With Dear Companion, a new record and collaboration with Daniel Martin Moore and produced by Jim James, on store shelves and another leg of their “Appalachian Voices” tour set to begin in July, Ben Sollee is plenty busy.
Luckily, he was able to take a few moments to talk with us about the album, the ballet, and building a fan base.
Q: How did a classically-trained guy from Kentucky end up doing a Motown-style thing?
A: My dad’s an R&B guitarist so there was a lot of that around the house and I picked up cello in public schools and I did all the studies that one does on cello and those are typically grounded in classical.
So, I had this diverging life… I’d play classical music in school and in private lessons and then I’d come home and if I was going to play music with my friends and family it was either R&B or fiddle tunes with my grandfather, he was an Appalachian musician or it was rock tunes with my friends. The cello’s such a versatile instrument that I could pick up techniques from other instruments and apply them. That’s how I came to be a cellist playing R&B tunes.
Q: How did you go from that background to finding your own place in the musical world?
A: How do any of us find our place? I’m still looking for my place. Overall, I try to be honest. That’s a big deal for me to be honest. Even on all these songs that are seemingly protest songs or social consciousness songs, really there’s no effort or branding involved it’s much more about me being honest and these are things that I care about in my day-to-day life and after that if you keep being honest and playing shows, the audience will find you. That’s the best policy because then you’re not trying to cull from somebody else’s audience, you’re developing your own.
It’s a community based way to build an audience instead of the commercially based way of “Let’s go get you an opening tour with Third Eye Blind or something.” Even national TV, even when I played Jimmy Kimmel, you’re playing to a blind audience, you’ve got to develop your audience and play your show and keep doing it over and over again and the people that enjoy it will show up.
Q: What does your creative process look like? Are you a disciplined songwriter?
A: I’ve got so many different passions in my life, from bicycling to hanging out with my family that I’m not really a disciplined songwriter, per se. I’ve spent time being a disciplined cellist, I’ve spent time being a disciplined composer, I go through cycles of being focused on different things. It sort of sounds like a jack-of-all-trades but I that’s where I feel most comfortable. I want to master being a jack-of-all-trades if that’s possible.
Q: How was the approach to this album and working with Daniel and Jim different or similar to the other albums you’ve created?
A: In essence, it’s completely different. You’re not just approaching it from your own place, you’re approaching it with a team of people and what Daniel and I did not want was a record that was just a compilation of our tunes on one record.
We wanted a very unified expression of our love for Appalachian music and an expression of concern for what’s happening in central Appalachia with the mountain top removal coal mining.
Mountain top removal coal mining is exactly what it sounds like and all that rock and rubble that was on top of the mountain gets laid in these valley fills which blocks the waterways and pollutes them. A lot of that land gets devalued and it’s tough for people to keep a vibrant community when a mountain top removal mine is operating nearby.
Appalachia has its own struggles because its heritage is tied to coal mines but we’ve got a lot better technology these days and I think it’s one of the best things we can do to thank everybody there is to help them transition to these new technologies and rebuild those communities.
Q: Being from Kentucky, speaking out against mountaintop removal makes a lot of sense, what are some of the other causes you support?
A: The causes that I work on are all community based things, like poverty. It’s an invention of humanity and therefore it’s our responsibility to de-invent it.
I’m also passionate about education which is also community based but from a little different standpoint. I love to volunteer and go into schools and show kids what’s possible on a cello because I remember sitting there saying, “I love playing cello but I hate playing this music over and over” and I didn’t know that there were other things out there, I just kept being stubborn and hardheaded. In a lot of kinds minds they don’t get there for whatever reason, I really feel it’s important to show that the instruments: violin, cello, viola are not restricted to classical, that just happens to be the vernacular that they’re taught in.
Q: When did you have that realization that the instruments could be used for other styles of music?
A: It was always there for me, I’m really fortunate in that way because I had my parents and grandparents. My grandfather was an Appalachian fellow, he didn’t know about classical orchestra. He’d say, “Well, I guess you’re gonna play that longhair music again,” he didn’t associate the cello with that music. I was either playing longhair music or bluegrass music or my own music or rock, to him it was just an instrument.
He’d play me a fiddle tune and look at me like, “Well, go ahead and play it.” So I always had that it was ok to play other styles but it was really difficult to study classical and continue my studies and have it be so deeply tied to classical, not just rooted but tied. The sense of vibrato, the sense of timing, the way you move the bow, the sound you create is the vernacular of classical. It’s very difficult if you’re a diligent student of the cello to play other types of music because you get so specifically tied to the style of playing.
Q: You’ve been on a few bike tours, how do you approach packing efficiently?
A: I’m sort of OCD about the pack now, I’d give up an extra hour of the day just to get a perfect pack. I love it now, packing up the van and everything riding smoothly. I’m not generally that type of person but it’s so rewarding to me to get it right.
The perfect pack is as close and low on the frame as possible and then weight balanced. If I can cruise down the road and take both my hands off the handlebar for a moment and the bike will continue on down the path, you know you’re saving a lot of energy.
I feel like it’s started to be an allegory in the rest of my life. I want to get things right, everything from this interview, I want to get the words in a nice,compact balanced order so the idea gets expressed. Whether it’s teaching my son, yesterday he was on an airplane and he loved it, and I want to help him learn about airplanes, nice and compact and balanced.
For me it started to be a theme in my life, especially with a song, I want it to have an emotional impact and whether or not it’s a traditional song with a story line or just a word poem, that impact is well packed and when I say balanced I don’t mean symmetry but balanced with what the emotional impact is supposed to be and what the musical content is. The pack has infested my life and I’m so thankful for getting to do that, these bike tours are just amazing.
Do you bring any comfort items with you?
Not really, the first bike tour I did, I had some extra things but I cast them off. The second bike tour I just brought what was needed: instruments, proper clothes, safety gear and I usually bring my laptop for working on stuff and a pad of paper.
Q: On your twitter bio it says you’re a “wannabe dancer,” – what kind of dance?
A: I did say that on there, I love dance. I love it so much and I’ve been really fortunate to get to work with the Louisville ballet and a couple choreographers.
I did ballet for two years back in high school and I’ve always loved to dance but actually learning how to talk to dancer and follow their movement and mark their steps and contribute music that will move with the dance.
Dancers these days are so used to dancing to tape that their idea of taking time, if they want to take time on something, comes down to “If I take time on this I have to catch up somewhere else,” and it doesn’t have to be like that. It can be organic, “If you want time here, I’ll go with you. If you want to get it back, we’ll get it back. If you want to stay there, we’ll stay there. It’s alright.”
I look forward to doing a lot more work with dance and dance companies. Of all the different arts, dance speaks most plainly to me, I see it and it makes sense. Songs sometimes, movies, baffle me because there’s so much going on. But even the most abstract dances, movement makes sense to me and it influences how I write and shape a song.
Q: Are there any songs that you’ve always wanted to cover but haven’t?
A: I haven’t covered Ani DiFranco’s “Both Hands,” yet. For some reason I feel like I cant do it justice even though I love the song and Otis Redding’s, “These Arms of Mine.” I haven’t had the guts to do that one either.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like for people to know?
A: Let folks know that it’s not a record to raise money but, to raise awareness but we are donating our artists’ portion to Appalachian Voices which is based in North Carolina that does a lot to raise awareness nationally