Ben Lee Dreams On



Deeper Into Dream, out this week, is Ben Lee’s eighth album. And yet despite such impressive prolificacy from a 33-year-old, the Australian musician will tell you that it feels very much like his first. Not only is the album his debut from sunny LA, where he recently moved to hatch a family, it’s also his maiden voyage as a producer. But beyond that—or rather, deeper—the album marks a departure from the jingly tunes of Lee’s younger days, as he brings a more profound side of himself to his music by exploring the subconscious and the inner workings of our dream selves. How very California.

Speaking of diving into his surroundings, Lee is additionally lending his producing efforts and his list of contacts to the area’s modern-day chorale revivalists, the Silver Lake Chorus. He’s quick to swat away any comparisons to Glee, though, noting that the forthcoming album will comprise original music from artists such as Bon Iver, Beck, and the New Pornographers. 

Following a performance in Soho, Lee met us on the High Line to talk about his new album, growing up, and that space between dreaming and waking when everything inevitably disappears.

LAURA NEILSON: When did you move out of the city?

BEN LEE: 2005. I lived here for six years.

NEILSON: How’s California compared to New York?

LEE: Growing up in Sydney, there was always this Sydney-Melbourne thing, and you know—

NEILSON: Like a rivalry?

LEE: Yeah! You’re either a this person or a that person. And it’s either Nirvana or Pearl Jam. It’s like, everyone turns life into these choices, whereas for me, New York and LA have been very fertile, profound places to live. And I could imagine living in New York again. Where I’ve lived has just been something I’ve rolled with what’s happening in my life with relationships and work. It’s an exciting place to live. But now that I’ve got kids, [in LA] you can actually have this amazing quality of life and have space, and hiking, and all that kind of stuff, and still be a workaholic essentially. It’s a good balance.

NEILSON: How much does your environment affect your creativity? Because this album is thematically focused on dreams, which seems like a very “California” notion.

LEE: I wouldn’t say the album was affected so much by living in LA as it was by growing up and wanting to know myself a bit more. I mean, I moved to New York with this specific purpose of meeting crazy people, and running around and going to clubs and being an artist, and being drunk, and everything. And I moved to LA for a very different purpose, which was essentially to get married and have a family. So I think I personally hit an inner question. It’s weird because even though I’ve always been interested in art, and inner stuff, I felt like I didn’t know myself at all. But that’s probably common for people turning 30.

NEILSON: Is it about better knowing yourself or recognizing that you’ve changed from who you were?

LEE: At 15, I became a professional musician—15 to 30 I think of as highly, highly extroverted years for me in the sense that everything was about trying to get successful and performing and getting out into the world and meeting people and connecting. Really fun! Traveling, and all that. But so far the next period of my life has been more interior. It’s funny doing press right now, this second, because I feel very ambivalent about even reaching out to people and going, “Look at this! Look at this!” whereas before that was all I wanted to do. The work that I’m making is sort of more exposed, so I feel quite scared about that.

NEILSON: But at the show, you seemed very proud to present and share the new songs off the album?

LEE: It’s conflicting. I guess there’s a very quiet part of me, and only I know that part. In my dreams I see that part. In your dreams, all the sides of yourself that you don’t express come out. So I think that probably with this record, I wanted to tap into this more quiet part of me that’s not desperate for connection. But when I get up onstage it’s like another beast, because that’s the part of me that I’ve been trained to be all along. I’m like, “Come on! Let’s get into this together! Let’s have a moment!” There’s conflict, you know?

NEILSON: And you’ve always performed like that—at least in the 10-plus shows that I’ve seen you in over the last decade or so.

LEE: There’s pros and cons of being that type of person. And I am that type of person. If I’m at a party and the vibe’s uptight, I’m gonna try to be the one’s that including people and reaching out, but it’s sort of exhausting. If you go and see the Kings of Leon, it’s a regular rock ‘n’ roll show. Or Ke$ha, you’re gonna see a rock show. It’s like KISS. You know what you’re getting. That’s part of history that doesn’t exist for me. It might be very real in the minds of Kings of Leon and the minds of KISS, but for me it doesn’t fit. Like I get up on a stage, if I try and be that sort of distant, aloof, Dionysian rock god, it doesn’t suit me. You try and embrace who you are.

NEILSON: So is that why you always invite the audience in?

LEE: There’s always a wink. There’s always a laugh at the audience going, “Are we really doing this? Is this really me onstage?” I haven’t seen that really change. Even in places where my ego got most inflated and I actually believed myself to be Jim Morrison for a brief moment. I still couldn’t take it too seriously.

NEILSON: We’re all in on it together.

