Making his dreams a reality
By David Malitz
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012
To say Ben Lee is in a peaceful place might be a bit of an understatement.
The singer-songwriter recently returned from India, a semiregular vacation spot, and he describes the visit as "very powerful and replenishing." He has been looking into goat colostrum - that most new age of substances used as an immune-system booster. And then there's his sixth and most recent album, "Deeper Into Dream," which lives up to its title, serving as a journey into the subconscious.
Lee is 33, an age at which many musicians are in the midst of their busiest years, trying to cement their status and achieve their greatest success. Lee, however, admits to some ambivalence about touring and says he doesn't have the same passion for his career as he did 10 years ago. ("I have the same passion for making music," he's quick to clarify, separating his art from his professional aspirations.)
"I kind of feel like I'm in a period where I'm rethinking some of the structures and models of the way that I interact with the world, my fans," he says. "I'm sort of in an unknown place."
But Lee is at ease with his decision to drift out of the spotlight and into the background. He has already had his fair share of hits, magazine covers and high-profile romances. He's also a 20-year veteran, having played music since his early teens. Sure, lots of rockers his age have been at it that long, but how many of those bands immediately became internationally famous, toured the world and were signed by the Beastie Boys?
That's the story behind Lee's teenage trio, Noise Addict, which made him a poster child for the alt-rock explosion of the '90s. The band called it quits after one album of furiously fuzzy delights, but Lee went solo and his teenage years played out like a rock-star fairy tale. One example - Noise Addict's "I Wish I Was Him" was a wide-eyed ode to Evan Dando, the Lemonheads' effortlessly cool frontman. A few years later, Lee was touring as that band's opening act. In 2005, by the ripe old age of 26, he was already on his fifth solo album, "Awake Is the New Sleep," which was a double-platinum smash in his native Australia. Lee has released an album every two years since then, but each has been less about potential crossover hits and more about exploring other influences. After spending his youth living out rock-star dreams, Lee is now fascinated with actual dreams.
"They're interesting to me because they're the one truly abstract impressionistic creative experience that we all have," he says. "There are all of these people who say, 'Well, I'm not creative; I'm not an artist.' But you're creating a whole world in your dreams every night."
This is not a casual pursuit. Lee, who lives in Los Angeles, took part in three years of dream therapy, and his wife (actress Ione Skye) and their circle of friends regularly dissect their dreams. He has recorded some of these conversations; a few snippets are bridges between songs on "Deeper Into Dream."
"Part of what you see in working with your dreams is that it's your unconscious that's writing the story," he says. "So if the unconscious wants to be revealed, it will present a situation in which it will be able to be revealed."
This idea manifests itself in the album, with its rich layers and gauzy atmospherics. Lee says he found the three-minute pop song a little too limited to deal with some of the textures he was interested in using. The title track is built on a hypnotic soundscape and features just a few acoustic guitar plucks. "Get Used to it" shows that his flair for big hooks is still there, but now they bounce around between fluffy orchestration.
Lee's music may be more of a personally meditative pursuit these days, but there's one project he's excited to share with the world - the Silver Lake Chorus, an L.A.-based choir that he discovered through a friend of a friend. Lee heard them singing indie rock covers, was hooked and offered his services. He reached out to peers to write original songs and assigned himself production duties. The first pair of songs - written by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and Carl Newman of the New Pornographers - should be hitting the Internet shortly. Aimee Mann, Tegan & Sara and Beck also will contribute.
"It's been a really beautiful project," Lee says. "And it's fun to just have this big crazy goal that's hard to fulfill."
You might even call it a dream.