One of the best loved acts in Australian rock Ben Lee will be heading to Adelaide to play at the Adelaide Festival Summerhouse. This show will be a celebration of Ben’s twenty-five years as a solo artist and a statement of where he goes next. His work has always been eclectic – from The Bens (his one off collaboration with Bens Folds and Kweller) to a ‘children’s psychedelic musical about alcohol’ he wrote with legendary author Tom Robbins called B is for Beer. From his 2019 release, Quarter Century Classix featuring acoustic covers of favourite alt-rock songs from his teenaged-prodigy days, to the earliest home recordings he made for his first solo record Grandpaw Would (1995). Hi Fi Way had the pleasure speaking to Ben Lee about playing at the Adelaide Festival.
It’s finally good to be able to start talking about you playing in Adelaide at the Adelaide festival.
I know, fingers crossed.
Are you starting to feel slightly more optimistic about 2021 and being able to tour?
I would say that I feel hugely optimistic in the sense that, we just moved out from LA where there was absolutely nothing happening, meaning life-wise, because it’s not safe. There is definitely live music happening and going to happen in Australia this year, which is awesome. As far as the viability of moving between states and how that works, you know, we’ve all got to wait and see because the borders are all dependent on how the numbers are in each state, but like with anything, I think the fun of life is in, it’s like you move forward as if, and then you pivot and adjust if you need to.
Is the move for the family a long-term one?
It’s long term in the sense that we’re going to be here for 2021. I question any human being’s ability to predict a year ahead in the current global climate. So we don’t really know what’s going to happen after that. But yeah for sure, we’re here, we’ve taken out a lease on a house.
Was that a bit of a challenge, two weeks in quarantine with your kids?
No, we just felt relief. We felt safe. It was the first time we felt safe in a long time. It’s just like living in such a crazy place, there’s so many we know are under the red or having scares of getting COVID or this or that. So it’s like, we got locked in that room and it was the first time we felt like we’re not going to get COVID.
The one thing that I definitely like about yourself is that every single interview that I’ve you done, whether it’s radio or TV or online, you’re always upbeat and you’ve always got a smile, and I just think there is something about that that’s really reassuring if you know what I mean.
Yeah. I think it’s funny because different artists have different energies to offer, and offer the community and the world. I think there is something about my brand or positivity, which does not preclude being stressed or being scared, as I have all those feelings too. I managed to keep a fairly optimistic attitude through all of this, and I think people do need that I guess.
Do you also feel that sense of inner pride or happiness that whenever there’s a crisis or there’s something going on where people need to be united they’re drawn back to some of your older songs such as We’re All in this Together?
In a way it’s built a certain type of confidence for me, knowing that if you make music where it can sometimes seem like the wrong time for it. Not every moment is the moment for unblemished hope, joy and positivity. But at the moment when it’s needed, it’s really needed. That has been nice. That has been really nice to experience.
Doing the podcast must have been good to do something a little bit different as there are some really interesting topics there as well?
I really enjoyed doing that. Both for my own stimulation, just intellectually and creatively connecting me back, but also a chance for me to make sense of what’s been going on in my world and just me processing some of that has being a good exercise.
Are there any others creative pursuits that really sort of excite that you are looking at trying to pursue this year?
I have been working for the last decade actually, on a musical with the author Tom Robbins called B Is For Beer. We’re trying to turn that into an animated feature film this year, so that is in development. That is definitely one of the big ones.
Is there likely to be a new Ben Lee album this year?
Yeah, I’m almost finished it actually, I’ve got probably three more songs I need to tidy up. We’re starting to mix some of it. I’m really excited about it because it’s cheeky. I feel like there’s a needed energy at the moment. I think cheekiness can really get you through difficult times.
Is that with a band or is it solo or a bit of both?
It’s actually all stuff that I was sending around to different artists, just file exchanges. There are collaborations with John Bryan, Megan Washington, and Christian Lee Hudson, Shamir and all different people that I was sending files to.
Some of your older songs is what people really resonate with. Does it get frustrating when people haven’t discovered your newer songs?
Well, for sure. For sure the nature of songs and being a songwriter is most of them will basically get ignored. That is the way it works. But that being said, not all of them need to be. If they’re like kids, you hear people say that a lot, their songs are like kids. Some of are shy kids that want to have quiet playdates, I’ll be alone whereas others want to be the class clown and talk to everybody. I think respecting that songs have different needs and different jobs to do is pretty important.
I love that covers album Quarter Century Classix that you did. What do you look for in a cover and can you see maybe a volume two, three, four or five?
Anything is possible. It came out of being in a hotel room in Chicago and being snowed in. I was starting to think about the music I was into and just fell in love with when I first came to Chicago in, whatever it was, ’94 or ’93. In some ways, like all my projects, it just came out of like a genuine desire on my part to explore something for myself.
You must be looking forward to coming back to Adelaide. Sometimes it just feels far too long between visits.
I know, it’s been ages. There are so many places that I just have not gotten to. I like connecting with the audience and remembering the fun of that. This year has really highlighted for me how important playing live music is for my own spirit.
So for Adelaide fans will it be a greatest hits and memories show or are there possibly some surprises in there?
I’ll be totally honest with you, part of why I think my live shows work is I don’t really think about them until about twenty-four hours before. The lack of planning is part of what makes me feel present in the experience and responsive to what’s going on in my life, or what happened on the night, or what I’m thinking about that week. So I have no idea.
Interview By Rob Lyon
Catch Ben Lee at the Adelaide Festival Summerhouse on Wednesday 3 March. Tickets from the Adelaide Festival.