Kentucky-based Ben Sollee is an unconventional cellist and singer, political activist and avid cyclist. He’ll be performing at Port Fairy Folk Festival, Brunswick Music Festival and other shows in Sydney and Melbourne in March 2012. Justin Bernasconi spoke to him about his exciting plans for 2012.
Can you tell me about your up and coming tour in Australia? Will this be your first time in Oz?
Sure, it’s my first, expectations are very open, heard great things from people I know, from either people who’ve worked there or are from there, so right now, it’s all green acres to me.
And you’re coming over as a solo artist?
I am. I think as first tours go I’m doing this one solo, although I was trying to bring the band.
And what can Aussie audiences expect from your shows?
Well… I sing and play the cello! The cello is this wonderful utility knife that I can play rhythm, provide textures and as a songwriting tool, it’s a tremendous versatile thing. So I try to explore and exploit that in the live shows as much as possible.
Will you be playing any other instruments?
I think I’m mainly going to focus on cello on this tour. I play a few other string instruments, guitar, mandolin, stuff like that, but for this tour it will be cello.
I’ve been listening to your most recent album Inclusions for the past few days, and I really like it, very eclectic. How do US audiences respond to eclectic albums, or your album in particular?
Depends on which audience it is and, I’m sure as you’ve experienced with your band, some audiences are more open to it than others, but for the most part there’s been a really good critical response to it. Folks like to have different conversations about different styles of music and that’s what Inclusions is all about, embodying all the influences I’ve had in my life… Especially with the influence of the internet, incorporating any styles of music as our own vernacular and laying claim to it all, so in that post modern way, it’s all up for grabs. I tried to explore that on this record and in the live show. I think it comes across good enough so that the crowd can enjoy it… I think they’ll dig it (laughs…)
How was the album recorded, were any tracks done to a click, or cut mostly live?
The core of the album is cello, voice, percussion, which we’d try to cut the most of live, because that’s where the lifeblood of that record was. So we’d set the cello and the drums across the room from each other, and really try and cut something that had a heart beat to it. Very rarely would I go in with a click in the studio, not to say I don’t spend a lot of time with a metronome outside the studio, but in the studio it’s really nice to hear a track breathe, push and pull and go wherever it needs to go.
Would I be right saying I can hear Klezmer influence in there?
You might because of all the reed instruments on the record Inclusions, but that was less of a Klezmer influence and more of a Mingus influence (laughs…) but definitely Klezmer has all that passion, vigour, I think it certainly shares that!
Were things different when you recorded Inclusions to Learning to Bend?
Not too different. I didn’t have a major producer on board. I did it with the same fella that I used on Learning to Bend. It was still the same process of coming in and recording the bed of the songs, then scoring out stuff around it to bring in musicians and play. The core, the story of Inclusions that was a little more conceptual as we were trying to really embody all the different sounds that I’d grown up with. Whether it was hip hop, classical, Appalachia folk music, we really tried to embody those in bigger and bolder ways, and that made for some adventurous arrangements and sounds.
At the time of the release of Learning To Bend, you were touring in with The Sparrow Quartet, which includes Béla Fleck no less? How did you manage to juggle the two projects?
There’s no real way to juggle those things, you do one or the other and I was tremendously lucky to get to play with The Sparrow Quartet, be influenced by Casie (Driessen) and Abigail (Washburn), particularly Béla, they were all wonderful mentors and still are. They were really supportive of it all, he’s definitely one to go out there and mix up the styles, mash things together, and just try.
Where is your music the most well received in the states?
From what I can tell, it’s near my home in Kentucky, probably because that’s where I played the most shows over the years, part of it’s a kind of magical place that’s a crossroads culturally, physically. It’s always been a place that incorporates styles from everywhere, so maybe that’s one of the reasons why they’re accepting of my style.
Can you tell a bit about your local music community in Kentucky?
