Ben Lee, musician
Take your eyes off what everyone else is doing. It’s really unproductive to be in a game of comparison with other people’s art or careers ...
Ben Lee’s discography is anything but predictable. From a Noise Addict EP (the alternative rock band he fronted at 15, attracting kudos from the likes of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Beastie Boys’ Mike D) to his 2013 album Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work, which details his experiences with the psychedelic brew used traditionally by shamans in South America, his musical voyage has taken plenty of unforeseen twists and turns and earned him three ARIA-Awards in the process. On the back of his latest and tenth studio album, Love Is The Great Rebellion, Bleach* Festival is bringing Ben Lee to the Gold Coast as the Feature Artist in 2016. We had a chat with Ben about life and death and everything in between.
Belated congratulations on the release of Love Is The Great Rebellion last year. What ideas and inspirations did you draw upon for this album?
This album was really about the idea of mistakes and rectification, meaning that if we look honestly at ourselves and our lives we can see times when we weren’t in alignment with our highest vision of who we could be. Sometimes that can be almost depressing but there’s a choice we can make to rectify it and start acting with a new sense of inspiration and hope. That’s really the rebellion that I’m talking about, a rebellion against ourselves.
In terms of the relationship to the previous two albums, Ayahuasca: Welcome To The Work and A mixtape from Ben Lee, this album seems to hark back to your earlier acoustic pop roots. Was that an intentional move or something that just happened organically?
It pretty much just happened. Making art is a very mysterious process, I usually am deliberate with the intention and the philosophy behind something but as far as the aesthetic, I kind of allow that to be dictated by the experience. This was definitely a record that began to take on a more accessible tone quite early in the piece.
Alongside love, the album also touches on some darker themes including death with the track ‘Everybody Dies’, what is it about this topic that intrigues you?
It’s interesting that you call death a dark topic. Why would an enabling natural part of our human existence be considered dark? I think it’s because it’s not talked about but to live and to die, they go together. For me as a parent, we’re asked to shepherd these minds through this experience of growing up and dealing with concepts and death is a vital one that we need to introduce our children to in a healthy way. So that’s really what inspired that song.
We’ve heard rumours that you trained as a “death midwife” during the writing of this album. What did you take from that experience?
I did and I also volunteered in a hospice. I learnt how to listen more, learnt to respect that every person is in their own process and that they all have their own God and their own regrets and understanding of their lives. Simply to learn how to hold space for people going through an intense process was the biggest thing I learnt from that experience.
You’ve previously spoken and written about awakening the human consciousness. What do you mean by that?
It begins with the premise that we are asleep. Look at the world around us and it’s pretty clear to see that something is not right, that we are not operating with the full compassion and intelligence that we are capable of. Otherwise how could we possibly go to war and how could we possibly destroy the environment? It’s just not possible. And then we look at the wreckage of our own lives, the decisions we’ve made and the way we’ve treated people that we love and we see that our consciousness is asleep. We forget how precious each moment is and when we forget it we’re destructive towards ourselves and each other. So this is an ancient mystical idea that we’re not awake, all the ancient mythologies and the poets and the religions have all said it is possible to awaken the consciousness.
Wow! Do any of them offer any advice on awakening our collective consciousness?
It’s almost a fantasy that it’s something we can do collectively because if we can do it collectively then it’s like, I don’t personally have to do it, it’s just going to happen. Each person has the responsibility of awakening their own consciousness and if they don’t they don’t. Religion is really just the institutionalisation on the study of the science of awakening the consciousness. I prefer a method of self-study and observation but then there is always prayer of some kind because it’s not possible to complete the journey on our own.
You’re heading back to Australia to hold a songwriting workshop as part of Bleach Festival 2016. What is your songwriting process like?
I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s developed its own quirks. What I am really going to be talking about in that workshop is the ability to edit and analyse the work that we’ve made because we live in a society that encourages self expression but the Ancient Greeks believed that we shouldn’t express negative things at all because you actually give it power. So there are different attitudes that you can bring into the creative process. I am calling this songwriting course songwriting towards virtue.
What have been some of your personal career highlights on this incredible journey you’re on?
I can’t pinpoint them as moments, they’ve been more dawning realisations. One of them was early on and it was just that my music had an effect on people. Realising that, for better or worse, it wasn’t music that was ignored. That was a huge experience for me that I carried into every aspect of my life, the feeling that what I say might have some value. Also financial independence in the sense that I’ve been very lucky, I’m not a millionaire but I’ve been very lucky to have sustained myself with my art. If you looked at it on a graph, the percentage of people who can actually do that is incredibly slight so that has been a real highlight of my life that for whatever reason, luck, destiny, there’s been the opportunity to delve deeper and deeper into my craft because the material support has been there. Not a day goes by when I don’t feel grateful for that.
What inspires you to keep making music?
I wouldn’t say I’m inspired to create music, I could drop it tomorrow if I didn’t feel that it was of value in the present moment. I’m not addicted to any of the creative forms. I do feel that musical ideas keep coming and I get joy out of it and it’s a nice means of connection.
Over 25 years you’ve certainly experienced the ups and downs of the fickle music industry. What have been some of the greatest lessons you’ve learnt?
The biggest one would be to completely take your eyes off what everyone else is doing. It’s really unproductive to be in a game of comparison with other people’s art or careers. You have to be very internally focused so the biggest lesson really has been to trust my own inner guidance to do what I need to do.
How has life changed since releasing ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ in 1998?
The biggest changes have been internal. I look at what drove me before and how ambitious I was in the wrong ways, how much I wanted validation, attention and wanted a type of glory during my career that I don’t even really believe is possible now, not just for me, I don’t believe it’s really possible for anyone. The biggest change has been more and more in reality and at the same time loving it more and more.
So what drives you now?
Anything I can contribute, to me it’s like serving my audience to help awaken people to possibility and anyway I can do that, I am honoured to be part of it.