Ben Sollee started as a simple folk artist with a cello, but over the years, each album has succeeded in reaching beyond a specific genre, molding soul and R&B with rock, bluegrass, jazz and gospel. The Kentucky native recently surprised fans with a free album consisting of fan-favorite covers that he had been performing through the years, songs from folks like Tom Waits, Fiona Apple, Gillian Welch and Paul Simon. This year could be one of his busiest yet as he is already working on the next record, playing Carnegie Hall and scoring a soundtrack. And don’t be surprised if you see him pull up to his next gig on his cello-toting bicycle.
Paste: It’s been a fun little year for you. I know you’ve got The Hollow Sessions.
Ben Sollee: Yeah, it’s funny. We put out this covers record called The Hollow Sessions [he pronounces it “Holler Sessions”] and we put it out for free. We wanted to give something back to the fans having just crowd-sourced my last studio album, Half Made Man. And I feel like you need to give more than you ask.
Paste: It’s on vinyl, too, right?
Sollee: There are a few physical versions, but mostly we wanted to get it out to folks for free.
Paste: Tell me about this Paul Simon tribute at Carnegie Hall. How did you get to be part of this?
Sollee: Well, me and my amazing band played a show at a place called City Winery, which is owned and operated by a fella named Michael Dorff, who evidently is a mogul of a promoter and entertainment kind of guy. He and folks that he works with saw the show and invited us to take part in the event. Paul Simon has always been a big influence on me. We were covering one of his songs, “Obvious Child,” that night.
Paste: Which is on The Hollow Sessions.
Sollee: Yeah. It’s a neat event to celebrate one of my heroes and also help out raising money for a very good cause.
Paste: You’ve been a Paul Simon fan for a very long time. I know you have this dream of having him produce a record for you.
Sollee: You know this dream.
Paste: Are you going to try to corner him, because he’s got to be around somewhere in this, right?
Sollee: I don’t know what I would say to him.
Paste: “Produce my record.”
Sollee: Yeah, I’m terrible at the inside game.
Paste: What is it about Paul Simon that you like so much? Because he gets a lot of artists who point to him a bit more these days.
Sollee: I think I like the fact that he went and grabbed sounds from a lot of different places, based solely on nothing more than a love for those sounds. I don’t think he was trying to prove anything necessarily. I think thats how you reinvent wheels. You do what you love and don’t necessarily have a reason for it. You go and you do it and I think that inspired a lot of things that came out of that. People said all of those different boundaries of folk and rock and these different culture boundaries were all broken down in a way. And they’re all based around stories. That’s the thing. That’s the thing that inspires me most about him is he’s always telling a story.
Paste: I’ve seen a lot of artists who get compared to Paul Simon and for whatever reason, that becomes stigma. I know you’ve had those comparisons, and maybe the ultimate example is Vampire Weekend. Suddenly what should be a great thing—like he’s a great person to take from, nobody knocks you too hard when you sound like Springsteen—but there’s something about the way critics treat an artist when they sound like Paul Simon.
Sollee: Maybe it’s just different, because for me, I’m like, “really???” I think that he has such a singular way of pulling sounds together that maybe folks get a little intimidated by that thought.
Paste: I guess his sound is so unique that people treat it like you’re ripping him off more than just absorbing his influence.
Sollee: Yeah, it’s like going to tour down in Florida. It’s like you’re down there and if it doesn’t go well, you’re still down in Florida. People might feel like you’re getting cornered off into world music, which is always a tangled web.
Paste: Your sound has been changing over the last few years from album to album. I know there was a big thing about how the last record had less cello, that was less prominent. You worked with Kevin Ratterman, who has a nice history of working with a lot of Louisville bands, My Morning Jacket, etc. How much did that have to do with your sound, because it was a bit more of a rock sound? And you’re working with him again on a new record, right?
Sollee: Yeah, slow and steady. I always love working with Kevin. I call him Gigantor Heart because he has a big ol’ heart in that chest of his. He’s got a really nice feel for sound, but mostly the sound on Half Made Man came from the players. I invited folks that I trust and love to come in and just sit around in the same room and make the music. That happened to be the guitar player from My Morning Jacket, Carl [Broemel]; a bass player that’s done a lot of with Sound Tribe Sector 9; my trusty percussionist, Jordon Ellis, and a violinist from the Turtle Island String Quartet. So it really mixed a lot of styles. I tried to give everybody room to have their voice on the record. That’s generally the way that I work whether it’s the record Dear Companion or any of the other records that I’ve collaborated on, like The Sparrow Quartet. It’s always been about bringing your voice to the record, not bringing your expertise to play a part.
