He has been labelled everything from an Aussie icon, a troublemaker and, perhaps most famously, a “precocious little cunt.” Call him what you will, though, after thirty years of creating music, nothing is slowing down Ben Lee.
Speaking with Rolling Stone AU/NZ from his Los Angeles home, Lee describes a music festival he has just returned from two hours outside Seattle the previous weekend, where he did a solo show, a live podcast taping with wife Ione Skye, and a DJ set all in one day.
“For a multitasker like me, it was a total wet dream,” he says. “If I put all my energy into one thing, I put too much pressure on it so to me, having lots of different tasks keeps me having a light touch and the more chilled out I am about it, it seems like the more I can do.”
It seems like a simple enough explanation for how Lee, at 45 years old, manages to maintain both the level of activity and the level of enthusiasm he does for both creating art and helping other artists navigate what is, quite often, a ruthless industry.
“Do you think you might have a touch of ADHD?” I ask him.
“It’s possible – maybe I’m just very effective at it?” he replies. “The idea that I would be non-neurotypical in some way would not come as a surprise to me, but whatever I am, I’ve always made it work so I’ve never felt the need to delve into it too much.”
Lee also points out his ability to stick with projects over long periods of time, which is perhaps why his latest offering – an EP called Two Songs I Wrote in 1993 and Recorded Last Week – is exactly what it proclaims to be.
“I’ve got this folder here,” he says, indicating the front of a manila folder so full of scribbled notes it’s only held together by good intentions. “When I was a teenager, I put all my lyrics in it, and I was flicking through it a few weeks back and saw these two songs I’ve always remembered the melodies to.”
Lee explains that, at the time, the songs didn’t fit on the albums he was working on. But now, with a label of his own and distribution through TikTok’s SoundOn, the concept of standalone songs makes more sense.
“It’s interesting to think about songs, not only that standalone, but maybe have concepts or ideas that have a stickiness to them potentially that work in a TikTok way,” he says. “Because I like TikTok, and I quite enjoy, being a musician, how that’s working right now.”
Lee recorded the EP “full on 1993 indie rock” style, enlisting the help of Alex Lahey on “Cute Indie Girls” when she was in LA.
“Alex and I have a fun banter; she always tells me, ‘The lesbians love you, Ben.’” Lee laughs. “So, I just liked the idea of me and her bonding over a song for cute indie girls.”
When he started to promote the EP on social media, Lee tapped into the current nostalgia for the ’90s, playing into the curiosity of those who weren’t there.
“I started thinking, this is a great space for people who always want to know about the ’90s now – there’s both a nostalgia, but there’s also all these kids that weren’t there that are just fascinated with the world before the internet, sort of the last generation,” he explains. “I think now part of what is cool about something like TikTok is if you just get on TikTok and try and promote something, it doesn’t ring true at all. I just go past those things automatically.”
Lee found footage of women like Winona Ryder – one of the OG “cute indie girls” of the ‘90s who is also recognised by the TikTok generation thanks to Stranger Things – talking about him, sharing the clips to promote the EP.
“It all just became a way to craft a whole little, it’s almost like what they’d call in the Marvel world, like an extended universe around two pieces of paper that I found in that folder,” he says.
“Wait until they discover the connection between you and Claire Danes after they find the Baz Luhrmann version of Romeo and Juliet,” I joke.
“Yeah, I think my daughter – she’s going to be 14 soon – and her friends are right at the age where they’re starting to get obsessed with Leo [DiCaprio], and they can’t believe that we knew him or met him or whatever, they’re so starstruck still,” he laughs. “But they’re starstruck by, like, 1994 Leo. They haven’t put it together that he’s now a man who’s like 50.”
Moving with the times is something that Lee, whose music career began when he was 14-years-old, has become quite adept at. Looking at his contemporaries now, Lee says, he has noticed they’re either not doing it anymore or they’re not doing it with the same vigour with which they started.
“A lot of people spend a lot of time – in Yiddish they say ‘kvetching’ – complaining about the way things are, and I’ve always been a bit more like, let’s solve the problem,” he says. “I don’t mean collectively; I don’t think I have answers for everybody. But on a personal level, I’m like, ‘Ok, this is the landscape; let’s figure out how to be ourselves in this landscape, and how do I keep going?’”
Lee says that he feels like people whose careers have staying power are those that continually fall in love with their craft, finding new opportunities, reintroducing themselves in fresh ways, sharing and learning together.
