The Ben Lee Renaissance Is Upon Us

After years in the US, Ben Lee has returned home with a new single - and he has a lot to talk about.

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Becoming friends with Ben Lee was not on my 2021 bingo card.

For a bit of fourth-wall-breaking: Breathing Tornados was the second album I ever bought. Watching the video for ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ completely captured my imagination — this scrawny, eccentric figure, completely covered in white paint eating spaghetti in a New York diner, was entirely intriguing to me. The album did the same — I’d lie in bed listening, wondering what it was like to be a “grown-up” like him and getting to do whatever you wanted. Lee, it should be stressed, was 20 at the time. Still, it’s all about perspective, right?

After years in LA, Lee returned to Australia and played Sydney’s Sunset Piazza concert series in February. Amongst new songs and the now-obligatory ‘Catch My Disease’ and ‘We’re All in This Together’ (more on them later), he played ‘I Am a Sunflower’ from the aforementioned Breathing Tornados. While most politely sat there waiting for songs they knew, I was on the verge of tears finally experiencing a song that had shaped my childhood being played in front of me.

When Lee shared one of my Instagram stories from the show, I messaged to say how much him playing ‘Sunflower’ meant to me. We had a few mutual friends in the mix, too — including singer-songwriter Max Quinn, who’d done the Ben Lee in Quarantine podcast — so we ended up in one another’s orbits more frequently than I was used to for a childhood hero. We then met up in Wollongong, where he got me on stage to sing harmonies on ‘Catch My Disease’ after he’d noticed me singing them at his variety night Weirder Together. It never quite felt real, but I have the photos and videos as proof should it ever come into question.

When our faces pop up side-by-side on Zoom, Lee smiles. “We meet again!” he says against a scenic painted backdrop of a mushroom garden. He’s on the campaign trail for ‘Born for This Bullshit’, the lead-off single from his forthcoming album I’m Fun!.

As Nina Las Vegas pointed out on Twitter recently, it’s been the biggest year of Lee’s career in some time — he’s done practically every podcast you can think of, been on The Masked Singer and even undertaken the time-honoured tradition of getting into a spat with Kyle Sandilands.

Somehow, though, we don’t even get to cover a lot of that. Instead, we talk about nostalgia’s blessings and curses, what ageism looks like in Australian music, and what Lee sees in the country’s current generation of artists.

Some Of Us Like Swimming Upstream

When I’m Fun! comes out in June 2022, it will be six years since Lee’s last original solo record, Freedom, Love and the Recuperation of the Human Mind. Not that the intervening years have been idle, though: Lee’s made two albums with actor Josh Radnor, a soundtrack for his stage musical B is for Beer, a children’s album (Ben Lee Sings Songs About Islam for the Whole Family) and a covers album (Quarter Century Classix).

It begs the question of the 20-plus albums Lee has recorded: What makes a Ben Lee album a Ben Lee album? “With a handful of exceptions, these are all songs that were written on acoustic guitar,” says Lee. “That’s what holds them together. In a more abstract sense, I also think each album is the way I look at the world.

“For songwriters, our albums are who we are. Much as we try and challenge ourselves by having new influences and opening up to new ideas, it’s almost like the shape of your eyes that you’re seeing the world through will only ever be what they are. Through all of my albums, I sense this enthusiastic and romantic feistiness. You hear these songs, and you hear someone saying ‘I’m ready — let me live.’”

“When you get to the next chapter, you have to be ruthlessly honest about yourself. At the same time, you also have to be a fan like you’ve never been before.”

Talk turns to the I’m Fun! specifically, which Lee’s already called his best. Unlike most PR spin, this feels genuine. Lee isn’t like Dave Grohl, chewing gum and saying “it’s the best record I’ve ever worked on,” knowing full well he made In Utero. It’s also unique to say 25 years into your career — after all, few veterans are ever making proper masterworks so relatively late in the game. With this, Lee is asked to show his working and talk a little about the philosophy behind this latest endeavour.

“This album’s got a good blend of me assessing myself and my past,” he says. “There’s this song called ‘Asshole,’ that Georgia Maq sings on, and one called ‘Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll.’ They’re songs about making sense of growing up, getting older, loving music and loving culture. It’s this mix of writing with the accumulated wounds and wisdom of many years, but then also actually making the record with this youthful exuberance.”

