Monday, June 11, 2012

Cellist, Composer, and Bicyclist Ben Sollee On His Past, Present, and Future

When it comes to playing the cello and composing music, Ben Sollee is a force that cannot be stopped. In addition to his solo albums, Learning to Bend and Inclusions, he has performed and recorded with such artists as My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Daniel Martin Moore, Cheyenne Marie Mize, Casey Driessen, Abigail Washburn, and Béla Fleck.

Ben has also embraced the idea of appreciating the communities around him by embarking on his “Ditch The Van” tour, where he and his crew rode their bikes (and towed their equipment) from venue to venue.

Along with writing music for two ballets, releasing his latest album Live At The Grocery On Home, and working on a new studio album, somehow Ben found the time to speak with me (at length) about his musical journey.  I am thrilled to share our conversation with you.

When and how did you begin playing cello?

Ben Sollee: I picked up the cello in public schools. As is the case most times, the vernacular music of the instrument and its studies was classical music. Nothing wrong with that of course but it was challenging when I found myself wanting to jam with family and friends. You see, my grandfather was a fiddler and my folks also played music (mostly R&B) and the cello didn’t really have a set identity in those situations.

So, I’d pluck around like a bass, then play it like a fiddle, then solo like a guitar... mostly I tried to let enthusiasm for music guide me, not necessarily my “progress” as a student of the instrument. From this dual musical life I pieced together the music that I play now.

Can you discuss the artists, albums, and any of your own personal experiences early on that influenced and inspired you?

There were a few guide-post artists for me growing up. Remarkably, very few of them played cello. Mark Summer, of the Turtle Island String Quartet, really has a wonderful spirit when he plays and that attracted me. Instead I was drawn to the light of artists like Paul Simon and Ani Difranco. Later, I got it to greats like Nina Simone and Charles Mingus. But my story and music is inseparable from the landscape of Kentucky and its communities in which I was raised.

As I matured as a human and a musician I could more broadly the scope of my story. From that perspective it was visible to me that I, like a lot of artists from Kentucky, had a unique path. For me, that singular quality was a motivator. The question that resonated with me is, “Who else is going to do it?” That expanded to everything I sang about and did, from activism around mountain top removal strip mining to touring by bicycle. 

I discovered your work by first hearing the Dear Companion album you did with Daniel Marin Moore and Yim Yames (Jim James of My Morning Jacket). It was one of my favorites of 2010, and I was also lucky enough to catch you all play together at the Newport Folk Festival for it too. Can you discuss your connections with Daniel Martin Moore and Yim Yames?

Ben: Through the writings of Kentucky authors Silas House and Wendell Berry I gained a growing concern for the cultural and environmental challenges facing Appalachia. But, as a musician, I felt somewhat helpless to really affect change. That sentiment simmered in me for a while reducing itself to “Only A Song". I recorded a little demo of the song on my laptop in a hotel room in Chapel Hill, NC and sent it to my, at the time, new friend Jim James. The song and our conversations inspired the idea for the project that became Dear Companion.

However, it never felt right to take on the issue as one song-writer so put my ear to the ground for other artists who cared about the issue. I happened upon the MySpace page of Daniel Martin Moore and heard his song "Flyrock Blues". It inspired my to get in touch with him and we begin to slowly build an acquaintance. Eventually, after some writing and research and collaborations, we made the music of Dear Companion.

We aimed to celebrate Appalachia with the project, not point fingers. We hoped that the project would be a catalyst for conversation and not simply a fundraising project. Though the scale was smaller than we hoped both Daniel and I feel it helped in its own small way. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop a thing. Mountains are still being blown apart and communities in Appalachia are still in danger. 

That album inspired me to pick up your 2008 album, Learning to Bend. I am wondering if you can talk about how these two records connect to each other for you within your trajectory, as well as what each means to you individually?

Ben: The intent of Learning to Bend was to be an exploration. It took me all over the map as a musician and songwriter, and I began realize that my musical palette, like the rest of my generation that came of age with internet, was adventurous and broad. Learning to Bend is more nearly a mixtape of my influences than a narrative.

In that way, it acted as a mirror for me to look at where I’d come from as an American, a Kentuckian, and as a musician. But by the time I looked back I could see that an important part of my heritage in Appalachian music was being destroyed to dig up rocks with the process of mountain top removal strip mining.