Paste : Is that happening on the new record?
Sollee: I’m not in super deep yet. I think I’m going to refocus it in a little bit because the main trouble we had is that we made this beautiful record, Half Made Man, and then we couldn’t tour it. It’s a big band and they’re busy people. I’m still just an independent artist. DIY. Just, it’s a privilege to get to do this.
Paste: So, that’s important you that when you put a record out, you really want to tour on it as the way it sounds?
Sollee: Not necessarily. I want to make a beautiful record. So far that’s what I’ve done. Like, I’ve never traveled with a harpist even though she’s featured heavily on Learning To Bend. But, it was the right thing to do for the narrative of those songs. I’ll continue to do that, but I did discover on this record that it was really hard to capture the feeling of Half Made Man on the road.
Paste: I know the other passion for you is mountaintop removal and the Appalachian Mountains. There’s the big chemical spill in West Virginia that contaminated the water, and I guess the chemical was used to wash coal with. You’ve gone on a lot of mountaintop removal crusades, playing benefits, and this seems like one more reason why people should be in your corner on this issue. But yet, I feel like the people that live in the area will still be saying, “but this is our livelihood. It could be killing us but it’s still our livelihood.” Maybe that’s my own perception, so I was curious how you see this.
Sollee: I think one of the biggest struggles that we have about Appalachia is the fact that not all of us know enough about it to really have the sincere affection for that place. To know why it needs to be protected. So I spent a lot of time as a musician, a person, a dad, trying to raise awareness about the amazing things that are in Appalachia. Often it’s these types of disasters and mistreatments of humanity that get the news. Unfortunately, it perpetuates this feeling of like, “those poor folks down there.” Well, they’re not “poor folks down there.” They’re really strong people, really independent. They pride themselves on that. I feel like one day, jobs aside, they’re going to figure out that these companies are not there to make them more independent or to give them that. They’re there to get the coal out and move on. If that means washing coal and polluting the water and not letting them know that their lives are in danger, that their kids’ lives are in danger, which could affect generations, they’re going to be like, “wait, that’s not what we’re about.” And it’s not what they’re about. They should be really proud of the work that they’ve done. I’m really proud of the work they’ve done. We wouldn’t be where we are [doing this interview] without their power. However, there’s a better way that doesn’t put so many lives at risk.
Paste: When you’re out there talking about this to people, you bring it out on stage, playing the benefits, and maybe you’re preaching to the choir at those moments, but anywhere else do you find that opinion leans one way or other? Are people interested in it? Do you find resistance? Has anyone ever come and called you out on it?
Sollee: No, I haven’t, because I try to keep it as a discussion. I’m not pointing my finger as a city boy from Kentucky out towards the hills saying, “look what they’re doing to the world.” I’m saying, “Look what I’m asking them to do.” And so often that leads itself less to “you need to shut your mouth boy,” and more to “why do you feel that way?” The best example of that is that I played a show in Madison, Ind., and a woman walked up to me after the show. I had expressed my view of mountaintop removal, that I felt like it was just not worth it. We don’t know the value of a mountain, why cut it down? She came up and she had tears in her eyes and she was shaking like someone who is going to say something to you and is past their comfort zone, like they have to say it to you. And she said, “I understand, it’s terrible. If not that, then what?” And she expressed to me her family history and all this stuff and I said, “I understand all that. And I am thankful that your family has done that. It took me putting out a record nationally to find out that my family mountain down near Williamsburg had been stripped. And that’s what paid for my momma’s education.” So we’re all connected to this in different ways. And at the end of it all, this girl and I hugged and we understood where each other was coming from. It’s a human issue. It’s a civil rights issue. It’s an environmental issue. It happens on all fronts. And it’s just not in Appalachia; it’s all over the world. But here in our backyard we do have a choice. And I think people are coming around and becoming wise to the fact that this might not be the right choice.