Dayton City Paper: Ben Lee

Music with a Mission
Ben Lee brings the Zen Experience to Pop Music

Ben Lee’s most recent release, Awake is the New Sleep, is an upbeat pop album, but the story doesn’t end there.  It is also an album filled with a tremendous depth of meaning that stems from Lee’s own spiritual awakening.  “To me, spirituality and music were always connected,” said Lee in a recent phone conversation

Telling the story of an existential breakthrough for his music, Lee recounted a conversation that he had with a teacher during a visit to India.  “One day (he) said to me ‘What is Ben’s service going to be?’ I started crying, and I said ‘I tried feeding the poor, and I’m not good at it. I spill the food.  I’m not natural.’  I knew enough to know that whatever you do it has to be natural.”  In response to Lee’s answer, “He started laughing and laughing, and then he said to me, ‘Music. Ben’s service is music. It’s to bring people joy through music.’  That was a moment that has come to define the next years of life, where my spiritual path and my musical path (have) become one, literally.”

Awake is the New Sleep has a focus and an energy that Lee’s previous albums didn’t predict.  The drastic shift is a mirror of the change that has occurred in Lee, himself. “I know that as I changed my attitude toward my work and made it an offering, it completely changed my life.”  With quietly simple and joyful songs, Lee recognized that, “My performance became my prayer.”

Interestingly, he has chosen to bring his spiritual precepts and conceptual ideas about music to a genre where you wouldn’t expect to see them.  It would be more digestible if it was some New Age yoga  or metaphysical folk music.  Lee’s music is neither of those.  It’s unapologetically pop music.  “It’s a form that everyone understands.  It’s digestible.  It’s catchy.  It’s fun. You can dance to it,” said Lee.  “The only thing you can say that’s bad about pop music is the way that it’s used.  The actual form is total genius, in that it’s totally a subversive medium.  In a physical way it gets stuck- ‘Oh, I can’t get this song out of my head.’  It has a fungal, bacterial effect of human beings.”

The enthusiasm for this album has steadily grown.  Continuously winning over new fans, Lee and his team joke that this will be the never-ending tour.  Allowing an album to evolve and grow on people is not something that ordinarily happens with pop music, but this is no ordinary pop album.  “I could theoretically be a pop musician and be out to make money,” said Lee. “But that’s boring.  Why not make yourself a secret agent, a secret agent for goodness?”

Working with the catchiness of pop music, Lee composes songs that are quite simple, using strong repetition.  With lyrics that become mantras, the songs rejoice in the obstacles of life saying “Gamble everything for love,” and “We’re all in this together.”

When talking about the songs that he writes, Lee said, “It seems to be both the question of my prayer and the answer to it.  It’s like a dance.”  Unified under the tile, Awake is the New Sleep, the album continuously urges the listener to open their hearts.  As a creative self expression, the music is uniquely personal to him as well as universal to anyone who lives, breaths, or dreams.

Realizing that the lyrics can be a bit challenging, Lee said, “When someone is singing ‘wake up,’ like telling you, basically, you’re dreaming, either they’re an arrogant tosser and they’re being patronizing, or they’re telling the truth and that requires serious consideration.”

Passionate about his mission, Lee will remain focused on this album as enthusiasm continues to build.  “So the idea is that people can come to a show and enjoy it on one level in that it’s just really fun, and on another level there is actually something happening energetically that is changing them,” he said.  “That’s what I believe (music) can do.”

Ben Lee will be playing regionally and locally with Nickel Creek on Wednesday, June 7th at Moonlite Gardens (Cincinnati) and Saturday, June 10th at Veterans Park Amphitheatre (Springfield).  He will be returning to the area on August 2nd to play Lifestyle Communities Pavilion (Columbus) with Dashboard Confessional. 

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