Ben Sollee: Getting Out of the Chair

Music Features Ben Sollee
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Onstage, Ben Sollee plays his cello like they share a deep-burning grudge, sawing away at the neck of his instrument with classically trained fingers and a feel for Appalachian soul. Of course, the Kentucky native is way more than just a cellist: He has the rich voice of a huskier-sounding Paul Simon, a sonic palette that traverses folk and R&B and pensive lyrics that wrangle spiritual transcendence from the ordinary—from the beauty of his mountainous home state to the simplistic life of the people who live there. He demonstrated all of those varied skills on Dear Companion (a 2010 collaboration with songwriter Daniel Martin Moore, made in protest of mountaintop removal mining) and his 2011 breakout, the highly eclectic Inclusions, which was—minus drums and a few stray overdubs—performed entirely on his lonesome. But, for better or worse, Sollee’s mostly known today as “that cello-playing songwriter,” a half-true label that only skims the surface of his musical gifts.

That might explain why Half-Made Man, Sollee’s striking new album, rarely features the cello at all, or at least not in the traditional sense. In a way, this is Sollee’s first “rock” album: Instead of painstakingly layering overdubs and ruminating over every individual key pad and vocal sound (as he did on Inclusions), Sollee opted to record Half-Made Man with a group of hand-picked musicians playing together live in one room. It may be a Ben Sollee album in name (after all, he still wrote the songs), but this is a Band Album, defined by the dizzying interplay of fiddle player Jeremy Kittel, bassist Alana Rocklin, My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broemel, and Sollee’s long-time drummer, the phenomenal Jordon Ellis.

It’s a jarring shift—part of Inclusions’ charm was its penchant for scattered left-turns, flipping through genres and textures like book pages. Half-Made Man, in contrast, is a document of a particular dynamic captured at a particular time.

“It really is just the sound of that ensemble of musicians,” Sollee says. “It was very collaborative. Instead of writing out all the parts and even overdubbing a lot of the parts myself, like I’ve done on previous records, this record was about getting what I could out of the musicians at hand. So in that way, it defines its own sound.

“This record was very much about getting in the studio with a great bunch of musicians, sitting down, and getting really raw, honest performances of these songs. All these musicians got together, and we kind of created an ensemble arrangement of it, using all the tools we had at our disposal. Sometimes that called for cello, like on ‘Get Off Your Knees’ and ‘Whole Lot to Give,’ and sometimes it called for just totally reinterpreting the sound of the cello, and sometimes it called for other instruments, like the octave mandolin or the guitar. So it was really just following what the song needed within the ensemble and performing it until we got a really cool live performance.”

With that intense live feel, Half-Made Man captures some of the same thrilling rock dynamics conjured by fellow Kentuckians (and Sollee collaborators) My Morning Jacket. And with Broemel’s massive crunch and pedal-steel sigh in tow, Half-Made Man occasionally feels like a “guitar album.” But, as Sollee is quick to note, this album has its own unique stylistic synthesis—one which reveals itself the more you listen:

“I think having someone like Carl, who’s such an integral part of his band’s sound, play on the record—with some of the same amps, some of the same effects—you get a taste of that. But when you bump that up next to a classically trained Scottish fiddling champion fiddle player and an R&B/hip-hop bass player, and then Jordon playing drums, as well as some of the other stuff I’m doing, you get kind of a different twist on it. But at the same time, I think what My Morning Jacket is doing is not that dissimilar from some of the other great Kentucky heritage music, at least in its idea. Bluegrass music is a mix of gospel and gypsy-jazz and a little bit of rock and roll. It’s very post-modern in that way—kind of crossroads music. And My Morning Jacket’s always been that—and I feel like my music’s always been about that, too: telling the story of lots and lots of different influences in an organic way. So this just continues that storyline, and just lets it be about the band and not about my specific ideas of what should be played.”

Indeed, Half-Made Man demonstrates an artist pushing his influences outward, embodying even more sounds from his misunderstood home state’s cultural tapestry.

