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It’s a quiet, warm Saturday afternoon in downtown Louisville, and the lobby of the city’s most iconic display of Southern grandeur, The Seelbach Hotel, is bustling with road-worn and seemingly infrequent visitors stirring about.
One of those visitors is Lexington-native Ben Sollee, one of Kentucky’s up-and-coming “musical” displays of Southern grandeur. A classically trained cellist, Sollee is a one-man orchestra, who owns his instrument and is known for playing it with a combination of passion and grace. He has managed to breed a whole new style of playing his centuries-old instrument, where the end result is a little rock and roll, a little soulful, a little bluegrassy, a little jazzy, very modern, and all Americana.
In 2007, Sollee was lauded by NPR’s Morning Edition as one of the “Top Ten Unknown Artists of the Year.” After that, he officially began exporting himself nationwide and into the spotlight. He’s played Louisville’s Forecastle Festival, Bonnaroo, the Newport Folk Festival and in 2009, landed one of his tunes on Showtime’s series Weeds.
When Sollee wants to jam onstage, while on tour or while recording a new album, he collaborates with everyone from My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel and Jim James, to Daniel Martin Moore to Bella Fleck to Abigail Washburn. Broemel and Washburn joined Sollee on his latest release, Half-Made Man, released through his label, Tin Ear Records. He raised the funds to record it from a public-sourced fan base.
Sitting down in The Old Seelbach Bar, Sollee candidly opens up about his music and life – from the how and why he creates songs and his top picks for collaborations – to his bike tours and political activism.
You’ve just released Half-Made Man, which you’ve said is your most personal album to date. What makes it so personal?
Well, the goal of the record was to create a collection of self-portraits. So the songs do that in various ways by capturing the pieces of my personality, whether it’s the part that likes to fix things, or the part that’s impatient or the fatherly side of me. And to capture those in a really intimate and raw way, I invited some wonderful musicians to cut it with in the studio.
Yeah, you had quite a few guest musicians join you. So tell me about the process of choosing them, and how they contributed to the artistic process.
Many of the musicians are folks that I’ve played music with and that I really respected their distinct character as musicians…
Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket?
He came in and did a lot of the guitar work that you hear. Alana Rocklin is a tremendous R&B, jazz and hip-hop bass player [who] just came in and just covered all the bases. And Jordan Ellis, who is a percussionist, and who I’ve been playing with for a while.
Then we had a fiddler come in named Jeremy Kittel, and he’s from a real diverse background, everything from Scottish fiddling to a contemporary classical musical ensemble. So, the thing about the ensemble is that we didn’t have to try very hard to create a unique sound, because there was already a unique collection of people.
The production process, to me, for this record was pretty simple. Let’s just get good musicians in a good room with good equipment, and play it all damn night.
You also had, as I understand it, a guy who is quickly becoming popular in the recording scene here in Louisville, Kevin Ratterman. He’s also worked with My Morning Jacket and Wax Fang, and helped with your production, as well?
I think ‘becoming popular’ might even be a little bit of an understatement. Kevin Ratterman, for the last decade has had his finger on what the Louisville rock sound has become – a lot of the sounds you hear coming out, whether it be Cheyenne Marie Mize or My Morning Jacket’s new record, or Wax Fang. You know all those things are being put out and recorded by Kevin because he’s got this big heart and unending search for ‘the sound.’
Yeah, he’s definitely getting to all the musicians that have ‘the sound.’
That’s because he cares. It’s not necessarily because he has a fancy studio or even because of his rates. It’s because if you want to work with somebody – at this point if we’re going to spend all this time, money and energy recording a record – we want it to be with somebody who gives a damn.
Speaking of the money, you had a different approach to recording this in terms of how you funded it. Tell us a little bit about that and how that came about.
Well, the funding for this record was crowd-sourced through a platform called Pledge Music.
Truly public music?
[laughing] I guess so. And this project wouldn’t even be possible without that kind of support. So I think it’s fascinating, this relationship that’s developing.
I think there are some moments where it’s like a high school prom, where it’s kind of awkward, where you don’t know what you can and can’t do. But as we become more comfortable, as that relationship matures, I think it’s really going to be a profound way that perhaps funds a shift in the music business.
Your music has historically had an activism aspect to it, such as your bike tours. Is there anything in the future that’s gonna keep that part of you alive and how are you going to do it?
Well for me, my music always comes from a very personal place, and what I consider a very sincere expression. And in that way, all the things I care about as a person come to the surface. And I try to express them through the songs and through activities around the shows and through organizations I work with and various other projects. And I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. I’m not going to stop caring about those folks. How I can tie in and help those organizations will change as my business grows. And more opportunities, if anything. For the bike tours, we’re really trying to do about a third of our touring each year by bicycle.
Where are you biking to and from this year?
We biked from the Newport Folk Festival, where we had a really wonderful bunch of shows. And we rode our bikes up the coast to a bunch of shows in Portland, Maine. It wasn’t a tremendously long tour, but it was a beautiful tour.
How many miles would you say?
It was about 300 or so up the coast.
And you actually had the cello strapped to your back?
The cello actually goes on the side of the bicycle. It’s a utility bike on the side of the frame.
So tell me about some of the other artists out there who you’d still like to share a stage or studio with.
Oh, gosh, there are so many of them. There are folks like Paul Simon who I’d love to work with. There are folks like Ani DiFranco I’d like to work with. There are a tremendous amount of jazz artists I’d like to work with. The list is endless…
photos by Glint Studios