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Ben Sollee

Ben Sollee:

Ubiquitous

By Kevin Gibson

Ben Sollee, like so many musicians around Louisville, is a bit of a Guitar Emporium rat.

Lately, however, Sollee spends so much time on the road with Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet that he doesn't have much time to shop. On the other hand, he's got a good reason to shop, considering he's in a band with Washburn, Casey Dreissen and banjo-master Bela Fleck. He has also played with diverse blues man Otis Taylor. Good company requires good equipment, right?

"Up until recently I was just one of the annoying kids who always comes in and plays everything and never buys anything," Sollee, 24, said.

Chances are, the techs are happy to see him these days.

In addition to his travels with the quartet, Sollee is also - when there's time, of course - promoting a new solo album titled Learning to Bend, which already has garnered high praise. It's a singer-songwriter affair with a twist: Sollee is a classically trained cellist, which is quite a switch from the vocals-and-acoustic-guitar setup typically associated with singer-songwriters. Plus, his infusion of a number of diverse musical styles pretty much turns the coffee shop singer-songwriter formula on its ear.

Bend was recorded in Lexington (where Sollee grew up) at Shangri-La Productions and produced by Duane Lundy, who has worked with artists from all over, from Brigid Kaelin to Scourge of the Sea.

"His take on the cello is pretty humble," Lundy said of Sollee. "He doesn't look at it in the same way the majority of other cello players and other stringed instrument players look at their instruments. He is unique in the fact he has brought it into a different element. He has the opportunity to do something musicians in this day and time aren't usually in a position to do, which is reinvent and create a unique spot for himself. I think that is his greatest asset right now."

Lundy paused and noted, "He's amazing at it, too."

Ben Sollee

FROM WHENCE HE CAME

Sollee attended the University of Louisville School of Music, where he studied under Paul York - an accomplished player who has performed at Carnegie Hall and has shared a stage with internationally acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma - but like so many musicians, Sollee's musical roots go way, way back into his childhood. His father played guitar, his mother sang and his grandfather was an Appalachian fiddler and banjo player, so music was always around.

As for when the musical lightning struck him personally, well, it's anyone's guess, he said during a recent telephone interview between touring the U.S. and Canada and preparing to fly to China.

"I don't know if there was a particular point or a thing that happened," he said. "I know there was one thing that happened when I was singing in my elementary school choir, singing 'Tutti Fruiti.' I decided then that I wanted to be on stage making music."

Little Richard gets 'em every time.

But one would guess that a kid sparked by an early rock 'n' roll song would pick up the guitar. The cello? Heck, most kids would want a guitar or drums if only to have a foolproof way of annoying their parents.

"I think I did find job of annoying them," Sollee deadpanned. "But it was a matter of, I don't know, the teacher walked into my third grade classroom, played all kinds of different instruments for us and I just liked the way the cello sounded.

"Why I ended up sticking with it, I don't know. It can just do all the things I want it to do. The reason I play it is no different than the different composers over the centuries have done it - it's just so versatile."

And no, Fayette County Schools didn't have a cello track for blossoming young musicians who want to use a non-traditional instrument in a singer-songwriter setting. There was no Cello-and-Vocal For Aspiring Folk Artists 101. You tell your parents you want to learn the cello and you learn classical.

"It just comes part and parcel with the fact I was playing cello," Sollee said.

But growing up on the east side of Lexington near the Continental Inn - "This huge hotel that always had mystic stone conventions and pocket knife conventions and all sorts of strange stuff," Sollee said - he played all sorts of stringed instruments, including guitar and listened to the radio, which also influenced him.

Staying focused could have been difficult, given he was the only cellist in a very small school orchestra at a place that was "not one of the most well regarded schools in town." Sollee credits his teacher Ellen Dennison, who taught him all the way through middle school, as a great influence on his development.

ADDING LYRICS AND VOCALS

Sollee enjoys classical music, obviously, but also enjoys the singer-songwriter format. It is natural for a musician to write and sing as well as play, since the three go hand in hand ... in hand.

