Australian indie-pop icon Ben Lee sits down for a chinwag with the Sentinel’s Danny Waterson, revealing why he feels like Batman – and why he was born for the “bullshit” of popular culture.
Ben Lee has had a big year. Fresh from hotel quarantine in Sydney, and a popular stint on Channel Ten’s The Masked Singer, the quirky, self-professed “weirdo” has just released his eagerly anticipated new single ‘Born For This Bullshit’.
A collaboration with Speedy Ortiz frontwoman Sadie Dupuis (AKA Sad13), the song is the perfect anthem for these crazy, uncertain times, impacted by Covid, climate change and global instability – but, surprisingly, it was actually written in 2019.
An earnest, up-tempo pop-folk song, it’s dripping with ‘la-la-las’ and boasts a chorus catchier than Covid.
“Like all the best songs I’ve written, I had no idea how relevant it would be when I first wrote it,” Lee tells the Sentinel via a Zoom call.
“It’s about positivity, swagger, keeping your chin up, even though we’re in total global chaos, true crisis, but still kinda choosing to enjoy the ride,” he says of the single, lifted from the forthcoming album, I’m Fun.
Speaking of his return to making new music in the last few years, Lee reveals: “I started feeling, a little while ago, more like Batman. You know that Jay-Z lyric, ‘Can’t leave rap alone, the game needs me’? It’s not even my choice, it’s just more interesting with me in the scene,” he says cheekily.
Known for his confessional alternative folk rock-pop, Lee has released eleven solo albums to date, including the landmark Awake Is the New Sleep, which was certified Double Platinum and won the 2005 ARIA Award for Best Independent Album.
The song cycle featured hit singles ‘Gamble Everything for Love’, ‘Catch My Disease’ and ‘We’re All in This Together’ – the latter now enjoying a second wind as a quasi Covid-19 anthem.
While said album and singles are among his best-known work, Lee has been involved in many side-projects, tours and films throughout his 30-year career, and is also known for his flair for engaging on Twitter and TikTok.
The confident and charismatic singer says: “I can handle the velocity and intensity of popular culture, not a lot of artists can do that. A lot of artists lose their sense of self when they get involved in popular culture, but for me I don’t mind it … I was born for this bullshit.”
On ‘Born For this Bullshit’, Lee sings, “I’m still here singing my song”. Indeed, he still derives great satisfaction from creating music after 30 years in the business.
“I find my ability to lose myself in what I make increasing, and that’s really nice. It’s sort of the absence of neurosis,” he says.
“The sensual pleasure of being an artist, in making music, makes your body feel good and you can lose yourself in it. I feel that shamanic quality growing in me.”
Warming to the theme, he proffers that life in general gets better, and in some ways, easier “as you go through getting older and knowing yourself better”.
By way of example, a sniffling Lee, who is prone to allergies, says: “It’s like today, having allergies, I may have been more prone when I was younger to feeling really sorry for myself, like ‘Woe is me, I have a runny nose.’ As you get older, you go through real crisis, like what we’ve been through in the last few years.”
But some things don’t change – such as Lee’s penchant for weirdness – which brings us to his special guest appearance on the top rating TV program The Masked Singer. Lee was unmasked this week as ‘The Professor’ character, eluding the judges’ guesses about his identity.
“’I like to do anything that makes me feel a bit weird,” he explains. “So when I heard about this I thought, ‘This is so weird, I’m totally into it.’”
He’s also been in the news recently for lending his support to the Australian music industry’s #VaxTheNation campaign, to encourage vaccinations so audiences can return to live music.
“As a compassionate left-leaning person, I feel it’s nice if we can bandy around an industry that’s had the bottom come out so completely,” he says of the campaign, in which he joined the likes of Jimmy Barnes, Tim Minchin, Archie Roach, Gina Jeffries, Iva Davies, Courtney Act, Birds of Tokyo, Marcia Hines and many more in encouraging Australians to get vaccinated.
He took part in the collaborative effort, he says “not just for the musicians, but the venues, the merch people, the catering companies, and the lighting”.
“I would have liked to have seen the Australian Government do a little more for the arts industry,” he adds.
Collaboration is one of Lee’s strong suits, as his 2018 musical project, based on a novel by renowned author Tom Robbins, attests. Titled B is for Beer, the musical featured a star-studded cast including Lee, Laura Silverman, Jon Cryer, Paul F Tompkins, Busy Philipps, Rose Byrne, Belinda Carlisle, Alex Wyse and Cary Brothers.
It was Lee’s wife Ione Skye who suggested Belinda Carlisle for the role of the ‘beer fairy’ in B is for Beer. “That role was a little hard to cast, she’s like a biker chick, but her tender, maternal side comes out through the story. One night I sat around and said, ‘I can’t figure out who it should be,’ and my wife said, ‘What about Belinda Carlisle?’ And I went, ‘Yes!’ … I had met her a year or two before and just dropped her an email and asked her, and she said, ‘Absolutely!’”
B is for Beer will soon re-emerge in a different form, with Lee revealing: “We are still going with it, we’re going to make a movie.”
His most famous collaboration, however, remains his work with another Australian music icon, Kylie Minogue. The unusual and inspired pairing led to a reworking of Duran Duran’s song ‘The Reflex’, recorded in New York City for the Duran Duran tribute album, The Songs of Duran Duran: UnDone.
Speaking fondly of Minogue, Lee says: “Kylie is one of those magical people who has woven her way through so many parts of culture, music and life. You feel like she’s a shooting star when she’s in your orbit, you go: ‘Woah, I’m having a Kylie moment.’ So I was very aware as we were recording that I was having my Kylie moment.”
Now, in September 2021, it’s very much Ben Lee’s moment, between ‘Born for This Bullshit’, The Masked Singer, #VaxTheNation and the upcoming B is for Beer movie.
Meanwhile, I’m Fun, the album from which ‘Born For This Bullshit’ is lifted, will be released in June 2022. Watch this space …
Ben Lee’s ‘Born For this Bullshit’ is out now through Warner Music Australia and available on all major music streaming and download platforms. For more info, visit Ben Lee’s website, www.ben-lee.com.
Danny Waterson is the Sydney Sentinel’s music writer.