Lee points to Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams as key inspirations — specifically Swordfishtrombones and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, respectively.

“They’re albums where the artist goes into another chapter by being both wiser and more innocent than they’ve ever been,” Lee explains. “That was the model in my mind for how you have a long career. When you get to the next chapter, you have to be ruthlessly honest about yourself. At the same time, you also have to be a fan like you’ve never been before. That seems like the magic ingredient.”

Without turning into Frost/Nixon, it’s always worth a degree of pushback when an interviewee goes for a big statement or issues some kind of hot take. So, what makes I’m Fun! a better album than — just picking at random — Breathing Tornados?

The answer comes not in the form of the songwriting itself, but how the two albums quite literally sound. “My feeling about that period of time sonically is that you can hear the tinkering of humans in a way that hasn’t aged 100 percent well,” Lee says of the late ’90s.

“I think we’ve finessed recording digitally over the years. I’m guessing the new Amyl & The Sniffers was recorded totally digitally, yet you don’t think of it as that because we’ve learned how to use the actual platform way better. A lot of what’s charming about Breathing Tornados is that it’s the sound of early ProTools.

“Some of its sheen I really love, especially that of [producer] Ed Buller. At the same time, in the scheme of recorded music on the whole, I think my sense of aesthetics has become more refined. I like things falling apart a little more, y’know? With recording, we now know how to do that in the digital realm, as opposed to constantly striving to make everything perfect.”

There’s Nothing Worse Than Boring

Lee’s return to Australia came at a tumultuous time for his industry — the ongoing inaction of the government in assisting live venues and the departure of Denis Handlin among the biggest stories of the year. Of particular note, however, was the recent backlash against triple j. Coming under fire for a tweet about listeners “ageing out” of the station, many artists — particularly women — voiced frustration at feeling as though they had a use-by date.

At 43, Lee is acutely aware of this. Simultaneously, however, he understands the gender disparity that is simultaneously at work. “I show up with a receding hairline, looking a little worse for wear, and people are like, ‘that guy’s a legend’,” he says. “A woman shows up with literally just the signs of time she’s wearing, and people are so critical. I really think that that needs to improve.”

“I show up with a receding hairline, looking little worse for wear, and people are like, ‘that guy’s a legend’.”

One thing Lee does see in the current generation of Australian music is a sense of greater inclusivity within the ranks of the community. To him, the best way forward is to ensure the different age groups within are not dismissed outright — be they perceived as “too young” or “too old,” they deserve equal platforms.

“I felt the same when I was 14, starting my band Noise Addict and wanting to put on all-ages shows,” Lee reasons. “I was like, ‘we’re the people buying albums, we should be playing shows too.’ I feel the same in my 40s. The thing that unites it is I never asked permission — either back then or now. I just went, ‘let’s see what happens if I deliver this with the attitude that it has value, in spite of my age.’ You can have a hit song when you’re in your 20s, but that doesn’t mean people take you seriously in terms of what you say about politics or society. The place I’m at now, my voice has relevancy. To me, that’s the dream. It’s what every artist wants, and I feel very grateful. That’s why I’m working really hard. I know that the doors of opportunity open and close a lot. When they open, you work.”

Lee has bonded with a lot of Australian artists while back home — befriending Georgia Maq and Amyl & The Sniffers, championing Amy Shark and Caitlin Harnett and reacquainting himself with old friends like Sally Seltmann and Smudge. Talk turns to comparing and contrasting what he sees in today’s acts with what he saw in his peers back in the ’90s and early 2000s — effectively the last time Lee was a real mainstay in Australia before moving Stateside.

Lee leads with what he believes to be the fundamental difference: Australian music now fully operates on a global platform. “When I got a deal, even on an indie label in America, everyone was like, ‘How is that even possible?,’” he says. “Unless you were on a major, you just couldn’t see how it would ever happen. This was all pre-internet, too. I really love that ambition levels have scaled up now. That’s really cool.”

In terms of similarities, Lee is quick to note that the Australian artists he’s befriended across generations all carry the same sense of humour. “That self-deprecating, salt-of-the-earth ribbing, keeping each other humble,” he says. “It’s a really beautiful quality, I think. Australian musicians are pretty chill.

