The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, who has just released Golden State, his second album with Josh Radnor – best known for playing Ted Moseby on US sitcom How I Met Your Mother – told InQueensland the song’s renewed popularity had served as a reminder “that the reception of your work and the context within which it’s understood is totally out of your control”.
“How on Earth would anyone foresee it? In a way it has spurred me on to just keep making work because you can’t anticipate 15 years later what a song is going to mean, it’s very unpredictable,” he said.
Another track from the same album (Awake Is The New Sleep), ‘Catch My Disease’, which hit No.2 on Triple J’s Hottest 100 when it was first released, has, for perhaps obvious reasons, experienced a similar rejuvenation this year, something that has been pointed out to Lee on numerous occasions over the past few months.
“Yeah, that joke was funny the first couple of times,” a smiling Lee said over Zoom from his Laurel Canyon home. “I get the humour in it, that is a very funny turn of events that an album came out with both of those songs on it, you know?”
When asked what it has been like living in the US during Donald Trump’s presidency – particularly since the emergence of coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests – Lee gave a considered response.
“What’s it like being in the States? It’s weird,” he said. “On the best days, it’s the vibrancy and intensity that comes with living in the midst of a revolution and on the worst days, it feels hopeless and corrupt.”
It’s no surprise to hear the man who wrote ‘We’re All in This Together’ has been disturbed by the defiant, ego-centric form of individualism that has emerged in the US in recent months when it comes to the simmering tension that has arisen over – of all things – the right to not wear face masks.
“In some ways, I think, the spirit of America, which is, it’s a country that values individualism and freedom and I think it’s turned on itself. Some of the types of attitudes that have been responsible for greatness, the shadow of them has become so big, it’s like people not being able to think as a team, and not being able to think as a community, or do things for other people. It’s disturbing – I don’t know what to tell you.”
My fear is that Australians who refuse to wear masks do not fully understand the health, economic, psychological and educational devastation this virus has caused in America.
— Ben Lee (@benleemusic) July 21, 2020
Many of Lee’s fans were surprised when he and Radnor emerged with their debut self-titled album in 2017 and equally delighted by the quality and depth of the indie-folk songs it contained.
“In some ways, that’s sort of like the best-case scenario,” Lee said. “I think when someone known for being in a sitcom or something says they’re gonna make an album, you don’t come in with like the warmest welcome. So, in a way being underestimated, I think for [Josh] – when people have gotten it – that it’s been kind of vindicating.”
Although Radnor and Lee arrived fully formed with that debut, Golden State is a more cohesive and harmonious effort than its predecessor and despite COVID-19 putting an abrupt halt to the touring plans, Lee said what started as a slightly esoteric side project now feels like a legitimate band in its own right.
“It feels like a bona fide band in every sense, including the sort of unpredictable nature of it. I think when for me as a solo artist I can envision making my next album like in the one after because it’s all sort of circumstances under my control.
“One of the lessons I learnt very early in collaboration when I did [2003 project] the Bens, with Ben Folds and Ben Kweller, was we had this window where people were really interested in it and we didn’t quite get into action fast enough so we sort of missed the window and then our lives all moved on and there were marriages and divorces and all this kind of stuff and we never really reconnected in that way.
“One of the things about collaborations is they have a life of their own and you can’t control them too much, it’s like it requires a certain type of correct timing for them to present themselves.”
Lee admitted it has been disappointing to have to cancel the planned Radnor and Lee tour to mark Golden State’s release, but was remaining philosophical.
“I feel more for Josh than for me because I’ve put out so many records and I’m used to … you know, some of them you get make a big splash with, some disappear into the ether, it’s just the nature of the ebb and flow of the music industry and audiences’ tastes. This is only his second record and we put a lot of time into making it, and we were excited to get out on the road with it.
“That being said, the magnitude of what’s happening on a human level [in the US] is so big that you can’t take a whole lot of time feeling sorry for yourself, it’s like ‘OK, this is the situation, let’s adjust’.”
At the age of 41, Lee – who founded his first band Noise Addict at 13 – has spent more than two-thirds of his life writing, recording and performing, and with last month marking the 25th anniversary of his debut solo album, Grandpaw Would, in addition to releasing the covers album Quarter Century Classix last year, Lee has had more reason than usual to be reflective.
Quarter Century Classix, a collection of ’90s indie-rock staples originally performed by the likes of Sonic Youth, Pavement, The Breeders, Smudge, Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh and Fugazi, had its genesis in January last year, when Lee found himself unexpectedly holed up in a Chicago four days during the Arctic Vortex, and reflected on his first trip to the city, during which recorded his debut album with producer Brad Wood.
“I think one of the cool things about Quarter Century Classix is that I sort of made my peace with a genre of music and a scene,” Lee said. “That is where I started but also what I had to push back against, because the nature of scenes is that they’re also limiting, and you come into a scene if you’re a musician and inevitably eventually you hit a wall and you go, ‘hang on, I need to be my own man, I need to do my own thing’, so there was a bit of pushing back against indie rock and against a certain mentality – in my 20s particularly.
“But now it feels like It’s almost like going through a phase of rebelling against your parents, then having your own kids and going ‘you know what? My parents did the best they could, they’re pretty cool’ and it’s sort of like that there’s some peace with where I started – and not even just peace but there’s gratitude.
“A lot of those bands and a lot of those artists taught me things, directly and indirectly, that would form a big part of the artist that I would become, so, yeah, that does tie back to my first solo record and I am feeling like I know myself as a result of this whole journey.”
When asked if the unexpected downtime from touring and forced lockdown as a result of COVID-19 has made him more, productive Lee said, “you ultimately only have the habits that you created before this”.
“You’re not going to suddenly find yourself in a challenging time like this and develop a whole new type of productivity or work ethic,” he said. “So, for me, I make stuff, I do it all the time, I go from one project to another, I collaborate, I use whatever limitations and whatever tools or assets are available to me and I make things, so naturally, that’s kind of continued but there has been some adjusting of expectations.
“I was getting ready to make a new album and I really my heart set on having a great live band and jamming together and having that be the crux of the album and now I’ve had to readjust that plan, especially because in the US, it feels like a long time before that kind of thing is going to be plausible.
“But I think sort of that type of pivoting and readjusting expectations … it’s like you either get hung up on it not looking like the way you pictured it or you deal with what is.
“I’m not arrogant enough to assume I have any timeline for what’s going on, especially when you live in a country that seems to be making so many counter-logical decisions for how to get us to a point where we can safely tour again and do things like that.”
Lee has explored many spiritual paths throughout his life but said these days, his spirituality “is most clearly tied to my marriage my music and my parenting”.
“It’s almost like I did enough sleeping around in order to get married and be monogamous – I experimented with all these paths enough to be comfortable having no path.”
He also said he has “never been a very sort of geographically inclined human being” but admitted he has serious concerns about “some of the authoritarian trappings of the current administration in the US”.
“If there is a scenario in which Trump gets voted out, but doesn’t leave, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay in this country,” he said. “Seeing the military in the streets already crossed a line for me and I think we all have a bottom line.”
Radnor and Lee’s Golden State and Ben Lee’s Quarter Century Classix are out nowJump to next article