As cars zip past the Canyon Country Store on a humid afternoon, Ben Lee glances over his shoulder at the passing traffic, takes a sip of his coffee and flashes a grin. Having lived here in Laurel Canyon for the better part of the past nine years, after nearly seven years in New York City, the Australian-born singer says he’s as connected to his craft as he’s ever been. Self-deprecating at times, Lee is acutely aware of where his career is at this juncture.
“I don’t want to compete against Katy Perry or Rihanna where there’s millions of dollars of promotions and production on their records,” the 37-year-old says between sips. “I’m more worried about what I do, and how I can do that better than anyone else.”
Over more than 20 years as a solo musician, Lee has carved out a steady, workmanlike career. His sense of how music has changed over that time has allowed him to continue playing and writing new material even as many of his contemporaries have faded. Lee’s willingness to adapt and change has seen him write songs for commercials and as a songwriter-for-hire. But those endeavors didn’t appeal to him as much as working on his own material.
This year brought another new development to the singer-songwriter's career: inking with a major label, Warner Bros. Records. Lee attributes the one-off deal to the strength of material he released at his previous label stops — including stints at the now-defunct Grand Royal, Dangerbird and New West — and his continuing friendship with label execs. “It’s not because Warner Bros. looked at my last two albums and saw a guy making money,” he says.
His new album for Warner Bros., Love Is the Great Rebellion, is a cheerful departure from his previous two efforts. Working for the fifth time with producer Brad Wood, Lee's 10th solo full-length is a return to the peppy indie pop that marked his earlier material. Lee had to come to grips with his previous notion of how to measure his success and how his sound would resonate with the general public.
“I think the last few albums I felt I was turning my back on the pop music game because I didn’t win it,” he explains. “But that’s a very undignified response. It’s not the response of an artist, it’s the response of a spoil-sport. A new maturity has entered me and I’m not going to be defined by whether I win the game or not, but it’s for the love of trying to get my message across.”
When he’s not headlining club shows here or in his native Australia, Lee has recently been playing house parties through the use of gigroom.com, a site that will find a host for a particular small show. While some may scoff at the notion of playing for a few extra bucks in someone’s living room, Lee says having the ability to connect with fans on a personal level is something that excites him at this point in his career.
“It’s a totally natural thing to be looking into people’s eyes, sitting on a couch and playing my songs,” he explains. “At something like this, you can get a fan for life.”
Lee’s time in Los Angeles has also seen him explore avenues he may not have before, like his introduction to the Silver Lake Chorus about six years ago. Invited to a rehearsal by a friend who was in the 25-member choral group, he wasn’t sure what to expect but had the feeling that he was going along to provide moral support.
“For someone who has had the minimal commercial success I’ve had, people view me as a good cheerleader,” he says with a chuckle.
Instead, he was inspired by the passion of the chorus' members and their unique takes on indie rock songs. Watching them perform gave Lee the idea to help the chorus reach out to some of the songwriters whose material they were singing. That idea turned into an on-and-off project four years in the making: the chorus' debut album, produced by Lee, on which the likes of Ben Gibbard, Justin Vernon, Tegan & Sara, Aimee Mann and The Flaming Lips contributed new songs and arrangements.
While projects such as this are a different outlet for him, Lee ultimately knows that working hard and having the ability to experiment as he has on previous albums will keep earning him an audience for his solo work, even if it’s a small one.
“There’s a million artists who are happy to take your place — even at a house concert,” Lee says. “I look at it as a privilege that I still have a career and that people are interested — even in marginal ways — in what I’m doing. I’m not the most talented singer in the world and certainly not the best songwriter, but I’ve got what I do and I work very hard at it. I hopefully add value in everything I do, and that adds to my longevity.”
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Ben Lee performs Friday, July 17 at the Troubadour with the Silver Lake Chorus.