LEE: Yeah! Otherwise, it’s just too embarrassing.

NEILSON: How did dreams become such a major component of this album, to the extent that you were actually recording friends and acquaintances talking about their dreams?

LEE: I went into therapy with this dream analyst. It was just this process of working through dreams, and I was very moved by the experience. And then he died during the course of our treatment. And the whole thing of opening up to what dreams are, and the unconscious, and his death—I wanted to make a record that was a tribute. Kind of like a guy falls in love and he just wants to make a record for the girl. It was sort of like that with my unconscious, my dream life. I’ve tried to make music that’s more universal, but for me, it’s most successful emotionally when it’s most specific to what I’m going through. So I just found myself writing about that. I was literally walking with the stroller and my baby asleep in it, and I just had that line come into my head, “Have you ever woken from a dream, and convinced yourself you’ll remember in the morning?” Because it happens almost every night and you never remember it. It’s like something that we want to touch, but we’re afraid to touch.

NEILSON: We’re more enigmatic than we often acknowledge.

LEE: I had a funny back-and-forth with Sia on Twitter the other night because she was like “Had an amazing dream last night. Not gonna tell you about it, because other people’s dreams are so boring.” And I wrote to her, “No, no, no! Dreams are like the only things that aren’t boring!” People belittle their dreams, but for me when someone tells me their dream, I think they’re being more honest than if they told me what happened to them that day or how they’re doing. I wanted to explore that. I don’t think the work is exclusively about dreams, but it all ties into this idea of what you find in your unconscious, and the messages that each person hears in their dreams. Your dreams never tell you, “Go ahead, fit in with the group, be like everyone else.” You dreams tell you to be bold, be unique and be vulnerable.

NEILSON: Your dreams don’t have agendas.

LEE: Yeah! They’re not afraid of what people think. So I just wanted to make a record about that.

NEILSON: Your albums always seem to come out every two years—almost like they’re on a creative REM cycle. Are you always writing? Or do you have a particular work cycle?

LEE: I’m always writing, but not particularly my stuff. I like albums where all the songs are written in one go. If you’re trying to create the number-one album with the best songs ever, I get why you’d want to write for three years and pick the best ones, but for me, I’d rather hear a group of songs that are all expressing a state, or time of your life. I think it’s more that.

NEILSON: And you produced it, right?

LEE: Yeah, this is the first one I fully did at home and produced.

NEILSON: What compelled that?

LEE: Well, it was kind of an experiment, and I was prepared to be wrong. I’d worked with Margaret Cho and Silver Lake Chorus and all these people that were trusting me to produce their stuff, and I thought I had no balls if I wouldn’t trust myself. I gave it a shot, just threw it out, and it unfolded well. But Noah Georgeson, Devendra Banhart’s guitar player, he mixed it. And I felt like I definitely needed to go to someone completely new and unfamiliar with me—someone who could come at it with completely fresh ears. So that also really shaped the record. It’s almost like the stuff that I was dipping my toes into, he pushed me to really soak in it.

NEILSON: When is the Silver Lake Chorus album coming out?

LEE: We’re just finishing the first two songs. One was written by Justin Vernon, and one was written by Carl Newman from New Pornographers. We’re going to release those in about a month, and then the album hopefully by the end of the year. When you think of a choir, everyone thinks of Glee, and it’s not Glee. It’s not like a choir of hipsters doing Phoenix covers—there’s a lot of people doing that.

NEILSON: Is every song on the album going to be original?

LEE: Yeah, from Beck, and Sia, and Tegan and Sara, and Aimee Mann—all different people.

NEILSON: When you first got involved with the chorus, was it your idea that they needed to come out with an album?

LEE: Well, they were going to make an album, but I thought it was beautiful because they really sing like a traditional choir group, like six or eight parts going on—like really spot-on. And there’s so much competition with these singing groups, and the thing I could bring to the table is that I know a lot of artists. And if we could get material that no one else had, it would be a whole different thing. And then that’s kind of like an interesting journey because a traditional choir, you pick the material based on if you like the song. Here’s it more like, “Do we like the artist?” And then they send us a song and we do it. You don’t know what you’re going to get.

NEILSON: Now that you’ve had the experience of producing your own album, how do you feel about producing someone else’s?

LEE: It’s a very fine line between getting your perceived best out of an artist, but by the same token, just letting them be themselves. And that might not be your idea of the best. It’s very important to be truthful, I guess, when you’re making a record—or for the records I’m interested in. I’d rather hear an imperfect record that’s truthful. But yeah, I’m much more conscious of treading lightly, and asking what feels authentic.