WAXX LYRICAL FEATURE RECORD #9
Ben Lee is at home in Los Angeles, it’s five in the afternoon and he’s calling in on Zoom from his kitchen. It’s all a bit surreal at first, even though we aren’t strangers and our paths have crossed a number of times over the years. He shouts out to his wife - Ione Skye, an esteemed actor and personality in her own right - to stop the dog from chewing someone’s goggles. It seems to be just another day in the lives of a fascinating celebrity household, except today’s a bit different - it’s the eve of the release of Ben's 20th album, I’M FUN!
In his astounding 30-year music career, Ben Lee has been gloriously prolific and unpredictable, for better or worse. He cut his teeth at the tender age of 14 as singer and guitarist for Sydney rockers Noise Addict and went solo at 17. He's had chart hits ('Cigarettes Will Kill You', 'Gamble Everything For Love', 'We're All In This Together' and 'Catch My Disease' – "That one's put food on the table more than a few times,” he says). An instrumental album inspired by the use of psychoactive drugs (Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work). An album for kids (Ben Lee Sings Songs About Islam For The Whole Family). He directly plugged into the 90’s/early 00’s zeitgeist — he rubbed shoulders with all the celebrities, dated Claire Danes and wrote songs for Evan Dando, starred in the 2003 Australian film The Rage In Placid Lake. On a personal note, he married Skye and together they had a daughter, Goldie. That’s just skimming the surface.
The rollout for I’M FUN! has been a long one. First single - ‘Born For The Bullshit’ - came out nearly a whole year ago and he has done everything but sit still since. He signed what seems like an impressive new deal with Warner Music Australia, which apparently also includes rights to his 19-album back catalogue. Three more singles appeared in that time, he has toured the country twice, revealed his identity in The Masked Singer, started a weekly podcast with his wife and eventually moved back to L.A. after spending lockdown here in Australia. Speaking of which, the unfortunate reality of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns across the nation saw two of his songs incidentally become unofficial anthems - one of unity (‘We’re All In This Together’) and one for a laugh. No, 'Catch My Disease' isn't actually about the virus at all, appearing first back in 2005. Thankfully however, they have played a huge catalyst in Ben Lee's remarkable return to public consciousness.
"I felt a sense that the way those two songs entered the culture again during the course of the pandemic, that people were interested in what I was doing again and so I sensed that there was a challenge,” he reveals. “The challenge was for me to meet that curiosity with something deserving of it in 2022. So I definitely aspired to make a record that justified being part of cultural conversation 30 years after my career started. Otherwise it’s like, you know what’s happened for Kate Bush recently is incredible but that’s not her new shit, you know what I mean? Who really knows what she will do with it, if anything. She might do nothing and see it just as this incredible blessing. But I saw it as an invitation to show up again and reintroduce myself and say, “Yeah, I’m that guy” and I’ve actually got some new ideas.
“My friend Megan Washington said, “I’m just so glad you’re back in our media culture” and I think that’s the opportunity that I saw. Media is a conversation and it’s not just built on songs, it’s built on interviews and on game shows and a willingness to be a participant, like a player in the theatre of the media. I saw the opportunity and I said to myself, “I think I’m up for the job, I think I might be the right person at the right moment.” My point is to say that it’s always got to be 50/50 - it has to be your intention and then there has to be genuine opportunity. They both came together for this record, I feel very lucky in that sense.”
Proving that only the true greats of music can come and go from commercial visability seemingly as they choose, Ben is making the most of this moment - I'M FUN! is just killer and sees the man return to the people-pleasing sonics of his masterful 2005 fan favourite, Awake Is The New Sleep. It's a cohesive and dynamic piece of work, an affable and reflective collective of songs that effortlessly stands beside his very best. It has top shelf singles and album cuts that stand strong beside them. It's an affirming, open-hearted celebration of all things, but not limited to, embracing positivity, owning your own bullshit, being a weirdo, moving to the beat of your own drum, getting older and, perhaps most surprisingly, growing up.
“Before I made the record, I made a playlist of only artists who only made their best work after 40 - it had Bonnie Raitt and Willie Nelson and Tom Waits and Nick Cave and Lucinda Williams and all kinds of stuff. I was looking at all these artists and I was thinking about their lyrics and what they did that allowed them to make such vibrantly creative work for their “second act” and I realised that it was this mixture of being incredibly honest and self-critical and having a sense of humour about who they were and what their failures were that you can only have after the first bout of grappling with the ego.
"There’s something about getting into your 40s,” Ben continues, “you’re kind of onto yourself. And you go, “Okay, I know what my strengths and weaknesses are and I know the particular traits that are going to be problems until the day I die <laughs>. Like, I can see it. I’ve got my own number. I realised that it was a mixture of that type of reflection and radical honesty mixed with this teenage relationship to the urge to make music. When you actually look at Johnny Cash’s last few albums or everything Tom Waits did after he got married or what Bonnie Raitt did from Nick Of Time onwards, you basically have a rediscovery of a youthful exuberance mixed with a brutal, hard-earned wisdom. I was like, “that’s the golden space.” That’s the space that you have to where you have to stay tapped into after 40. I think some of how I did that was with the collaborators but a lot of it was the lyrics. I was “Hey, I’m going to be more honest with who I am than ever before, in a way that only an adult can be. But I’m also going to do it with all the cheekiness I can muster, all the spirit of a 16 year old.”
