Over the course of a music career that, amazingly, now spans close to a quarter century, Ben Lee has quite literally grown up in front of our eyes — and our ears. And as with any lifelong journey, Lee’s musical trek has been dotted with unforeseen twists and turns, as well as explorations into unconventional and unexpected musical arenas. His latest statement, Love Is The Great Rebellion, his tenth studio album overall, at once signals both a revisiting of his past and an unequivocal rejection of it.
The record comes on the heels of two divergent releases, the 2011 concept album Deeper Into Dream and 2013’s meditative and experimental Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work, and finds Lee wholeheartedly re-embracing the type of buoyant, insightful, and largely acoustic-guitar-based pop-rock that has long been his stock in trade. But Love Is The Great Rebellion is hardly a retread of tried and true Lee tropes; its break with the past is, in fact, baked into the album’s very title.
“It seems to me that love is always inviting us into the present moment,” the 36-year-old native of Sydney, Australia, explains. “And one of the prerequisites of love, whether it’s love in a marriage or for your child or for your craft, is that it can exist only in the present. So the reality of stepping into that moment involves letting go of the past. In a way, that’s a metaphor for my career. I’ve made a lot of choices that didn’t necessarily ensure my longevity, but somehow despite that I have longevity. I’m not the most famous singer in the world and I haven’t had the most hits, but I’m still here and making the music I want to make. And in order to be able to do that I’ve had to continually shed my past.”
On Love Is The Great Rebellion, Lee is constantly looking forwards and back. These songs deal with holding on (“Don’t Let the Fire Die”) and letting go (“Forgiveness”), moving toward something (“Big Love”) and away from something else (“Goodbye to Yesterday”). And while the topics can be weighty — “Everybody Dies” not only touches on the passing of Lee’s father when the musician was just 19, but also explores his struggle to find a greater understanding of life through death itself by training to be a “Death Midwife” and hospice volunteer during the writing of this album — the music is for the most part joyful, if not triumphant, from the ecstatic, electro-acoustic pulse of “Big Love” to the staccato rhythms and island lilt of “Giving Up on Miracles”, the “Bennie and the Jets”-style stomp of “I’m Changing My Mind” to the majestic, bagpipe-infused “Don’t Let the Fire Die.” About that last song, Lee says with a laugh, “I wanted to tap into a sort of warrior, Braveheart vibe, so bagpipes seemed a really natural choice. It’s kind of like a battle cry, even though it’s about marriage and perseverance.”
Marriage, and relationships in general, are subjects that are never far from Lee’s heart — to that end, Love Is The Great Rebellion is also something of a family affair. His wife, the actress Ione Skye, and the couple’s five-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Goldie, contribute background vocals to “I’m Changing My Mind,” and the wispy, practically nursery-rhyme-like “Happiness” (in which Lee urges listeners to take the title word and “write it in a letter” and “wear it like a sweater”) features guest vocals from Lee’s father-in-law, 60s folk hero Donovan.
“When I was first writing the song it was reminding me of [Donovan’s] ‘Happiness Runs,’ which also has that childlike quality to it,” Lee explains. “And so I thought, Ah, I’ll just throw this out and start over. But then I said, ‘No, let me embrace it. He’s my father-in-law, and he wrote a song for a different generation that has a similar message. Let me continue that message.’ And I asked him to sing on it as a kind of knowing nod toward that continuation.”
He adds, “What we’re talking about here is entering a new outlook that is more positive and dignified, and where there’s more possibility. A lot of poets have talked about the Golden Future, and I like that idea — we’re moving toward the future, and the future is golden.”
For Lee, movement has always been central to his life and music. “It’s funny,” he says, “I feel like I’ve probably had at least three different comebacks at this point, but they’ve stopped seeming like comebacks and more like just the natural ebb and flow of a long career. But each time a new audience has embraced my music, or older fans have re-embraced it, it’s been partly because I’ve been willing to embrace a new space, too.”
