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Music: The Seeker

Aussie singer/songwriter Ben Lee finds a spiritual mission in his Pop life

By Cole Haddon · May 31st, 2006 · Music
  Pop troubadour Ben Lee likens his spiritual awakening to seeing Nirvana (the band) for the first time.
C. Taylor Crothers

Pop troubadour Ben Lee likens his spiritual awakening to seeing Nirvana (the band) for the first time.

If Ben Lee had his way, Pop music might just be the soundtrack of life. Hell, the way he talks about it, you almost imagine God breathing existence into man while the Bee Gees and the Bay City Rollers blasted on his iPod.

Discovered by Sonic Youth back in 1993 when he was still barely a teenager and wrapped up in his Aussie band, Noise Addict, Lee has since shed his Punk Rock roots, outgrown the Indie Rock world he fumbled through in the late-'90s and surrendered himself fully to the power of Pop music on his latest, last year's Awake Is the New Sleep. The collection of Lithium-influenced, deliriously contagious tracks -- none too afraid to use a good hand clap -- has the ability to get even the most miserable people to bounce their heads, especially Down Under where, last summer, it was impossible to wander the streets without hearing his knee-slapping, foot-stomping single, "Catch My Disease," buoyantly rising from every imaginable speaker.

"With my music, it's not a brain thing. It's a heart thing, you know what I mean?" he says. "With a lot of people in music, journalists can explain to you why in the history of Rock music this is important, because it uses this influence or that influence, being clever because of this or that. It's not like that with my music. You either feel the vibration in your heart -- it's a feeling -- or you don't. The people who really get it, it becomes a mission."

Seated in the corner of a hip new downtown café in Detroit, nursing a tea from beneath a corona of curls, he is a ball of energy neatly contained inside a vivid blue shirt the color of pool lining.

At any moment, it's not difficult to imagine this small, fey man will hop up and burst into song as he skips from tabletop to tabletop.

"It's not about whether you like it or you don't," he says of music. "It's about if it's pure or not. Is it real? And if it's real, it changes you and you're never the same, whether you like it or not. When I look at music, that's the big problem with music critics and the like: they're obsessed with the things they like and they don't like. They're not looking at the inherent, transformative power of a work. Do the people who view this work walk away differently? Yes or no? That's what's important to me."

Lee attributes much of his transformation to spiritual journeys to India where he meets with a guru who has helped him embrace a life of service through music, he believes.

"Music was always spiritual to me," he explains, "But spirituality can be an alienating word. I always believed in it, though, because that's what music is.

"You always risk being ridiculed, especially when you talk about love, when you're talking about compassion," he continues. "And then people get all hard. So I wasn't looking for anything when I went to India. I had this experience, where I met a teacher, that I can only describe as 'coming home.' As soon as I start talking about this, you get the image of some rock-and-roller going to India wrapped in a shawl, but it's not like that. It was like hearing the perfect Pop song for the first time, (one) that sounds like you've heard it before but you haven't. It's that perfect."

Spouting lines that sound like Buddhist profundities can be a risky proposition, but Lee is completely indifferent to how someone, even a journalist, receives him -- he knows how "overwhelming" he can be.

"At the time, I was sick of living a life that seemed so competitive," he says of the India experience. "I didn't even take my guitar to India. I thought, music, that's my job; I want to do something good there for humanity. I get there, I go to see this great teacher and you get the chance to ask some questions sometimes, and he says to me, 'The great meaning of human life is service.' And I was like, that's exactly where I'm at. And he looks at me and says, 'Music.' And it suddenly clicked."

The click resonated through how he made music and it sustained him through his much-publicized break-up with Claire Danes that followed her unexpectedly jumping ship for Billy Crudup. (Hell, his first Aussie single off Awake, "Gamble Everything for Love," was mockingly called "Gamble Everything for Love (And Still Lose Her to Billy Crudup)" by DJs back home.) But Lee came out of it changed for the better, and he still calls Danes a close friend; their relationship had simply run its course, that's all.

"Hope is a decision, too," he says. "We live in a world where people choose darkness all the time. They choose to focus on the negative. When they write songs, they choose to write on the wrong in their life. You even have a lot of songwriters who'll tell you, 'I can only write from pain.' No one knows how a song is written. Don't tell me you can only write from pain. You don't know how you write songs. I don't know how I write songs. But what you hear when they're talking like that, you hear the psychology at work of a culture obsessed with negativity. Afraid of the light. And for me, I'm interested in light, I'm interested in healing, I'm interested in growth, I'm interested in how people operate at their full potential, at that super-high-frequency stuff.

"So for me, that's where the Punk Rock training comes in. That I have to say, 'Even in a world this way, I believe there is value to a different way of thinking.' And that's when I fall back to the way I felt when I was 13 years old and I saw Nirvana. Or the way I felt at these great moments.

"I think of the fact that all great ideas were at first blasphemy," he says.

BEN LEE plays at Coney Island's Moonlite Gardens Wednesday, June 7, with Nickel Creek.


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