It's hard to imagine this past Sept. 11 was punctuated by Ben Lee turning 40. Especially when you consider just how long we’ve been listening to the Australian indie pop artist, who first caught the attention of acts like Sonic Youth and Beastie Boys when he was part of the Sydney youth punk group Noise Addict in the early ’90s.
Since then, he’s established himself as one of the great singer-songwriters on the L.A. music scene, releasing 13 solo albums beginning with 1995’s Grandpaw Would, which came out on the Beasties’ Grand Royal label when Lee was still in high school and highlighted by one of that year’s best singles in the Pixies-plugging “Pop Queen.”
“I remember very specifically several moments on the journey through 25 years wondering if the ride was going to be over,” Lee says. “I’m sorta entrepreneurial so I’ve managed to do different things along the way. But at the end of the day, I think when you start out really young, that feeling of documenting your journey and expressing yourself, when that gets into your blood it’s hard to imagine a life without it. Even in those moments where I was unsure what the future held, I’m so certain of my love for artistic expression that I’ll just cross my fingers and keep going.”
The latest stop on Lee’s journey finds him taking a huge leap into the worlds of stage and screen. He just released a collaborative album based on an off-Broadway musical he helped create with legendary author Tom Robbins derived from a self-proclaimed “children’s book for adults,” B Is for Beer.
“I’m drawn to outsiders,” Lee says. “It’s no coincidence my list of collaborators is peppered with people like Tom and Lena [Dunham], Harmony Korine and Daniel Johnston. Weird, fringe people who look at the world from a different perspective; I love that.”
Following her longtime association with Michael Penn throughout the run of Girls, Lena Dunham tapped Lee to create the music for the latest comedy series she’s created with longtime collaborator Jenni Konner, the U.S. adaptation of the British TV show Camping, now airing on HBO
“I love the way Lena works through people’s darkest tendencies,” Lee reveals. “But I think it's ultimately because she loves people, and she’s trying to love them with all their messiness.”
We reached out to several cast members of both B Is for Beer and Camping — many of whom are longtime friends of Lee's, the most important being his wife, Ione Skye — to get their hot takes on Lee and the quarter-century of great music he has brought into this universe since before he could drive.
Juliette Lewis: “Working with Ben he really takes you into this sonic world where anything is possible. Yet knows exactly how to serve a song. AND make it completely one of a kind. There is radiance and Willy Wonka type magic in everything he touches. And he’s just a fun fckn person to be around. No temper tantrum genius. So there’s that!”
Lena Dunham: "I've been obsessed with Ben for about two decades so this is kind of a dream. His wit and style make him a perfect composer for a comedy that’s just a little twisted. ... We heart Ben Lee.”
Ione Skye: “Well, ‘I Wish I Was Him,’ the 1990s ‘cut’ as the cool people used to call a song, was my first favorite Ben song. That was the song the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth loved, and I was in that scene so we all were crazy for the young Ben Lee. And being married to him and going to concerts even before we were together — I always loved the Awake Is the New Sleep album. Lately I’ve been listing to the Deeper Into Dream album. He’s so romantic; clever but not cynically or bitter. I’m a No. 1 fan. Ben is safe and wild, solid and free. He is wise and youthful. He is the best friend to talk with about ideas and feelings.”
Belinda Carlisle: “It was an honor and a privilege working with Ben and being asked to sing such amazing lyrics that really resonate with where I am at this stage of my life. As a sober person, playing the part of the beer fairy was perfect — being able to really understand her and the incredible words she sings. And 'Through the Seam' is one of the best songs I’ve gotten to sing.”
Laura Silverman: “Working with Ben was super exciting for me. My sister had introduced me to him probably 20 years ago, this teenager from Australia who wrote these great, quirky songs. So he was always kind of an icon in my mind, just someone special. Getting to know him as a person — he’s so curious and excited about all there is to know and all the ways to see things, it’s refreshing and very infectious. The whole process was a blast — supportive, collaborative, and yeah, just that infectious excitement about making music. I found a wonderful new friend in Ben. That doesn’t always happen in this business — that you make real connections that don’t dissipate in the aftermath. He and Ione have both become real friends, no bullshit. I love that.
"When he approached me about singing the role of Gracie — well, I was crazy excited but I kept asking him, ‘Are you sure? How do you even know I can sing? Surely there isn’t someone better?’ And he said, ‘You can sing. I feel confident about that.’ I still had my doubts — I didn’t want to sink a project he’d been working on for so long but I trusted him — and I was super excited to be a part of it. It’s funny, because for years I have been joking to my friends that I still hadn’t given up on my dream of being a Broadway Kid. I guess I was right! It really did feel like a lifelong, silly dream had just fallen from the sky, and with someone I had long held in such high esteem.
"I can’t not comment on the writing — 'History of Wonder' is just a masterpiece, lyrically and musically, and ‘Liquid Courage’ blows my mind with its depth of emotion in a fun, catchy tune. It really gets me in my gut every time, and I can’t hear it without picturing it being sung onstage at the Tonys. Alex and Cary’s vocals are amazing. It almost hurts how much I want people to hear this stuff. It’s just so good!”
Michael Wells: “Ben and I have always had a cosmic connection, so it was only fitting that we teamed up for a project that chewed on the cosmos. Ben has such great natural instincts as a musician and composer, and a real knack for lyrics and storytelling, so when I got brought onboard as a true music nerd and reformed musical theater composer, I knew it would be a great match.”
Jon Cryer: “My first impression of Ben Lee was not from his music. Our daughters were friends in preschool and, as far as I was concerned, Ben was just 'that guy who has an incredible rapport with kids at birthday parties.' But I had friends who were rabid fans of his, and when I first heard his work, I could see why. I’m not the first to notice how his music melds a childlike sense of joy with sophisticated musicality and intellectual inquiry into spirituality.
"So when he told me, 'I’ve written a musical!' I won’t say I was surprised. Although I may have been a little bumped by the subject matter.
"We got to talking and I mentioned that I’d just gotten back from doing a concert staging of a musical in New York City and within two sentences he had asked me to direct B Is for Beer. He sent over the music and while I listened with some trepidation (it’s easy to make enormous and often hilarious mistakes when writing one’s first musical), I came away absolutely beguiled. He had written songs that were dynamic, catchy, heartfelt and engaging. And on his first try! And I’ve found much to admire about how he’s pursued the process of gestating B Is for Beer as a theatrical piece. At every stage he’s allowed the piece to simply be what it is and gather whatever following it garners. He trusts it. And by working with Tom Robbins, he’s managed to infuse both the piece and the process with a constant vibe of exploration. I can see why all these amazing folks just keep hopping aboard to help. Ben just makes sure it’s fun.
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"If you’d asked me, 'Who do you think should write a musical based on a Tom Robbins novel about beer as a metaphor for the higher consciousness and the origin of the universe?' I guess I might’ve blurted out 'Ben Lee!'
"But probably not. And that would’ve been my mistake.”
Camping is airing on HBO now.