Sessions: Ben Sollee

Written by May 10th, 2011 at 3:00 pm

There’s a lot that sets Ben Sollee apart. Beyond writing amazing music, the singer-songwriter bikes to his gigs, plays the cello instead of the guitar, and actively stumps for environmental issues. We spoke to the Lexington, Kentucky native about his brand new album, Inclusions, working with British rocker and activist Billy Bragg, and the random encounter with a New York City subway musician that lead to the song “Captivity.”

Check out our exclusive Session with Sollee below. The first track, “Only A Song,” is is from Dear Companion, his collaboration with Daniel Martin Moore. The next three tracks are from Inclusions.

Only A Song –Ben Sollee

Electrified –Ben Sollee

Captivity –Ben Sollee

Hurting –Ben Sollee


When you’re sitting around at home and noodling, do you noodle on the cello?

I have been noodling a lot on tenor banjo recently. I really like the sound of it. Now that I have a son it’s a lot easier to pull out a tenor banjo and pluck around on it, and let him pluck around on it, rather than a cello. With that being said I usually lay out my road cello which gets beat up a lot and let him play around on it. Just let him whack the crap out of it.

The way you play it, it almost like it’s not that different than playing a guitar.

In some ways. Guitar players spend a lot more time plucking their strings. When we are trained classically, we have a very specific plucking style. If you throw that out the window and watch guitar players and play with them a lot, you can learn a lot about how to make different sounds on the cello.

Tell us the story behind “Captivity.”

There is a prison in Mississippi called Angola. It’s a maximum security prison where you get a lot of violent prisoners sorting out life sentences. There’s a documentary called Lifers that chronicled 8 or ten guys going through life. Many of the guys stayed their whole lives but one of the guys got out and got parole. He became very spiritual and when he got out he became a preacher and did a lot with the church. They showed him in his apartment which was a very modest apartment, but he had these suits and he just started crying when he was touching the suits. He was like “my suits”. You think about that and you think about how much of your identity is stripped in the prison system. You can think about what that can do to you. What does that focus you on? Does that focus you more inward?

Many people become very spiritual in the prison. I think that is really interesting. I think its not just prison that we find ourselves held captive in sometimes. A lot of people get tied up in their emotions, and I kinda got to thinking about that and wrote that song. I feel like in some ways we are all running from some things and in some ways we are all running to some things. that is basically the whole song kind of dreaming you are in one place and the reality of where you are.

Tell us about the song’s co-writer, Morgan O’Kane.

I was in New York doing some stuff about mountain top removal coal mining in the city. It’s a form of coal mining that is really destructive obviously it removes the top of the mountains and what you have left is rubble- almost a moonscape .A lot of this is pushed over into the valley which pollutes streams, which pollutes a lot of the people that live in the mountains.

So I was in New York working on that and I got off at the Bedford stop in Williamsburg, and there was this incredible driving bajo sound like a kick drum. And I’m like “what is that?” So I go over and it’s this guy that’s tattooed all over with a worker’s cap on, sitting on a suitcase with a bassdrum petal turned backwards just kicking the crap out of the banjo. Faster, harder, more momentum to the music than I had ever heard, with a voice that sounded like a young, even harder living Bruce Springsteen. I said “Dude, you should come to this benefit and play.” We ended up striking up a friendship from there. It turned out that he grew up in West Virginia, and at the age of 15 to get away from his town and lots of other things, just got on a coal train and became a train hopper for all those years. Just hearing all those stories about the things that happened there and his friends that were apart of that and their dogs. You are always moving. You have to keep moving so you can’t keep these things. You have your pack and your pack has to be disposable. It’s interesting what people gravitate towards when they are always moving. What things to they need to have with them. He was really inspiring.

You collaborated with Billy Bragg a while back, what’s he like to work with?

He’s unbelievable. What struck me with Billy Bragg was that I always knew he was a very aware person. He represents that in his music, he represents that in his actions but I never realized the scholar that he is. He knows so much stuff and he takes a lot of pride in knowning stuff, and challenges people to use their minds and know shit. That struck me really hard when I was on the road with him recently. He inspired me to be able to… I have a lot of social awareness in my music. There are a lot of things I care about but to be able to stand up on stage and make that a part of your show and embody it in all your actions, that’s a totally different thing.

So how are you feeling about Inclusions?

I feel good about it. I’ve been working on it for quite a while and its going through lots of different stages of development. Its gone through lots of idea points. I have worked with two different DJ’s at one point developing the idea trying to get to a different sound. Get myself to a different place. A DJ down in Atlanta, Dj 2nd Nature, and a DJ up in Detroit, DL jones. They are two totally different styles. One is very analogue based and one was a very digitally based DJ. They brought lots of ideas about beats and rhythm and performance to me, and I learned about layering the sounds together. It’s interesting; all sound in the DJ world comes after its made. Its manipulated sound and the sound in the world that I am trained in and come from is created sound. So they work in a world where they don’t even begin with the generation of a sound, they deal with the exsistance of a sound and then adapting that, changing it, filtering it, layering it. It was really eye -opeing for me and changed the way I thought about creating sound.

So I created all these tracks with them but they sounded distant from me, they sounded mechanical. So I took the ideas that I had and went back to the studio and created them organically and a lot of the songs that you will hear on that record are influenced by that programming drive, that relentless timekeeping, but recorded in an more organic performance way.

Performance is key, man. That is the only thing that cannot be recreated. You can give me a video of a performance and watch it over and over again but your only going to get that performance. You can get audio of a live show, but it’s not like being there. It doesn’t get all the fluids going. So I think in this day and age, where records are not really selling, when everyone is trying to figure out what material thing they can sell to make money off music it might be back to the old basics. The only thing we as musicians have that really has value anymore that really maybe ever did is our live shows. Everything else..in the words of Gillian Welch… everything is free. But it’s our live show that were were going to do anyway, it’s what we’ve always been doing. It’s what we love and something you can’t fake, and that people are going to still pay money to go see.

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