“Kentucky’s always been a wonderful crossroads,” Sollee reflects, “just for transportation and of course people traveling through, but it’s always been a place with a varied landscape for people to live in. We have these big cities but also these kind of old mountains with all these valleys and nooks, and lots of places for people to live in their own way. Kentucky embodies so many cultures and styles all at once—it leaves its mark on people, and people leave their mark on it. That’s why you’ve seen the music you’ve seen come out Kentucky over the years that you have, which has been a mix of everybody but in some type of new way or perspective or prism. In that way, I am…this is the sound of Kentucky music, but it just happens to be different from the traditional sounds that we think of.”

“In that way, I think I’ve been influenced by all the things that are around,” he continues. “If you think about the storyline, I picked up the cello in public school, started studying classical, and at home, I had a family that was very influenced by R&B music, so we’d sit around and play that music, and on the weekends, I’d go spend time with my grandfather, who has a wonderful old time fiddler and banjo player and mandolin player. So just those three things intersecting has influenced my music more than anything. And it continues to very much.”

One demonstration of that sonic crossroads is the dark, throbbing electro-soul of “Get Off Your Knees,” which features “an elongated dubstep-y groove” inspired by Bill Withers and a timely political message: “I just feel like, with all the turbulence that’s in the air with the election, with people thinking the end of the world is coming—right now, it’s about taking care of us people, taking care of other people who have less, making sure that the people who have more make sure they realize the reasons they have more—because there are people working hard to generate income for them. I think that’s very, very important thing to remember. And that’s why there’s a very forward chorus on that song: ‘There’s a whole lot of gold in the hands of thieves / There ain’t no end coming, get off your knees.’ There’s a lot of people that haven’t necessarily earned, at least from the singular standpoint, all that they have. But of course, there’s a lot of people who have helped them earn what they have. Even the rich are a product of this community—so I think it’s important to remember that you make money for other people and for the people that have the money.”

Meanwhile, “The Pursuit of Happiness” finds the singer marveling at the sweat-fueled work ethic of the Appalachian community (“halfway to Jellico,” Tennessee) and comparing that lifestyle to his own: touring the country on his eco-friendly bicycle, while his family misses him back home.

“Once you start getting past that certain place in the mountain road that don’t get maintained as often, you get people in their pick-up trucks taking care of things,” Sollee says. “That song spurred from a bike ride after a very intense business phone call. I just literally was escaping. And I got on my bike and just started pedaling as hard as I could—found myself on some very old country roads, and was just inspired. The question came to me why I keep doing music. The industry is so crazy right now, all the business stuff is so silly—making money off an artistic creation is such a silly concept, but at the same time, an ethically sound one. You’re generating the product—you’re not asking someone else to live at a lower standard so that you can make money off it. It’s coming from you, you generate it, you promote it—that’s very sound, and I like the idea of that if I can make it happen. That’s what that song is all about, and my son wondering why I’m always coming in and out.”

“I guess in a way, this record is a collection of self-portraits,” Sollee says. “They’re kind of stories about the pieces and parts of me. There’s the person who always wants to fix things, like in ‘The Healer.’ There’s the part of me that’s tremendously rebellious and just wants to shout all the time—the rebel—and there’s the part of me that wants to dedicate my life to some humble task, like in ‘The Maestro.’ All these things are musical illustrations of me, but in that way, when you’re telling the story, you find ways to tell that story how it relates to other people in the world. If you get too personal in a song, you might scare people away. People don’t know what to do when they get something super, super personal. But at the same time, we’re all going through many of the same struggles—it’s just a matter of framing those so we can relate to them in a better way, which is about compassion. I try to write compassionately, so we’re all understanding that we’re in the same boat together.”

When Sollee hits the road this fall, he’ll be bringing his cello with him. But he relishes the opportunity to, literally and figuratively, “get out of the chair.”

“I want it to be about the story and the songs and the whole thing—the communication with the audience. And the ability to get up and move around, that’s gonna be really helpful, I think.”