet there was a time not that long ago that the mention of the name Ben Lee conjured up all sorts of negative comments from the media and public alike. Being based in the USA meant he had relatively little media exposure in Australia and the rare times that he did, people misunderstood where he was coming from. He agrees with my suggestion that in the past his honesty and confidence were misconstrued for arrogance.

“A lot of it was me just being 18 or 19 and being anti-establishment. The whole thing was really like “put a glass house in front of me and I’ll throw a stone”. I don’t know if there are many 19-yearolds that wouldn’t do that. In some ways when you rebel, you create space to find out who you really are. In that time when I was giving everybody the middle finger, I was saying “stay away from me I need to work out what I’m doing here”. Then I was able to work it out. I don’t know what it was but it seems like it was a vital part of my development.”

Going into this record Ben had come to a crossroads both musically and personally. The breakdown of his four-year relationship with Australian actress Claire Danes and being in a position where he had no record deal led to him taking time to reflect on his situation and make some deliberate decisions with the way he would go about recording Awake is the New Sleep. “What was different about this record was going back to some things I’d left behind. One was going back to working with producer Brad Wood (who produced Ben’s debut solo album), the other was working with the acoustic guitar being the focus of the record. I think that what was new about it was that it was old. I kept saying before the record was made that to get bigger I need to get smaller. I knew that to make music that was more powerful I needed to be more specific and idiosyncratic.”

While Lee skilfully avoided my insinuations that this was in fact a “break-up record” with a sly chuckle, he did reveal that emotion and personal experience influence the way he creates songs - a process he feels he still has some way to go in perfecting. “My biggest talent is my honesty and communicating what is in my heart. I’m the only one who knows my potential. In terms of what’s going through my head and what I’m getting out there in the music I still have a long way to go. I think I’m going to get better and better at sending out messages that are clearer and clearer, broader and broader, yet talking to people at a one-on-one level more and more. To me that’s what is great about a pop medium. You get to talk to big audiences and you have to find a way to say what you want to say with integrity but so it is also very easy to digest. That’s a fun challenge for me.”

One gets the sense that the challenges music poses and being able to communicate this with an audience through song is what keeps Lee ticking. While he admits that when playing live he “feeds off audience response”, I was interested to know if he would be still make music if it was only for himself to hear. “I made a decision some time ago that I was going to find out and try and answer that very question. But in some ways I have to assume that it’s part of me, it’s in my blood, and that I would do it. But I’ve been blessed enough to have an audience that wants to hear my music so I’m going to try and do it for them to.”

Ben Lee’s album Awake is The New Sleep is out now on Ten Fingers / Inertia Recordings.

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