I recorded Dear Companion with Jim and Daniel to publicly claim my stake in Appalachian music. I don’t entirely know the value of my heritage yet, but there’s still a lot of depth to explore musically if we can just find a way to preserve these mountains and the communities that folded themselves in to the valley’s years ago. 

I am also a big Abigail Washburn fan and your collaborative work with her. Can you describe your experiences working with her as a member of the Sparrow Quartet?

Ben: Ah, the Sparrow Quartet. That time was profoundly formative for me as a musician and a human. Abigail has the ability to wade curiously through an expansive mix of styles and cultures; being along for the journey has always been a treat. And, it was all the more rich for having Béla Fleck and Casey Driessen in the boat with us. The Sparrow Quartet is where I learned to truly collaborate: interpret other’s ideas, fight for my own musical thoughts, and the musically justify a conceptual vision. The experience changed me.

I emerged from that collective with an appetite for musical adventure and with a fresh batch of chops to explore. If anything, I felt more confident in my story and where I was coming from. Much like Abigail did after here travels through China, I was able to look squarely at my heritage as a Kentucky-born artist in a globalized age and say, that’s enough. I don’t need gimmicks or to be particularly virtuosic. Just be myself and search for the unique beauty in being me. 

I find your approach to cello, specifically your playing style captivating. Can you describe your own approach to the instrument and how this has developed, and continues to evolve for you?

Ben: I admire the cello for the musical tool that it is. It’s as versatile as a Swiss army knife but maintains a distinct voice. So, when I was bouncing back and forth between my institutional life of studying classical and the vernacular music of my family and friends, like R&B, folk, and rock, the cello was always there for me.

As I began to tour around with acts like Otis Taylor and Abigail Washburn I was quickly exposed to whole new worlds of style and different cultures. And every time I encountered something I would sit down with my friendly cello and mess around until I could fit it in to the tool bag. 

Can you describe your writing/ recording of Inclusions? What was most different for you making that record from your others?

Ben: Inclusions was all about story telling. It was meant to be, if anything, a broad portrait of where I was coming from as an artist; shoot, maybe us as a generation of artists. We are globally post-modern. Growing up with the internet means nearly every style of music is a reference point for us. So, with a song like “Close to You” I felt free to reference Mingus and D’Angelo.

Can you discuss your passion, decision, motivation, and personal philosophy to tour via bicycle? (I love this by the way!)

Ben: For me, bicycle touring has been a reasonable response to the super-human-paced touring that us musicians find ourselves compelled to do. When I was performing with the Sparrow Quartet we’d sometimes fly back and forth across the country three times a week. We always seemed to be on the way to somewhere rather than just being there.

So, when I saw a commercial on Current TV for an extended-frame, utility bike called an Xtracycle I said to myself, “I could fit my cello on that!” So, I called up the company and told them I wanted to ride their bike to Bonnaroo Music Fest about 330 miles from my home town of Lexington, KY.

Before that trip I had enjoyed the bicycle in my life but the extend of my long-range was maybe 8 miles. In some ways, the idea was an experiment: Can a complete amateur cyclist put a ton of gear on their bike and do a music tour? The answer was yes, but just barely.

After that ride I was hooked on the idea of touring by bicycle. It was the pace that satisfied me. It is the honest effort and sense of place that attracted me. 

What was most rewarding from your experiences biking?

Ben: Through traveling by bicycle I’ve been able to experience and be a part of communities that before, traveling by plane, train and car, I was just passing by. It has also given me a healthy respect for the energy it takes to move ourselves around this planet.

Unfortunately, there’s an steep inequality between motorists and human-powered travel. There’s not nearly enough safe places to ride on American roads which is a real shame. Pedestrians and cyclists are typically much more active as consumers of local goods and generally pay closer attention to their communities.

Inclusions was released last May, 2011 and you already have a number of new projects cooking for this year. Before we dig into what you have coming up, I'd like to ask you first how making Inclusions and the tour that followed, inspired/ influenced you for embarking on your new works?

Ben: With the music I make I’ve attracted quite a few in-depth conversations in the media. In those conversations and interviews I became more self-aware of my story and where I was coming from. It’s natural I guess.

While Learning to Bend was a fairly innocent exploration of my musical heritage, Inclusions is realized illustration of the people, places and things that have influenced me. There’s the old-time fiddling of my grandfather and the R&B influence from my guitar-wielding father. In the music there’s the careful execution from my classical studies and the wilderness of references from growing up with the internet. In many ways, I embody the more organic ideals of post- modernism; being connected to anyone I’m a little bit of everything.

