My name’s Ben and this is McGowan. We’ll be your early evening entertainment.”
humbly offers this introduction as he and his lead guitarist take the stage at Atlanta’s Cotton Club, the dingy subterranean sector of Atlanta’s church-turned-rock-palace, the Tabernacle. Opening for power-pop dynamo Fountains of Wayne, Lee’s modest introduction and the drumless two-man acoustic/electric guitar act suggest the beginnings of an understated performance. After all, the tasteful beats featured on Lee’s new album, hey you. yes you., provided by producer Dan the Automator (Gorillaz, Dr. Octagon), are noticeably absent from the live show. But when the duo eases into its set, Lee’s charming, energetic stage presence and amusing banter instantly win over the crowd. The 24-year-old has the poise of a seasoned performer, which only makes sense. The Sydney native has been playing professionally since 1993 when, at age 13, he fronted the successful Australian indie band Noise Addict.
“I just found out you guys have a kangaroo conservatory here,” Lee says between songs, “that is f---ing weird!” He promptly launches into “Running With Scissors,” the opening track from his new album. With the painful losses Lee has faced this year—the passing of his father and a close friend’s lethal heroin overdose—he has turned to music to make sense of life’s tragedies.
“I think on this record I summoned a feeling like when I was teenager—you feel sort of self-destructive and realize things have a tendency to die,” says Lee, sitting on a ramp by the club’s dumpster before the show. The summer air is thick with humidity. It’s mostly quiet, except for the hum of air-conditioning units and a few concertgoers who’ve showed up early.
“You start to feel your own feelings when you go through death,” he continues. “Really, there’s no reason to feel sorry for the other person who died. Who knows what they’re going through? It’s like feeling sad because someone’s gone out for dinner. You don’t know—maybe it’s a great dinner, maybe it’s not. But you start to feel your own sense of sadness and you get to know—that’s mine. It definitely informed the songs on this album—looking at the darkness a little bit and wrestling with it and seeing how you can accompany it or how you’re going to deal with it.”
Ben’s earnestness is striking. At times he can wax philosophical in his Australian accent, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has enough intelligence to be cerebral, but often takes a simpler outlook and seems to prefer the pure feeling to the thought.
“I try to write from a place of innocence,” he says. “I’m not trying to make it too intellectual. I just want to love the song when I make it. I want to better express my truth. My songs have always been love songs. They are songs of devotion and faith. So, I sing to God. My songs are songs of longing—to connect and to understand and to express.”
Recently, Lee collaborated on a four-song EP with aptly named ensemble, The Bens—that’s Ben Lee, Ben Kweller and Ben Folds. Unfortunately, inter-label disputes have kept the all-star band’s album shelved.
“When you work with other artists it can get quite political,” Lee says. “In some ways we made an album that was bigger than all of us …. I suppose you just have to look at it as if it’s a Zen sand mandala—you just have to do it and let it go.”