A Few Honest Words with Ben Sollee
By: Nick D’amore
The year began with Sollee releasing his first album, Learning to Bend, a collection of songs showcasing Sollee’s range of voices and influences, as well as his distinctive cello playing. Originally conceived as an EP, Sollee over the years had amassed enough songs for a full-length album. A “prominent label out of Nashville” expressed interest in releasing the album, but Sollee balked. “It didn’t make good business sense,” he says. In the end, Sollee entered into a licensing agreement with sonaBLAST! Records to release the album.
Learning to Bend begins with the sparse “A Few Honest Words,” an open letter to political leaders in the U.S. that perfectly captures what we’ve all been pleading for in a year of national turmoil: the truth. He cites Bob Dylan as a lyrical influence with the legend’s ability to make his words ambiguous enough to resonate with a variety of people. “I try to never be too specific,” Sollee says. “I’m trying to agitate the idea of what is happening. [“A Few Honest Words”] is not directed at one politician, but the culture of politics.”
Throughout the album, Sollee’s ability to set moods is apparent. Contrast the heaviness of the opener with the playful bounce of “How to See the Sun Rise” and the foot stomping shuffle of “Bury Me With My Car.” On Learning to Bend, Sollee proves himself to be a mature and wide-ranging singer and songwriter, all the while also stretching the limits of his instrument. In addition, the 24-year-old displays a gift for interpretation, taking Sam Cooke’s signature, soaring classic “A Change is Gonna Come,” and writing his own inspiring song of change. Echoing Cooke’s optimism when writing the song in 1963, Sollee incorporates his own updated lyrics and a popping rhythm, offering a refreshingly positive outlook toward the future.
“I can’t totally identify with what Sam Cooke was feeling as a black American in the ’60s,” Sollee says, “but he was generally optimistic about the human spirit and pushing in a positive direction.”
Playing an instrument traditionally associated with classical music, Sollee’s early days as a cellist were spent playing it “as it was supposed to be played.” It would take time for him to incorporate his own variety of tastes and influences into his playing. “Escaping that was the hardest thing, but it’s not really something I needed to escape from,” he says. “It’s just a style. Technique grounded on style. I made a decision to know the path and history of the cello and to take it somewhere else.”
Sollee’s profound vocal and instrumental ability has caught the ear of several fellow musicians in recent year. He has a history of collaborating with other artists, beginning with Otis Taylor, an avant-garde bluesman, and in the group Uncle Earl, which features Abigail Washburn. He teamed with Washburn again this summer with The Sparrow Quartet. The group played traditional old-time American music fused with Washburn’s Chinese-themed singing and lyrics. Though they initially had a difficult time with ticket sales, Sollee says, the group received favorable reactions from festival audiences.
During one of those festivals, the massive Bonnaroo Music & Arts festival, Sollee witnessed first-hand the Kanye West disaster. Soon after, Sollee posted a song to the hip-hop artist on his MySpace page, directly challenging West for his behavior and, in turn, became controversial himself for a brief period. Sollee became discouraged with West’s response to criticism following the festival and wrote the song to reflect his disappointment. “In the end, I got mostly positive feedback. Some got upset, but it was an obvious recognition of his talent,” says Sollee. “I hope he took it for what it is. As a fan, I just want to see him do more.”
Another big timer who Sollee likes to rub elbows with is My Morning Jacket frontman and fellow Kentuckian Jim James. James, who calls Sollee “a major talent” with “amazing pipes,” is featured on Sollee’s new 2-song EP Something Worth Keeping (you can hear it here – dig James’ back-up work on “Just A Song”), which is currently available here or on tour. Lucky for you Ben Sollee is on tour now.
11.06 – Atlanta GA / The 5 Spot
11.07 – Chapel Hill NC / Nightlight
11.08 – Washington DC / Iota
11.11 – Brooklyn NY / The Bell House
11.12 – New York NY / Mercury Lounge
11.13 – Philadelphia PA / World Cafe Live
11.17 – Chicago IL / Schuba’s
11.18 – Minneapolis MN / 400 Club
11.21 – Seattle WA / TBA
11.22 – Portland OR / Balcony Bar At The Hawthorne Theatre
11.24 – San Francisco CA / Café Du Nord
11.25 – Los Angeles CA, Hotel Café
Check out “Few Honest Words Obama Remix” at myspace.com/bensollee.
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