BREAKING: Ben Lee is fun!
Ask him, he’ll tell you.
It’s even in the title of his forthcoming album “I’m Fun!”
Makes sense at first glance; Lee has crafted some of the catchiest, boppiest tunes in Australian pop history, but listening to the album, you get the sense this isn’t the kind of ‘fun’ Lee is talking about.
“Professionals are the worst part of the music industry, they’re pretty much ruining it,” he tells me with a wink “I’ve always put adventure as my first priority. Full-tilt, all the time. Fun is the unexpected. Fun is building something, burning it down, then building it back, bigger, weirder and better.”
What Lee has built this time around, with an album he proudly labels “the best of my 30 year career, so far” is an eccentric pop album, full of candor and reflection, wit and insight.
“When I was younger I was an arsehole,” Ben sings on the track conveniently titled Arsehole “Burning down bridges, fighting with strangers, destroying everything I could, just because…
But time, has a way, of shaking it out”.
‘I’m Fun!’ finds Ben in reflective mode aged 43, addressing opinions of him that have lingered since his career began at age 13 with the band Noise Addict, but also consciously moving the goalposts for this next chapter of his long and fabled career. "In my mind, I almost didn't have an image of what my career ambitions were post-40," Ben says. "As young people we're not really given many functioning models of what a long career in the arts looks like.”
One night, Ben asked his Twitter followers to name their favourite artists who had made their best work after the age of 40. He was flooded with responses: Nick Cave, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Leonard Cohen, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits – all fellow singer/songwriters.
“I made a playlist of those records and obsessively listened to it. I was obsessed with the questions: What does it take? What makes these mid-career albums iconic? Why do so many singer-songwriters make their best work in their 40s? And it hit me pretty clearly: they very pridefully wore their wounds and scars, but they had also reconnected with their early love of the creative process. So its the best of both worlds.
“The nice thing about getting into these decades is that you've been knocked around, learned some stuff, hopefully refined your sense of what hope looks like and what love is and what relationships mean. It hit me, I just needed to write from this place that was very accountable for who I am, but at the same time, full of the vigour of creative energy. That was the challenge."
In his 30-year music career, Ben Lee has been gloriously prolific and unpredictable. There have been 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).
"There are moments, as artists, where we do things just for us. Just because we need to do it. I have an open door policy for my audience, they can come and go as they like. We can orbit through each others' lives at times when its right. That's different for different people. For some people, they use my music to console them through heartbreak or they fell in love to it. Others use it to celebrate. I don’t really mind.”
He’s collaborated with Josh Radnor (Radnor and Lee), Ben Folds and Ben Kweller (The Bens) and wrote the musical B is For Beer with US author Tom Robbins – soon to become a movie that Ben and actor wife Ione Skye will co-direct. He even collaborated with Lena Dunham on a live tongue-in-cheek tribute to Oasis with the live event “Champagne Superanalysis: Celebrating the Gallagher Brothers through songs and readings” that contained a Brad Pitt cameo.
During the pandemic, his 2006 hit “We're All in This Together” became an unofficial anthem of unity. "One of the things that really came out of the journey of that song for me, was the realization that it's genuinely not up to us when our art is going to be useful to people. It opened me up to this feeling of not knowing what was going to happen, and that was really cool."
Mid-pandemic, Ben moved his family from the US to Sydney – playing 40 live shows around Australia before touring wound down again. He’d started working on a new album while touring 2019’s Quarter Century Classix – a record of cover versions of songs he loved as a teenager (Pixies, The Breeders, Sebadoh, Smudge, Fugazi).
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 and guests Zooey Deschanel, Christian Lee Hutson, Money Mark, Megan Washington, Sally Seltmann, Georgia Maq and Eric D Johnson.
“The collaborators come from different worlds. Some I met on the road or in clubs over the years, like Money Mark or Jon Brion, others I met through social media, like Georgia and Shamir. You gotta stay open. I was mentored by Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, and those artists made a conscious effort to stay connected to the edges of things, to younger artists. Being connecting with young creative people is how you stay vibrant and inspired as you get older. I always like to pay attention to what's new. I always want to hear something I haven't heard."
After years as an indie artist (including for his biggest album, 2005's Awake is the New Asleep), Ben has signed an international deal with Warner to release I'm Fun! – exactly the way he made it.
"That's something I've earned through years of dong it my own way. Look, not everything I do is going to be genius, but it's going to be interesting. Because I work from a place of passion. I like to work with record labels that let me do my thing.”
‘I'm Fun!’ features songs about surviving lockdown (of Parents Get High he says, "There's something terrifying and exciting for kids knowing their parents are still exploring what consciousness means"), celebrating being different (“Crooked Tree” a tune inspired by a bedtime story about uniqueness that Tom Waits supposedly told his children when they were small), and embracing positivity with first single ‘Born for This Bullshit’. "That song is like a We're All in This Together for 2021. Last year we felt all in this together. In 2021 - what’s needed is pure resilience.” he chuckles
“‘Born for this Bullshit’ has got the same energy as some of my best songs. I reckon anyone who is a casual listener will hear it and go ‘Oh yeah, that’s him. I remember’. Those types of songs don’t come along every day.”
Lee ends the conversation reminding me “Its a good time, man. Getting older, getting weirder, getting better… Being an artist moving to the beat of your own drum, its a perilous adventure not for the faint of heart.
But for people like me? It’s fun.”