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Ben Lee - Ready To Eat

Author: Scott Berry
Wednesday, 5 September 2007
Scott Berry chatted to Ben Lee about his new record Ripe, admiring Jay-Z and picking up chicks with Jason Schwartzman.

Australia has many great songwriters and musicians, but few are as interesting as Ben Lee. He is a young man who has never shied away from the public spotlight, a fact perfectly highlighted by his recollection of what it was like to play at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

“I was playing alongside Grinspoon and Sarah Blasko and everyone was walking off stage saying that was just too big a space, and I walked off saying ‘I could do that every night’,” he laughs. “It shows that whatever it is that makes people crave that sort of attention, maybe it’s a damaging experience in childhood or a genuine need to share, but I think I’ve got it in my DNA.”

Often when the label ‘attention grabbing’ is placed on a person it has negative connotations, but for Lee it’s just the truth. He feeds off the attention in the best kind of way, and you can expect that he’ll be getting a whole heap more attention with the release of his new album, Ripe.

After the commercial and critical success of Awake Is The New Sleep with hit singles like Catch My Disease and We’re All In This Together, Lee’s new album Ripe is a more personal and passionate account of longing for love.

“My records are always about love from different aspects. I find that as I get older I’m a little less self-conscious in all the best ways, so I’m able to express my passion, my open heart in a more vulnerable manner, which I hope makes it more exciting to listen to as a listener. I think I’m getting more patient and I think Ripe as a concept is not just about the moment when you bite into the fruit, but to also let things get ripe you have to abstain from things a little bit as well, to let the fruit ripen. As I get older, I am becoming more patient and more able to enjoy the process of longing and enjoy it before the consummation of something. So in this record I’m talking about how good it feels to want.”

One of the more unexpected songs on Ripe is the duet with Mandy Moore, and Lee candidly explains the inspiration behind this song. “Birds And Bees wasn’t initially a duet. I’d been out at the clubs, me and Jason Schwartzman [actor and brother of Rooney lead singer Robert Schwartzman], we had this fantasy that we’d be the indie Matthew McConaughey and Jake Gyllenhaal picking up chicks and being each other’s wingman. So we tried it for a few nights with not much success and we came back one night and thought, ‘everybody wants love’. Even though it looks like they are just trying to get a shag, they are looking for companionship.

“I though about how innate it is for human beings to be looking for love. So I wrote that song and it wasn’t going to be a duet and then I went and saw Mandy [Moore] play one night, I’d never met her and someone said that she wanted to meet me and she said she was a big fan of my music. She asked if she could come past the studio to hear some stuff and then it started coming into my head. Wow, Birds and Bees would be amazing as like a Summer Lovin’ kind of ‘50s duet. It all blossomed from there, because Mandy has that ineffable sweetness, she’s someone that has stayed uncorrupted in that Olivia Newton-John kind of way.”

Lee has been quoted as saying that pop music can change the world, but he is far from a political type. When asked how he wants to change the world he suggests, “I think what I bring to the table in terms of pop culture is an openness and a degree of playfulness, that you don’t see too often. I think people either take themselves too seriously or on the other side make everything a joke. I don’t want to be at either extreme; I want to have an open, honest, fun attitude towards living and growing and I think the world needs more of it.”

When asked about artists that inspire him, he gives an unsurprising list including Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Run DMC, but his track What Would Jay-Z Do- indicates a less expected inspiration. “Yeah, Jay-Z truly is a hero of mine, I do think it’s amazing how he’s navigated his career and he still finds time to spend 90% of his time on a yacht in Capri, so I’m just inspired by the guy. Every generation has a few figures that make things look effortless, my parents generation had Frank Sinatra and I think we have Jay-Z.”

Of course, having now collected a total of six ARIA’s, Lee is becoming one of those artists who makes releasing music look pretty effortless too. “In the beginning I couldn’t give away a record in Australia, so to be there [at the ARIAs], the pinnacle of our industry, it is a big deal. I think musicians and actors, when you get an honour like that, it’s one of those moments where you think ‘Oh my God, they are gonna keep letting me do this’. After receiving the ARIAs, I thought, ‘Wow, this means I can at least make another three records.”

Finally, I had too much curiosity about “that” incident with Bernard Fanning to let this opportunity slide on by without asking the big question. Had Lee patched things up after the much publicised mudslinging match between himself and Bernie- “Yeah, I think that when you are young and you are doing interviews you feel pressured to say scandalous things and be interesting or entertaining. I don’t want to blame the media but I think both of us played into what is expected of musicians, which is to talk shit about each other. We hadn’t both experienced how much a bigger deal it was than just talking shit about someone with your mates, and it’s a way bigger deal and it’s not worth it. So I think we both chalked it up as an experience.”

WHO: Ben Lee
WHAT: New album Ripe out through Inertia
WHEN: Released 15 September