"I always just loved singing and always loved playing instruments," he said.

During his middle teen years, he recorded a home project he titled Just Plain Ben. Another one followed toward the end of his high school career, but he said neither was distributed much if at all.

But it laid the groundwork for what he's doing today and that is combining many musical elements into one sound and his influences reflect that passion.

"I think the kind of music that that interests me is stuff that is always mixing it up," he said, citing Wilson Pickett and Paul Simon as examples. His mother was into Phoebe Snow and Ella Fitzgerald and he admits also having "a great love for the female voice."

But he admits it was probably the music he experienced first hand that influenced him the most.

"Being around my grandfather and having him wanting me to learn fiddle tunes," Sollee said, is a prime example. "It was a challenge for me but I came to appreciate it. My dad has his own particular style of playing guitar as well and I can tell now how that influenced me growing up.

"At the same time, I was studying an instrument that has a whole lineage of composers and players and techniques that I'm expected to know. And just being a young kid and listening to stuff on the radio and having fun. That creates a connection in your body, a lowest common denominator that you incorporate into your music. That's why [the varied influences are] so very much on the album."

SPEAKING OF WHICH

A website called Music-Reviewer.com called Sollee a "truly refreshing talent" in a review of Bend. A HeroHill.com reviewer wrote, "it's how he's able to meld soul, bluegrass and roots in a way that I've never heard before that is so impressive." And HybridMagazine.com wrote, "Sollee is a musical chameleon, flitting from style to style effortlessly." Comparisons to Amos Lee abound.

All this, as if his inclusion on NPR's Top Ten Unknown Artists of the Year last year wasn't enough. And not surprisingly, his friends and colleagues gush about his versatility as well.

"He has a unique situation the same way Bob Dylan did years ago, where he's got a different way of [utilizing] at his instrument, a unique voice and a conscience," Lundy said. "Ben's a very responsible person, he's very conscientious with what he's doing, which is not just unusual in this day and age, it's unusual in general.

"It's always about the music, the emotional connection to the art of the musician - he's not pandering to anybody. My sense is he is playing exactly what he likes and not everybody is that fortunate or has that outlook."

According to Jeffrey Smith, who is Sollee's PR flack through Crash Avenue Promotions and a musician in his own right, what sets Sollee apart is

Ben's guitar-playing and music-loving father Bob Sollee had this to say about his son's music: "Ben's sense of time and expression comes directly from the center of his chest which processes what he thinks, hears and plays as music. He lets his ideas, emotions and observations marinate together during his creative process and couples the effort with a lot of hard work to perfect and improve his compositions until he's comfortable initially."

The album has strong track after strong track, to be sure and they come at you from all different directions. Not only are they lyrically challenging and musically diverse, the album is a sonic success - and the album's concept is an intriguing theme as well.

The cattails, or catpoles, around the lake at his grandfather's farm inspired Sollee to conceive of the notion of bending rather than breaking, much like those odd plants bend with the wind rather than breaking off under the strain.

"It's the idea of not just pushing against something or trying to resist, but actually incorporating those things in your life," Ben Sollee said. "When you hit a stressful time in your life, if you rail against it, you're just going to go down. Instead of moving against the energy, move it around you."

Lundy counts Sollee as one of the favorite singer-songwriters he has worked with, citing in part their similar approaches they utilized when recording the songs. Lundy said he worked from the perspective of basing the recording around Sollee's performances, rather than meticulously trying to get every note, every sound just so - no cutting and pasting and minimal overdubs.

"The communication between us was very unspoken, which is nice," Lundy said. "We knew where we wanted to go right out of the gate. He is a very committed person; it's not always easy to find that sense of commitment."

The approach - and Lundy's wide-open studio - lent an intimacy to the finished product, Lundy said.