It’s got a great history of melting genres. The most known music to come from Kentucky is really bluegrass music, which of course is a mix of jazz, folk, gospel, and so many things at once that it becomes it’s own thing, and I think that that’s very telling of Kentucky. In modern times, My Morning Jacket comes from Kentucky, they drew the same thing but in a more contemporary setting. They just included so many genres that it becomes a new thing.
You collaborated with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Daniel Martin Moore in 2010, how did that come about? Were you friends or just like each other’s music?
Probably a bit of all those things brought us together for that record. The main thing that brought us together was our concern for Appalachia, which is the mountain region near my home, the kind of melting pot where a lot of immigrants came and settled and carved a living out of the mountain side, mixed all their stories, songs and dance into the American style which we lay claim to these days, so those mountains where our cultural is stored is getting cut down with the terrible crisis of strip mining, and we wanted to raise awareness of that, we three Kentucky boys, and we wanted to celebrate all the influences we had from that area and that was the main reason for coming together for that record. We found a really strong kinship for each other’s music and we each had a different thing to offer. We enjoyed it. We did some touring in that configuration, and will hopefully do some more.
Did you come up against any resistance, for instance, from the mining community?
We came up against some, but they weren’t worried about anything on our scale, much more worried about legislation… but there was some resistance. Some people will just dismiss our claims that it’s a place of heritage… The approach we took was that we tried to stay positive and make it a celebration of Appalachia, rather than a finger-pointing project of ‘here’s the problem and here’s who’s doing it’, because it’s really a systemic issue, as is poverty, hunger, but those things happen because of bigger problems in the system, like the power grid, how we’re willing to sacrifice things, like make money, so a lot of people did not criticise our project because we were just celebrating all the great stuff that’s come from there.
Do you come from a predominantly classical background as a cellist?
As a cellist, it’s kinda hard to come from any other background because the main body of technique for the cello and vernacular is from classical music, so there’s not really another way to learn the cello as of yet… I always had this dichotomy of two lives going on where I would study my cello (and that would be classical music), and then I would come home and then I would play with family and friends. They didn’t play Bach, they didn’t have a way to jam on that, so we’d play old R&B tunes, fiddle tunes, and that kind of thing. Eventually those two lives converged together to be the music that I play.
Do you come from a musical family?
I don’t come from a family of musicians as much as they’re just musical… my dad is a really great R&B guitar player; my mom has a wonderful voice; my grandfather was a fiddler, so yeah, I got music in the blood.
I have a few friends that play cello in a roots rock format, and they find it can be a real can of worms… any tips on how to manage your live sound, mics or pick ups?
Hmm…I spent a lot of time trying to figure out this, because a cello itself is made to be super resonant and to project in big halls and the design of a cello hasn’t changed all that much in hundreds of years. So we take it and amplify it in small clubs and big festivals, places where it was never intended to go, so it does work against itself, but there’s things you can do to create a nice big open sound with a pick up and mic combination, to cope with the different tonal ranges of the cello, and I use a few different light effects to create different colours to the cello. The cello doesn’t need too many effects. It’s not like a guitar where it needs to be expanded out with sustain and distortion and all that… All that stuff you can do with the bow.
For any classical cellists out who like to get into roots, would there be any cellists you could recommend (other than yourself?)
Oh, there’s so many… If they want to fiddle, they should listen to Natalie Haas, or Nathaniel Smith. Another is Rutesheim, one player in your country that has a cool thing going on with electronics and composition, and a mind for activism is Kristin Rule. Have you heard of her?
I have but would like to know more!
She did a bicycle tour around Australia with her cello and all her electronics, and having done some of that in the states I have a lot of respect for that.
Will you being cycling from city to city in Australia for this tour?
Oh, not a chance (laughs). Not on this tour, things are too compact, too busy but I hope to in the future.
What’s on for the rest of 2012?
Lots of good stuff. Really excited about this year, got lots of new music coming out. In the spring I’ve got two ballets premiering. I have a new live record coming out which will be out in spring and I have a new studio album that’s gonna come out too.
Thanks for you time, Ben. Have a safe and happy tour in Australia!