“In LA, everyone wants to be a star and they’re waiting for their big break. In Australia, you have to be really successful to be able to quit your day job. Most people assume that they’re just having a crack at it and seeing how it goes. There’s a humility with that, and that’s a good thing to carry with you.”

Still Here, Singing My Song

As if to prove his point about Australia’s global platform, Lee launched ‘Born for This Bullshit’ a few weeks ago to wide-spread coverage — and that’s not a pun on its nudity-friendly video. The clip, directed by Byron Spencer, sees Lee’s head super-imposed onto a naked, muscly dancer, nailing choreography while floating in space. It’s easily among the most striking visuals ever set to one of Lee’s songs — at the very least, since he ate spaghetti in a New York diner while covered in white paint.

“In Australia, you have to be really successful to be able to quit your day job…There’s a humility with that, and that’s a good thing to carry with you.”

“I wasn’t in Australia when ‘Cigarettes’ broke, and I wasn’t when ‘Catch My Disease broke either,” says Lee. “There’s a certain energy to being here right as I’m putting a song out. I’m not saying it’ll be as big as either of those songs, but there’s something about experiencing it in real-time. I just went to the beach with my family, and this woman came up and was like, ‘I love the new video, I just shared it on Facebook!’ That’s cool, man! Just being around to have those types of interactions feels important.”

Lee’s been playing ‘Born for This Bullshit’ live, as well as new cuts like ‘Parents Get High’ and ‘Sex and Drugs and Rock & Roll’. Much as he’s aware they’re not the songs people are coming to hear, he’s been excited by the response they’ve gotten.

“This album feels important to me,” he says. “These songs feel like the ones that are going to hopefully tie together my outlook, so that people who have been a bit bewildered by me or confounded by me might sort of get it a little bit more. There’s a chance they’ll hear this record and be like, ‘oh okay, I get what he’s been on about.’”

In the meantime, Lee’s happy to oblige people at his shows. He’ll play ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’, and remind everyone it came second in the Hottest 100 to ‘Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)’. He’ll play deep cuts like ‘Away With the Pixies’, or revisit some less-remembered moments like ‘Is This How Love’s Supposed To Feel?’. After years of holding off playing large portions of his discography, Lee now welcomes all comers.

“The attitude I take is these are all tools that I have at my disposal,” he reasons. “With song like ‘I Am a Sunflower’, with the exception of you, there isn’t really going to be an outcry if I don’t play it. So, the reason to play it becomes that I’m actually feeling it. Beyond the hits — which you have to play if you’re going to charge a commercial ticket price — I tend to revisit songs that feel like they have something new to tell me. If I can feel the melody or groove in a way that feels relevant, I want to relearn them and connect with them again.”

We close our conversation discussing two of said hits: ‘Catch My Disease’ and ‘We’re All in This Together’. 15 years on from their original release, both were unofficial anthems of the first wave of the pandemic. Lee parodied this on his TikTok a few months back, where he gave increasingly despondent answers to a looped radio question about the songs. Hypothetically — on the proviso that he still has to play both songs — which would he rather never talk about again?

“It’s funny, because they’ve sort of become one conversation,” says Lee. “They present equal sorts of annoyance, but that’s also because they were blessings. ‘We’re All In This Together’ is so earnest, and ‘Catch My Disease’ is so tricky — that’s the major difference between them. In some ways, between these two songs is the central tension that I’ve held throughout my career — this lingering question of like, ‘…is he fucking with us?’”

So, which wins out? “I actually think ‘Catch My Disease’ is a superior song, and it’s in some ways more complex,” Lee concludes. “I’m more happy to talk about it, because it’s a bit more of a mystery in what it has to say. You can talk about why both it’s a weird song but also why it feels so good to so many people. We all know why ‘We’re All In This Together’ feels good, because it feels good to remember. Why would a song called ‘Catch My Disease’ feel good? It feels like there’s still interesting conversations to have about that.”

You truly hope that Lee keeps having them for the rest of his days.

‘Born For This Bullshit’ is out now via Warner Music Australia.

David James Young is a writer and podcaster. He Instagrams at @djywrites.

Photo Credit: Byron Spencer