That audience first began their embrace of Lee when he was just in his early teens and his raucous alternative rock band, Noise Addict was garnering fans like Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (who issued Noise Addict’s 1993 DEF EP on his own Ecstatic Peace! imprint) and the Beastie Boys, who released 1994’s Young & Jaded on their Grand Royal label. “That was an amazing period,” Lee says. “It was an incredible thing to have imprinted on your psyche at such a young age, like, ‘Wow, I can make something out of the intimacy of my own experience playing the guitar and it can connect with people across the world!’ ”
Lee’s music would soon become even more intimate, while also connecting with even greater numbers of people. In 1995 he released his first solo album, Grandpaw Would, a collection of short and sharp acoustic-guitar-based indie-pop tunes that filtered a song craft heavy on wit and hooks through a ramshackle, lo-fi sensibility. But if 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of that debut, it also marks the 10th anniversary of what is perhaps Lee’s most renowned — and also transformative — effort, Awake Is the New Sleep. The album, his fifth, “was probably the first record where the subject of consciousness, and the awakening of consciousness, became the centerpiece of my work,” he says. “And it has continued to be ever since.”
As for how that awakening came about, Lee explains, “I didn’t awaken – I just realized I was asleep! At that point in my life I became passionate about the possibility of awakening consciousness. Because it’s a complicated issue — we’re all in the dark, obviously. I mean, look at the state of the world. If we were awake we wouldn’t be having a lot of the problems we’re having. But when I was in my mid 20s I sort of concretized the idea of freeing my own mind from the collective and individual shackles that are placed on it, like fear and desire, and realized that this is a very long and interesting path that we choose to individually set out upon.”
Lee’s path after Awake Is the New Sleep has proven to be both long and interesting. Even as he chided on that album’s “Catch My Disease” that “they don’t play me on the radio,” he was racking up previously unattained accolades and success. The album proved to be his biggest hit both in Australia and internationally, and earned him four ARIA Music awards — Australia’s equivalent of the Grammys — including Single of the Year and Best Male Artist, in 2005.
Ever since, he has continued to flirt with — though never court — the mainstream. Perhaps the greatest example of Lee’s ability to straddle two worlds came in 2013 when, just as he was preparing to release the esoteric Ayahuasca, he was also appearing on the Australian version of The Voice, as the mentor to Good Charlotte frontman Joel Madden’s team of singers.
“That was very interesting timing,” Lee admits, “because I had just made the most obscure, niche record of my career, and then I get this call asking, ‘Do you want to appear in front of four million Australians every week on a national TV show?’ But I suppose that with The Voice, what I tested myself with — and what I continue to test myself with — is this idea of, ‘Can I hold onto my mind and my values in these types of mainstream environments?’ Because that world is a world that convinces you your value lies in your having arrived somewhere. But we know we never arrive anywhere. We’re just moving.”
With Love Is The Great Rebellion, Lee remains on the move. “I’ve tried to enter each period of my career with the thinking of, This is a new thing, this is a new moment, and I’m different now,” he says. “At the same time, with this record I wasn’t afraid to have some elements that are kind of what people might expect from me. Not in an inauthentic way, but more like, ‘Hey, I write my songs on the acoustic guitar, so let’s just allow the acoustic guitar to be the centerpiece.’ And for most of my career my songs have been catchy and sort of romantic and yearning and spiritual, and that’s okay. I’m not necessarily repeating myself by continuing to do that. I’m just accepting who I am. I’m saying, ‘These are the things that come naturally to me, let me work within them,’ while still emotionally and conceptually and psychologically dealing with new territory.
“That acceptance, and that resilience, is the kind of dignified rebellion that I’m talking about,” Lee continues. “And that has to exist throughout a long-term career. It has to be there with each recording, with each gig. Because inevitably you’ll go in and out of fashion and you’ll go in and out of people’s interest, so as an artist you have to be willing to just continue to honor your creativity and express yourself with dignity and enthusiasm. I hope I’ve tapped into that with this album. And I hope that continues to stay with me.”