Ben Lee chats his new album and doles out some depth in Adelaide ahead of the Whole Life Expo

In Adelaide for the Whole Life Expo this weekend, we catch up with Ben Lee to chat about his new album Freedom, Love, And the Recuperation of the Human Mind, the idea of a ‘conscious’ music concert and more!

I feel like the new album title signals a move away from hidden meaning. Freedom, Love, And the Recuperation of the Human Mind makes your intentions fairly clear!

I think yes and no. When it comes to words, everyone has their own association with them. Even the word freedom is a word appropriated by every end of a political spectrum. And ‘recuperation of the human mind’ – for me that’s clear, but I think it also raises questions for people. They ask, “Did I lose something? Who took it? I can get it back? Where from? How?” I’m not saying I know the answers to those questions. But I think what you’re pointing out is that clearly, this a record about consciousness and about the human mind and living and existence. In that sense, I want that mission to be clear. I do want people to understand that this is not just music for entertainment.

Musically it is far more homogenous than Love is the Great Rebellion. I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just that this album is wholly folk music.

Yes, and I wanted a more even sound. It stemmed from the fact that these were the songs that I had been playing on my guitar for my daughter and my friends and I wanted it to sound all like one thing. Pop records don’t ever sound like one thing anymore, they’re collections of songs, often with different producers who have different styles. So for me, there was definitely a sense of embracing that this is what I do. I sit with a guitar and I write songs, let’s not run from that. In a way that’s a more grown up approach to making an album. A lot of songwriters get to that point sooner or later, I think.

A hear a lot of artists say that as they age, they no longer want all the dross, they just want what’s underneath.

Yeah and you also want to capture an experience occurring. It was interesting at the ARIAs the other night, and this is not speak any particular styles, but it’s actually quite easy now to create polished work, because everyone has software so you very rarely hear a rough sounding demo anymore. So in a way, we come back to same challenge that we began with of, “How do I capture the sound of something actually happening?” – that is easier with organic instrumentation.

Given the depth of the lyrical matter within this new album, was the sound you’ve used employed deliberately to compliment those lyrics, or did it just happen organically?

Well my lyrics are always a reflection of what I’m going through. I’ve never written about anything else. I think some artists do work more within a genre lyrically. But for me, when I was 16 I was trying to impress girls so that’s what I wrote about. The impetus for writing this record came largely because I was doing a project with Grant Lee Phillips. I was really enjoying is record Walking in the Green Corn. I started playing with open tuning and songs started coming out. I think with my guitar playing improving, this record definitely came from that place, from the ground up.

So this weekend you’re playing the Whole Life Expo in Adelaide as part of what is being called a ‘conscious’ music concert. What can we expect there?

I feel like there is a need for experiences within the entertainment field that are not about escapism. Experiences that are for people who want to connect and want to be aware of their process and how music can support them through that. It’s delicate, because it still has to be entertaining and people want to have a nice night and I like to make people laugh. There is something about playing for people that maybe go out a little less often and when they do you know it has a deep meaning for them. If they have kids, maybe they had to get a babysitter. They’re seeking a more profound experience.

When did you begin to immerse yourself in the lifestyle you now lead? Was it a product of your űber fame as a young man, or was it always there?

From when I was a little kid I was interested in the truth, in reality. I was at a Jewish school and I loved to debate with the Rabbis. As a teenager, I read books by the Dalai Lama. Even songwriting, even indie rock, which was very masked and ironic, I was interested in the way it pierced through the hypocrisy of mainstream entertainment. Like punk music and underground music had this element of it wasn’t going to stand for a façade. To me, even the word spirituality is a complicated word, because sometimes we just want to know the truth. Whether that’s realms of a thousand heavenly angels singing or just the crumbling of a lie.

If we really want the truth, we have to be open to whatever form it comes in. I remember being 15 and having seek truth written on my school folder. I’ve always believed there was truth. Even though it’s unfashionable because in the postmodern world everything is seen as relative, I’ve never believed that. I’ve always believed that there is truth and there are lies and that we need to learn how to discern one from the other.

How do you frame the part of your life that included “Cigarettes Will Kill You” within your current paradigm?

I felt very lucky to start young because I got to work through a lot of fantasies. If I’d started when I was 30, I’d have been caught up in them until I was 50. So it’s nice to have done that early. Look, in that time there was nice music made, some good tunes. And the money made sets you up for an artistic freedom. It’s not like I can never work another day in my life, but I was able to buy a house and do things that create a foundation for where I wanted to go as an adult. It’s funny though, because I have a reputation as a non-conformist. But I see a lot of the problems in my past stemmed from conformity. Conforming to idea about what an artist should be like, what a performance should be like etcetera. So it’s just been a process for me of slowly unravelling that stuff.

How has your relationship with Ione impacted that?

A lot of guys who can’t settle down will say things like, “Oh I’m so dedicated to my career”. But if you look at the top 100 most successful men in any industry in the world, they’re almost all married. So obviously you don’t have to choose one or the other. I really think a good marriage can support you. I was chatting to Andy from You Am I the other day about this. How many times you come away from the studio and go home to someone you can talk to and work through tension, which means you don’t get in a fight with band. People need support and you can deal with a lot more when you are in partnership with someone.

In terms of the future for Ben Lee, is it safe to say we may never see that same thing twice ever again from you?

The next two projects I’m working on are very different. I’m making an album with my friend Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother). We’re calling the act Radnor and Lee and the album is going to be called Love Songs For God and Women. It’s going to be a fun record. Then, I’m working on a musical with Tom Robbins the writer, called B is for Beer. So I don’t think either of them are going to be like anything else I’ve done!

Ben Lee appears at the Whole Life Expo at the Adelaide Showgrounds this Saturday the 26th of November. Tickets available through www.wholelifeexpo.com.au.

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