“Me and you are talking on the phone now, and we’re both going to die.”
Despite what it might sound like, Ben Lee isn’t trying to bring down the mood. Just the opposite, actually. The musician sees humanity’s shared fate as a strangely comforting fact, one we can all share in.
“That shared awareness that we have as human beings, looking at that as an unknown and choosing to be brave in the face of it, and to make our lives meaningful in the face of it,” he continues. “That to me is what happiness is.”
From covering Against Me! to earnestly reminding listeners that “awake is the new sleep” it’s an idea that the Australian-born, Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter has teased out over his previous 10 albums. Life is hard; shit is always getting real (to paraphrase the popular phrase). But joy is always a viable choice.
Lee’s 11th album, the aptly named Love is the Great Rebellion, is a guitar pop outing that reflects this mindful happiness. If the deliberately earnest phrasing of the title raises a few eyebrows, well, Lee says he’s okay with that.
“It’s become more refined as I’ve gotten older,” he admits with a rueful laugh of his countercultural leanings. “Naturally as a child we think just being rude to our parents is rebellion. Smoking cigarettes, listening to rock music, that’s rebellion! As I get older, it seems like truly challenging the fundamentals of the way we think is really what rebellion is. That’s become more and more of my consciousness. I think the old idea of the rebel with the spray paint on the wall and leather jacket and everything is a very outdated image. Much more important is the courage to stand up against falsehood of any kind. That’s really where rebellion becomes important.”
This isn’t the declaration of a Pollyanna-type character with his head in the clouds—a fact that becomes abundantly clear within moments of speaking with him. A dreamer with a practical streak born from releasing his first album, Grandpaw Would, at the age of 17, Lee’s quick to explore all the angles and slow to judge.
“That’s kind of why I love the music industry,” he says, laughing. “For all the bruises and punches I’ve taken, it’s been an amazing training. If you can survive the music industry as an artist, and not lose your sense of human and artistry and your openness, you’re really being given tools to make it through anything.”
This flexibility credo was evident during the Love is the Great Rebellion writing and recording process. Originally, he conceived the album as a more experimental project. But the songs all leaned more towards more traditional pop forms, songs of love and life folded into a playful pop bounce. To his credit, Lee says once he realized he was being overruled by his creative muse, he didn’t try to force the process.
“I definitely tried that, but that seems like a very unsuccessful way to navigate your life,” he says. “You’ve got to pick and chose your battles. As far as creativity, what’s coming from the deeper part of your psyche, places that we don’t understand at all, it’s worth honoring the vision that comes from those places. Obviously if they’re in alignment with the greater sense of where you want to go in your life.”
Folded into the album’s vibrant tales is also a simple reminder—it all goes by so quickly. Death is a strong presence on Love is the Great Rebellion. Lee once again makes clear that this isn’t meant to be ominous or sad, but rather an important part of the celebration. He points to one track in particular, the stripped back single, “The Body of Love.”
“That song, I actually went to a funeral and the man who died, his wife, read a poem,” he reveals. “It was a Hindu text. It had that phrase about becoming one with the body of love. I saw the beauty and the sadness of her releasing her individual connection to her husband in to this greater ocean of awareness. I wanted to write a song that was about that.”
For his own part, Lee says his journey towards understanding death began at the age of 19, when his father died. Though the mourning period, he slowly gained peace by reframing what the process meant to him.
“I was amazed by the dreams I was having around that time,” he says. “They were actually dreams of expansion. They weren’t nightmares. There was a dream where I saw a young calf eating its father that was an old bull who had died. In the dream, there was an awareness of this chain of life, and how the death of the father actually was feeding the child. I had a lot of dreams like this around that time that really stayed with me and have been very formative. They made me question the taboo that society places on death, making it into this horrible thing that we should hide away in a hospital. Don’t let the children know about it! That kind of thing.”
These days, Lee is continuing embrace life in all its forms. At 36, he acknowledges he still has a long way to go. And that’s all part of the fun.
“There’s a really interesting space that I’m just kind of settling into,” he says. “The acceptance of my passion for parenting and being a husband, but also being an artist. And holding all of that stuff at once. We went to Santa Fe for the weekend and had a family holiday and I did a bunch of work. Often I hear these voices in my head saying, ‘You can’t do everything.’ I’m realizing that’s such a lie. We’re allowed to build a multi-faceted life. That’s truly making me happy.”