"We did a lot of microphones and textures," Lundy said. "I wanted it feel like you were sitting in the room [when you hear the recording]. Time Out of Mind by Dylan was a big influence on me in that you felt like you were sitting in the room watching it all happen."

And while Lundy hesitates when choosing a favorite, he points to "textural" songs as benchmarks for sound and what the album is about.

"I'm a sonic texture guy, that's my angle and that's what I provide: nourishment to the artist," he said. "I think Dick Sisto's work on the vibes was really fun, really smart. We talked that out a great deal before he came in. And getting the strings done was an arduous process, but it was also something you knew was going to sonically take the album from something that was just Ben and a cello and advance it a bit on a textural level."

And no one can discount the emotional aspects of it, which is a trademark of Sollee's live shows as well. "Panning For Gold" is one of Sollee's favorites for that very reason.

He particularly likes "the expression that I had I achieved through that song. But it's still such an open expression that a lot of people can get lot of diff stuff out of it. I enjoy seeing the different reactions when I perform that song."

"The ability to take a personal situation and make it relevant on many levels by broadening its boundaries is something I have always admired in a songwriter," said John Turner, Director of Marketing at Thirty Tigers, which is the distribution partner of Sollee's label, sonaBLAST!.

On "Gold," Turner notes, Sollee "turns his feelings about his grandfather's dementia into a meditation on God not being able to see the beauty in the world and forgetting the order of the universe. This ability to shape stories into legends where every listener can take something different from the lyrics is one of Ben's many strengths."

"My favorite story is when Ben played for all the staff of RED [an artist development and distribution company] in New York City," Smith said. "I was standing in the back of the room watching all these folks that had never heard of him before, all with arms folded, all almost waiting for this kid to not be worth their time. He pulled off one of his best shows ever, in an industry environment and had them speechless. Twenty people, half of them laughing and crying right along with the songs.

"That reaction never gets old. He's so far beyond being some kid playing folk songs on the cello. His gift is truly the ability to communicate through those songs."

The elder Sollee chose "A Few Honest Words" as his favorite from the album. It's a plea to our political leaders to simply tell the public the truth.

"The tempo is captivating, the instrumentation is minimal but melodic, his voice is sincere and the message is powerful," Bob Sollee said. "And he's right, 'it shouldn't be that hard.' I have other favorites, but mostly I simply like the whole experience of listening to the CD, especially through higher quality audio gear where you can actually hear just how well his stuff was recorded."

ALWAYS MOVING FORWARD

Sollee, busy with the Sparrow Quartet, has barely had time to promote his solo CD. Heck, he's barely had time to see his family or even get a nap in, from the sound of his touring schedule.

He will be heading back to China in mid-August, after having done so as part of the first-ever U.S. music group allowed to tour Tibet in 2006 with what would eventually become the Sparrow Quartet. Dreissen put together the crew for that trip.

"It was pretty huge and was a pilot thing so that now other bands can do that," he said. "We had the responsibility of making sure it went well. [The Sparrow Quartet] really came together during that tour."

The band released an eponymous album May 20, which explains the rigorous touring schedule this summer.

"It's still very new and we're still pounding away at the road," Sollee said during the phone interview with LMN in mid-July. "We've been out over a month now on the road. We're in Lowell, Mass., right now. We're out another five days, back home for two, then back out for two weeks. It's very busy."

Following that interview, the group hit Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Michigan and Canada before heading across the waters. Still, he will find time to perform some Louisville shows later in the summer, including Waterfront Wednesday on August 26 and will do a solo tour in the fall to promote Learning to Bend.

That will be a show worth checking out, if all the quiet hype about Sollee is true. And make no mistake, he'll be taking in your reaction as he performs. He might even make a few adjustments to maximize the experience.

"He's all about constant improvement as a father, husband, musician and as a person," his dad said. "And one of his greatest musical strengths is his ability to improvise; playing music with Ben is just plain fun. It makes you feel good."

Yeah and just wait until the guys at Guitar Emporium get a load of him.