In addition to assuming his obvious role as the main protagonist on the album, Ben plays the role of a generational bridge of sorts between his guest collaborators. The rather impressive list includes the likes of Georgia Maq (Camp Cope), Zooey Deschanel, Christian Lee Hutson, Money Mark (Beastie Boys), Megan Washington and Eric D Johnson (Fruit Bats). While his original plan to record with a live band became another victim of the pandemic, Ben instead made the album remotely, with producers including Jon Brion, Shamir, Sadie Dupuis and Darren Seltmann. It’s a revolving door of a remarkable yet a very diverse array of characters, that somehow just makes the album work as a whole.
“It’s like that Lawrence Olivier thing you heard before you went onto stage, it would say “God, grant me the power to surprise myself.” That surprise and other people’s energy and other’s music ideas and sense of harmony and rhythm - that’s always been, as a solo artist, where I get what other people get in bands. Even if I write the whole song and even if I’m in charge, I still want that experience of other people’s creativity. Not just in a sense of ruthless “I need to get all the good parts from everyone else", but just for the sense of enjoyment.
“In terms of the kinds of people I asked to be a part of it … as I get older, I’m realising that I like the freaks. I like the people, who I like to think of as the individuals, who made a machete at home and are using it to cut through popular culture and carve their own path. They exist in all genres and with all kinds of intentions and poetic impulses but they’re my people. So whether they’re people like Jon Brion or Shamir, I relate to these people.
For the scene I came into, I was young, so a lot of people think of me as associating me with ‘90s music but all the 90s musicians like Sonic Youth, Pavement and Dinosaur Jr, they came in the 80s, they came through independent labels and hardcore. I came with different influences, I also had NWA cassettes and I had the Pet Shop Boys. For me, I wasn’t as precious about the indie aesthetic which is more connected to what the Georgia Maqs and the Shamirs and how they grew up with music. They came up in the streaming more. I do exist in between these generations so it’s natural for me to feel equally connected to them.”
The result is breathtaking. Lyrically, it's superior. His triumphant return to the forefront with ‘Born For This Bullshit’ is “about positivity, swagger, keeping your chin up, even though we’re in total global chaos, true crisis, but still kinda choosing to enjoy the ride,” says Ben.
Subsequent songs which preceded the album’s release - 'Parents Get High', 'Like This Or Like That' and, most recently, 'Arsehole' - are all classic Ben Lee and interesting in their own right for very different reasons. Take ‘Like This or Like That’, for example, it's the perfect reflection on keeping an open mind and seeing something from another perspective. The Beatles or the Stones? Nirvana or Pearl Jam? Sheila E or Chaka Khan?
His deep yet lighthearted latest - 'Arsehole' - is a reflective look back at his own past, ending with a final verse of hope dedicated to his daughter - “let your dreams fill you with struggle and fury, let your world be strange // and even if later you realise you’re an arsehole, it’s never too late to change.” These lyrics don’t just feel like Ben investigating his own past, but they also seem to be somewhat of an invitation for everyone else to take a look at themselves.
“The biggest danger that we face is to stop growing,” he says. “You can look at it on something as macro as climate and giving up: “Ohhh there’s nothing we can do” or on an individual level of intimacy with our partners or our friends or even our relationship to our art. But if we stop deepening and we stop growing and we stop asking questions and we stop remaining hopeful, we really lose contact with what makes life exciting. So I think with music, you can always invite the audience to deepen, to feel and to question - that’s what it’s there for.”
Ben reveals that he's created a space for new songs, ideas and approaches to come and already has six or seven written for his next project - "I feel like I'm gonna make a punk record next," he laughs. But otherwise, he says that he's largely focussed on what's next for his live show.
"For many years, it’s been both a strength and a weakness in that I’ve been very spontaneous. So I would look at each moment of my career and be “Okay, I’ve got shows booked, how should I do it?” And then basically rebuild from scratch at every chapter of my career. That’s pretty fun and chaotic, but I’m starting to have aspirations of building a show that, in the same way that this album is this summation of my values system and is a celebration - it’s poppy and it’s heartfelt and philosophical - and really building a show similar and has all the visual elements to it. I’m thinking of something that exists outside of any album cycle the way the Flaming Lips do or that bands that tour and it builds over years. I go to festivals sometimes and I see no where near as many recognisable songs as I have, yet they’ve shaped it into something with a lot of collaboration and forethought and strategy and I think I’m ready to do something like that. I’m working with some collaborators to build something like that.'
In 2022, we truly can stand to learn a thing or two from Ben Lee as a human exisiting in this little thing called life. His undiminished passion and hunger for his own art as well as his unconventional thinking, views on life, positivity and spirituality are inspiring. The well-timed release of I'M FUN! and recently heightened profile (seriosuly, follow his TikTok and podcast immediately, if you don't) might just the perfect antidote the world needs right now. And it just might be the right time to start celebrating his music and a remarkable 30 year career and begin thinking of him like the icon he should be. Just a thought.
“I’ve always thought …fame, you have to want it,” he says with a grin. “With the exception of those weird people who win the lottery and go viral or whatever, whenever you see someone who has a career and is being famous, there’s a lot of work. There’s a degree of willingness, but you can’t make something out of nothing. Pop culture really does move with its own rhythms.
BEN LEE'S I'M FUN! OUT NOW VIA WARNER MUSIC AUSTRALIA
WAXX LYRICAL FEATURE RECORD #9