Ben Sollee will perform at DeLuna Fest. / Special to GoPensacola.com
You will be redirected to the page you want to view in seconds.
As Ben Sollee answers the phone for our interview, a young child is rocking out and singing, to the fatherís delight. Music is alive in the Sollee family.
The versatile musician, who wields a cello and a big heart, is an artist, activist and family man committed to making a difference in this world. Whether heís raising awareness by embarking on bicycle tours with cello in tow or rocking out with his family, Solleeís world is constantly moving.
With his latest album, "Half-Made Man" scheduled to be released days after his DeLuna Fest appearance, Sollee took time out from his busy schedule to discuss his art, activism and the joys of being a father, husband and the unique philosophy he uses to "juggle" it all.
Q: Your new album ďHalf-Made ManĒ will be released on Sept. 25, just days after you play DeLuna Fest. What does this album mean for you?
A: Well itís two things; first of all itís very personal to me. Itís a project thatís a collection of self portraits of the different pieces and parts of me and then, secondly; itís my first opportunity to really sit down in a studio with a group of musicians and record a record live, to use the studio as an instrument as much as anything else. In the past, our records have been about composing and orchestrating parts and overdubbing things to create interesting sounds and this time was just about getting a wonderful bunch of friends creating and playing.
Q: Are you going to bring these musicians with you on tour? When you play Deluna, will you be by yourself?
A: Boy, I wish I could bring this group of musicians on the road. That would be super boss, but unless you know any large companies that would like to bankroll that, weíll have to play with the stripped-down trio, which I think is going to be pretty exciting. My percussionist, Jordon Ellis ó who Iíve been on the road now for the past three years ó and weíre going to add a musician that will fill out the trio by the name of Luke Reynolds, and heís a wonderful multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer and heís going to bounce around playing electric guitar, acoustic and some bass. Iím going to be playing cello and Jordon Ellis does a lot of wonderful sampling as he plays the drums, so itís going to be a big sound. Itís going to sound like a lot more than a trio. Thatíll be the band for the show.
Q: When I listen to your music, itís a real intimate experience. What is the experience like for you when you play big festivals like DeLuna Fest?
A: Each show is different depending on the energy of the audience. The audience is very much a part of the band at the show. At least for my shows, because the way they interact with it, they can almost manipulate the song. For a bigger, outdoor kind of festival show weíre going to make gestures that are a little bit bigger, little bit broader gestures with the songs and their arrangements than we might make in a small listening room in New York. So that all is about interacting with the energy of the audience; it will be a big broad stroke kind of sound at the show. I guess thatís the technique.
Whatís the experience like for me? Gosh, every time I play my songs, they are so personal that all the stories and things that created the song, they all come back to me, theyíre all framed within the picture of the song, but at the same time, thereís a lot of other emotions and things that accrete to those songs as I experienced them on the road over the years. A song like ďPrettiest Tree on the MountainĒ from my first record, ďLearning to Bend,Ē now has all kinds of collected emotion, so each time I play the song itís a way of revisiting them and when I do that on a big broad stage, first of all, it adds a new memory to it and secondly, it gives me an opportunity to see how lots of people associate themselves with that song. Some people just close their eyes and listen; some people sing excitedly along, some people check their email. Itís fun to see how the music accompanies what those people are doing almost in a cinematic way.
Q: You are also known for you dedication to social issues as well as your music. What developed first, your passion for music or your passion for activisim?
A: Oh, thatís a good question. Iím not exactly sure what happened chronologically first, but itís been interesting because music-making for me has always been a very personal process that has exposed me to many more people and many more places. As Iíve been exposed to more people and places, my ideas of where Iím from have been challenged or put in a new light. And as thatís happened, Iíve become concerned about taking better care of my heritage and our heritage as America. I get really concerned about issues such as mountain top removal strip mining, when I see those mountains being taken away. Those mountains mean so much to me as a musician and as an American. And when I see people out on the street that donít have a clear place to walk, that concerns me as an American, and thatís one of the reasons we get out there and do tours by bicycle.
All these things are a result of being exposed to a wider array of influences as I play music. And the reason Iíve been exposed is because of music. It is a very causal relationship for sure and cyclical that way.
Q: Whatís the biggest obstacle youíve had to overcome?
A: Well, there was this huge hill out in California on the bike tour Ö that was a pretty big obstacle. I would say the biggest obstacle I had to overcome Ö oh, gosh, thatís hard, thereís so many pieces of my life that I can compartmentalize; I think as a musician ó weíll just focus on that ó the biggest obstacle Iíve had to overcome is just balancing to the extent that I can, having a music career and being a husband and a father. That is a consistent daily challenge that I face and one that Iím still working on.
Q: How do you juggle it all?
A: Juggling is a great analogy to use, because when a juggler is either adding a ball or doing a new trick, they usually throw one of their balls up higher in the air and itís very much like that, so when youíre taking on a new project, you throw other things higher so you can work on those and catch it and you throw it back up and itís very much like that. You canít just balance it all because eventually it gets so heavy that it takes the whole thing. But you can keep it all moving and maybe throw one thing up higher because you donít need to deal with that right now and really deal with the other one, so you can throw that back somewhere else.
Q: What is the craziest thing youíve seen at one of your shows?
A: A hairy purple man jumping up onstage with me at Bonnaroo and singing along to Tom Waitsí ďChocolate Fever.Ē Howís that sound?
Q: Did he sing the whole song or did security stop him?
A: Security did stop him once he grabbed my cello. But he sang for most of the song and he came up afterwards and apologized, he (said) ďI was just so excited.Ē And Iím like, ďYeah, you were.Ē It was a great memory. There are some wonderful photographs of that online.
Q: Youíve done some amazing collaborations, is there any artist that you havenít worked with that you would love to work with?
A: Bill Cosby. Seriously, dude. That guy is not only a genius comedian, but heís a wonderful music producer, heís a thoughtful writer and just a hoot to be around. Iíve been watching him since I was young-young and I think it would be really fun to do some type of cool collaborations with him.
Iíd also love to collaborate with Ani DiFranco. There are so many folks Iíd love to collaborate with. Collaborations are really a keystone for me in my musical health. It means a lot to be able to express other peopleís ideas clearly and be able to explain my ideas to other people to express and collaborate that way. It keeps me balanced out there.
Iíd also love to do something with Q-Tip; I think heís one of the great wordsmiths and hip-hop producers out there. I really like his stuff.
Q: With all of the touring, performing and things that you do, what is the most amazing part of being Ben Sollee?
A: Right now, my wife is showing me some beautiful pictures sheís taken. Thatís a pretty good part of being Ben. Really, the biggest thing for me is the community that I get to be a part of and to help create connections, whether thatís directly in the proverbial backstage of music or whether thatís in the communities where theyíre getting to the show in a healthy sustainable way, all those different things. Getting to do that and doing that in various ways that we do and especially by bicycle are some of the very things that I hold most dear to me in relation to being a musician.
Q: What would the Ben Sollee of today tell a younger Ben just starting out?
A: Iíd probably tell him my business plan, which is to do good work with good people. Thatís all you really need to do to have music career. Now, if youíre trying to explode over top of the mountain, youíre going to need jet fuel, and jet fuel doesnít come cheap, in many ways. But if youíre wanting to play music and make a living at it, itís very ó itís not easy ó but itís very doable if you just do good work with people doing good things. And ďgoodĒ can be as simple as people having garden co-ops or bicycle co-ops. ďGoodĒ can be the Yo-Yo Mas of the world that play like no one else. You just want to make sure to work with people that are precious and care about what theyíre doing.