Ben Lee was championed by America's underground before he was old enough to buy cigarettes. The Australian-born artist found a cheerleader in Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, transforming the then unknow
Ben Lee was championed by America's underground before he was old enough to buy cigarettes. The Australian-born artist found a cheerleader in Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, transforming the then unknown 14 year-old to a pop music prodigy.
His band, Noise Addict, disbanded, but Lee was soon fraternizing with celebrities and launching a much-buzzed-about solo career on the Beastie Boys' now-defunct Grand Royal label. His 1995 debut, "Grandpa Would," featured guest appearances by such indie rock royalty as the Spinanes' Rebecca Gates and Liz Phair.
Lee was bold in interviews, and pegged as the subject of ridicule in a song by the Ataris, but his American fortunes never came. Today, a more tempered Lee is just happy to see his fourth solo effort, "Hey You, Yes You," finally come out on these shores.
Recorded in 2001, "Hey You, Yes You" was released more than a year ago on Australia's Modular Records. But without a U.S. label, the New York-based artist was slowly becoming better known as the boyfriend of actress Claire Danes.
"I was stressed about the whole thing," Lee says about the process of releasing the album. "In my mind, the whole album became like this flat mate who didn't pay his bills and kept having them forwarded to my address. I'm just like, 'OK, we've got some unfinished business with this album. We've got to get it out and get some resolution.' I'm really relieved to see it come out [in the U.S.]."
"Hey You, Yes You" found a stateside home in independent F2 Music. Recorded with Gorillaz-producer Dan the Automator, the album sees Lee further expanding his Lemonheads-influenced tunes by incorporating up-to-minute beats and electronic textures.
Yet despite the album's indie roots, "Hey You, Yes You" is all power-pop gloss, the sound of Lee balancing his mainstream tendencies with his underground background. Lee has found the midpoint, perhaps, between John Mayer and Beth Orton.
"The pop songs hold massive allure to me," Lee says. "I don't think that form is finished at all. I was pretty open to trying new things on this record, and the last song on the album, 'Still on the Line,' is a whole new vibe for me. It's dissonant and droney, and I'd never really done anything like that before.
"Elsewhere," Lee continues, "a song like 'No Room to Bleed' is written with a classic pop sensibility, but it's subversive with the production and the arrangement. The structure I'm writing in now follows a very sort of Motown archetype or something. The more I learn about music, I get a bigger bag of tricks."
Lee describes the recording for "Hey You, Yes You" as a relaxed, collaborative process. With Dan the Automator pitching Lee beats on a daily basis, the producer's rhythmic backdrops inspired the shape of the songs, be it a power ballad such as "Chills" or the trip-hoppy "No Room to Bleed."
"Dan would just play me a bunch of beats, and I'd say, 'That one,'" Lee says. "The I'd go write a song in the afternoon and come back and record it. It was very spontaneous. For me, part of the experience of being in this universe is about working with people. I have no interest in creating a sort of utopian atmosphere where the king is left alone."
The sudden closing two years ago of the Capitol Records-affiliated Grand Royal imprint, through which Lee released three albums, gave him a quick introduction to the business of music, and played a part in Lee's decision to sign with an indie like F2.
"The music industry is such crazy shape right now," Lee says. "I'm not going to tie myself to a sinking ship. I'm interested in working with people who think outside the box. I'm an artist who does a lot of side projects, and my fans are really active online, and I didn't want to go into the old model of doing business."
Among Lee's side projects include a role in independent Australian film "The Rage in Placid Lake," which is just now starting to hit the film festival circuit, and an album of one-off collaborations with the likes of Kylie Minogue and Ben Folds.
"It'll be 12 new songs that I've written," Lee says. "I've projected my desires for what I'd wanted to hear out of their mouths. I've written each song from a different person's voice. So far, I've got Neil Finn, Tim Wheeler from Ash, Kylie, Angie Hart from Frente! and Ben Folds. It's a bizarre collection of people."
Lee hopes to finish the project once he's through promoting "Hey You, Yes You." The artist will stage a headlining tour of U.S. clubs later this fall, and next month Lee will be touring his native Australia with Longwave.
With more than 11 years of experience in the music biz, Lee's expectations are modest. He's seen his career take him from teen sensation to indie rock hipster, and now at the age of 25, he sounds like a seasoned vet.
"I can see that a lot of people starting bands are talking all this input from labels about their image and their business," Lee says. "It's too late for that for me. I've gone beyond the point of no return. I'm an artist. I feel like a man. I do my thing. If you want to get on board, get on board. If not, catch the next bus."