“I realised we have sort of witnessed the collapse of the music industry several times,” he claims. “First with the shift to streaming: now, I love streaming, I just don’t love the compensation plan; and then with the pandemic and live music, and now touring costs and all of that.”
To this end, Lee’s upcoming Australian tour is called ‘Ben Lee vs. The Collapse of The Music Industry’.
“I just know I can’t be stopped,” he says. “I’m adaptive, but I think I’m adaptive to the right amount. And then I’m also uncompromising – I do think that is the key, almost in an athletic sense. That’s why I used the boxer imagery: I think to be a good athlete you have to be adaptive, but you also have to be stubborn.”
It’s these two qualities, Lee believes, that have kept him in a career for 30 years.
“You may like my music, or you may not, but I’m still a relevant artist that they write about in the newspaper or whatever,” Lee says. “People are interested. I’m not saying I’m the best at it, but I’ve stayed current.”
Lee’s 2005 single “We’re All in This Together” re-entered the public consciousness in a big way in 2020, when it became the unofficial theme song of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.
Although Lee never invited it, it’s certainly something he used to his advantage.
“I went, ‘Ok, this is my change – here’s a whole bunch of people that have gotten to know my older music,’” he says. “Let me put out a kick-ass new record that says, ‘Pay attention to what I’m doing now,’ and I’m opportunistic in that sense – I think you have to be in any business. I’ve seen the door open and close so many times; not just for me but for my friends as well, and unless you put your foot in it, it’s done.”
Lee’s 20th album, I’M FUN, came as somewhat of a career retrospective in 2022, and was written primarily during the pandemic.
“The pandemic was interesting because as a songwriter you really want your music to happen immediately; you want that validation,” he explains. “But the reality is, as artists, you don’t get to dictate when your work is going to be useful. So, it was a good reminder that this is so out of your hands, and you can’t imagine what the future is, so just keep making a lot of work.”
Lee says that is his advice for young artists: create a lot and create it often.
“It’s almost like every time you put out a song, you are firstly continuing a conversation that’s a cultural conversation that you’re a part of, and you don’t know what could happen with each of them,” he says. “They’re almost like TikTok posts, where sometimes the one you put the least energy [into] is the one that blows up and the one you’ve put all this work into no one cares about. So, I think making a lot of work is important these days.”
Lee refers to a 2014 essay by cultural critic Brad Troemel, where he coined the term ‘aesthlete’ to describe the type of artist who can maintain relevance by “producing a constant stream of work in social media to ride atop the wave in viewers’ newsfeeds or else risk becoming the wave itself.”
“I thought that was quite brilliant because he’s not cynical about it; I’m not cynical either, I just think the game has changed,” Lee says. “If you’re making an album, you’ve got to do eight to 20 songs, so there’s got to be roughly half an hour to an hour of music – these are all frameworks. We now live in this framework with social media, and I think instead of complaining about it it’s interesting to go, ‘Well, what is the framework for presenting art today?’”
Lee and wife Ione have created the Weirder Together Podcast Network, which focuses on creating left-of-centre podcasts with zero marketing budget: they rely solely on integrity and the influence of social media.
“We haven’t spent a dollar on marketing essentially any of our podcasts, but influence on social media is meaningful, and if we only put out things we actually like and can stand behind and are happy to share, you can’t buy that with a marketing budget,” Lee says. “As long as we do it with integrity – whether it’s podcasts, a fanzine, or music – we’re not even worrying about the money side of it for now. I’ve always viewed it as, if you’re a valuable contributor to culture, sooner or later people write you a cheque for something.”
For now, Lee’s priority with his own career is saying yes to more opportunities. While his Australian tour will include several solo shows, he will also bring his “out of the box” festival set together for Wanderer Festival, performing alongside Sampa the Great, The Jungle Giants, Spiderbait, Montaigne and more.
“That’s the full dance kind of whole thing,” Lee says, spreading his fingers and wiggling them with a grin. “I realised that I got a little bit annoyed because I would look at festival lineups and I would see so many of my peers doing more festivals than I did, and I realised, firstly, I never said ‘Yeah, I’d like to do that’; and I never put the effort into building a ‘greatest hits’ show – so now I’ve got 10 songs that even if you don’t know they’re by me, most people in the audience go, ‘Oh, I like this song – that’s the perfect festival set.’”