As I grow and attempt to connect my music with the broadening audience I find myself telling more personal stories. Not because I feel compelled to expose my deepest, darkest emotions; I do so because I feel like my best shot at connecting to universal themes is to be honest about who I am as a human. It’s kind of like reverse compassion through art. 

Can you discuss your new live album that was recorded at The Grocery On Home in Atlanta?

Ben: The Grocery on Home is a curated performance venue in Grant Park of Atlanta, GA. My good friend Matt Arnett has built it from a gathering of close friends to a personal expression of concerts. It’s a pretty hip scene. There’s wonderful art from all over the south covering the walls. The people who come to the shows are typically looking for an alternative to the big shows coming through town. The room fits maybe 50 people on a strange collection of chairs and stools. And, when they see you at the Grocery and are affected, they become devote fans.

We tried to capture some of the vibe with the live record. More importantly, I wanted to capture the show I have now with my percussionist, Jordon Ellis. I feel like it’s a real era in my music making and recording the record in this scale venue, a size we frequent at the moment, felt right.

Now, more than ever, the record is a promotion for the live show. Being a singing-cellist, many folks don’t have a notion of the live show. My hope is that the live release give them a taste of just how dynamic the show is and how much fun we have.

I read that Louisville and Charlotte ballet's have both commissioned you to write a unique piece of music for their ballet, which both debuted in April. Can you describe your experiences working on these productions?

Ben: If I’d have been anything other than a musician I would have been a dancer. For a few reasons, that didn’t work out so I figure the next best thing is to be musician performing with dance. To that end I've spent a lot of time consuming dance and befriending dancers. The natural result, at least with me, is collaboration!

The piece for The Louisville Ballet was a collaboration with choreographer Mikelle Bruzina. The loosely biographical piece told the story of a Japanese-American family letting go of it’s matriarch and the birth of the next generation. The music I composed for a small ensemble of percussion, wind and strings combined the movement of american fiddle music and the melodic themes in Japanese folk music.

The ballet was a real success in the live setting and was a wonderful catalyst for me as a composer. It forced me to really dig beyond what I can do on the cello and as a bandleader, and learn to write my voice in to a score.

The piece for the North Carolina Dance Theater came about through a relationship I have with one of the company dancers, David Ingram. Evidently, David shared my music with the artistic director of the company, Sascha Janes, and then Sascha invited me to write and perform the score for a ballet telling of Dangerous Liasons.

I eagerly accepted not knowing how creative the process was going to get. By the time the piece premiered at the end of April I was performing solo cello with electronics on a 3’ x 5’ platform 20’ above the stage amongst 14 LCD screens interlacing images of the ballet as the dancers performed it live. It was an experience! I’m hoping we get to do it again and again in the future. Absolutely exhilirating! 

On a final note, I hear a rumor that you have new studio album coming out in the fall. Is this true? If so, what can you tell us about it?

Ben: Yes, my new record, Half-Made Man, will be out this fall! This is my first record that I recorded live in the studio and I’m so pleased with the outcome. The secret ingredient was a remarkable collection of musicians in the studio: Jordon Ellis, Jeremy Kittel of the Turtle Island String Quartet, Alana Rocklin (formerly of STS9), and Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket.

The 10 new songs are essentially a collection of self-portraits. At the age of 28, I, like all young men, have begun to transition from the idea of who will be to the person that I am (some call it arriving at “manhood” but that’s a pretty contrived idea).

There’s all these characters inside of me that I’m constantly trying to express: there’s the fixer, the outraged citizen, the ambitious father, the idealist musician, and so on... I tried to capture these pieces of me lyrically but most importantly with a honest, raw performance in the studio. The struggle to get these songs out vocally and as an ensemble is part of the portrait.

We recorded the record with Kevin Rattermann in an old house in Louisville, KY. Everything was cut live to 2” tape with a few exceptional over dubs. Each day, the musicians and me would gather in the “family room” and work out each song acoustically. Once we got on a path, we’d saddle up in front of the mics and go for it. The result, to me, is captivating and reflective. I’m not saying it’s a profound artistic work, but it’s certainly meaningful to me and the story I’m trying to tell.

This industry asks a lot of artists. It tests our ideals against business models. It offers the opportunity to make a living off our art but often compresses us so much that we can’t hear our own voice.

1 comment:

  1. Great interview exploring both the past and the impending future. We're huge fans of Ben Sollee. I'll be passing the word to my son for sure.

    D Brooks
    Louisville, KY