Ben Lee is Kind of a Creative Midwife Now
When Ben Lee was in second grade, he stood among a throng of trembling classmates waiting to audition for their school’s production of Uncle Moishy and The Mitzvah Men. When the teacher called his name, Lee stepped forward and launched into a rendition of that old chestnut, “Happy Birthday,” the required audition song.
He had never really thought of his singing voice before, but as the notes poured out of him — on key! — he felt good. He watched as the teacher wrote something next to his name on the list of auditionees and, all of a sudden, he knew that he could sing.
“In that moment, the connection between what felt good, what music did to me and to my body and my organism — and getting validation — were intimately connected,” Lee tells TIDAL. “I ended up playing Uncle Moishy, with the hit song, ‘Ain’t Gonna Work on Saturday.’”
Decades later, the acclaimed singer-songwriter is primed to enter the world of musical theater once more, this time as one set of brains behind a musical adaptation of author Tom Robbins’ 2009 satirical children’s book for adults, B is for Beer (out October 12). It’s a definite evolution for the lifelong musician, one that’s in perfect concert with his new role as composer for HBO’s upcoming show Camping (October 14). Lee is no longer the tortured front man; he’s now a master collaborator.
A quick primer on Ben Lee: he’s an Australian musician who first broke out at age 14 in the band Noise Addict, a group that had some major fans in the form of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and the Beastie Boys, the latter of whom released Noise Addict’s work on their label, Grand Royal Records. His solo career kicked off when he was 16, and, ever since, he has been churning out ever-more ambitious work — from concept albums about dreams (2011’s Deeper into Dream) to musical explorations of hallucinogens (2013’s Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work). Somewhere in there he also dated actress Claire Danes and was voted the world’s sexist vegetarian.
“My interest is in the bizarre and weird and wonderful and I like collaborating with people that share those interests,” Lee says. “I’ve always felt an affinity for the weirdos and the misfits, those weird, fringe shamanic artists doing their thing.”
Although Lee has collaborated with musicians like Mandy Moore and Benji Madden in the past (on 2007’s Ripe), the level to which he’s connecting with those weird and wonderful collaborators has ratcheted up of late — from producing farewell shows for cult musician Daniel Johnston to recording a record with actor Josh Radnor as Radnor & Lee (How I Met Your Mother) to hooking up with best-selling author Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume) to make a whimsical musical about beer.
“Tom very squarely fits into my type of person,” Lee says. “He’s out there and spiritual, but also interested in the dirt and the sexuality and the quirkiness of humanity — and he’s funny.”
B is for Beer tells the stories of 7-year-old Gracie, “her distracted mommy, her insensitive dad, her non-conformist uncle, and a magical, butt-kicking Beer Fairy from a world within our world,” according to a release.
“Even though it’s about beer, it’s really about the kid’s prospective, the question: ‘Why does my dad drink beer?’” Lee explains. “It’s really the same question as, ‘Why do grownups try to alter their consciousness?’”
Struck by the concept inherent in the quirky book, Lee reached out to Robbins almost 10 years ago to work together on a musical, which is coming to fruition on October 12 in the form of an album featuring Laura Silverman, Busy Philipps, Paul F. Tompkins, Belinda Carlisle, Jon Cryer, Rose Byrne, Cary Brothers and Alex Wyse. Robbins admits that at first Lee’s proposal surprised him, but after getting to know each other, the two worked on a script and music that would become a wholly new iteration of the author’s original novella.
“It’s rather like adding a scoop of ice cream to a piece of pie,” Robbins says of the album. “But the pie itself had better be good. [The album] can also reach people who might otherwise have missed it in today’s semi-literate world. … My hope is that it makes audiences somewhere first thirsty… then feel better about just being alive.”
Lee says that the cast of the project was game from the onset to participate in the unusual album, despite being pretty high-profile and more than a little busy. (Many of them are old friends). “At this moment in my life and my career, I really want to work with people who love to play and are looking for opportunities to play,” he says. “It’s really cool, because if you look at people like Busy Philipps or Rose Byrne, these are people with very full schedules… They’re the kind of people that say ‘yes’ when something resonates with them.”
For his part, he’s been happy to sit back in some respects and let someone else’s vision take the fore. According to wife and actress Ione Skye, Lee used to get overly critical of his work, finishing an album then immediately deriding it, pledging to do better the next go-around.
“It was very extreme and it used to drive me crazy. So dramatic,” she says. “He’s very much mellowed on that kind of relationship to each album. It’s been nice to see him experiment with working with others.”
Skye and Lee met nearly 20 years ago through friends at an impromptu Christmas party, then reconnected 10 years later. According to Skye, they share a kinship, as they both launched their careers in their early teens: Lee with Noise Addict and Skye most notably in Cameron Crowe’s coming of age rom-com classic, Say Anything… “It was really nice timing because we’ve both had parallel careers in a way,” she says. “We both came out with a bang, self-motivated, really young.”
The duo was therefore familiar with the struggles associated with entering the industry early, the transition from mainstream to indie and back again. “Maybe I felt like I had something to prove because when I started out it was like, ‘Oh, this guy is just cool because the Beastie Boys like him.’ Then it was like, ‘Oh, he’s dating Claire Danes.’ All these stories,” Lee says. “There was a part of me that probably believed that, too. Maybe I am all hype. Maybe I don’t really have the talent to do it. So you end up getting this bravado as a means of dealing with your own insecurities.”
Still, the two have found comfort in each other’s successes and failures — and, according to Skye, Lee has definitely eased up on the bravado. They’ve also found solace in the work of their friends and colleagues, many of whom Skye says they’ve seen make a place for themselves in Hollywood and the music industry despite the usual challenges.
In particular, Skye cites Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s upcoming HBO show, Camping, which tells the tale of a group of friends gathered to celebrate a birthday that goes wildly off the rails. Skye stars at Carleen, the meek sister of Jennifer Garner’s character, Kathryn Siddell-Bauers, and Lee composed the soundtrack. It’s a gig he scored due to his wife’s involvement in the show — and the fact that Denham is a huge fan.
Composing music for a TV show has been a humbling experience for Lee, a collaboration that takes him even further from the center of the project than B is for Beer. “I’m used to making music to dominate people’s attention,” he says. “In this case, you don’t want to dominate their attention because then you’re going to undermine the scene. I’ve sort of grown through thinking about music in that way.”
Skye tends to agree. “Right now he’s starting to relax and let himself collaborate,” she says. “He’s such a doer. He makes his own life. It’s been amazing to watch. He’s so creative but he’s also so logistically sound. So organized.”
Still, when it comes his work nowadays, Lee is quick to share the credit. “For so many years I think I didn’t even want to listen to other people’s ideas; I only liked my own ideas,” he says. “And now I find myself as an adult having developed the skill of actually helping people facilitate their ideas. I’ve just in love with the process. It’s like being a midwife.”
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