An interview with cellist Ben Sollee
Student Life: You’ve mentioned how you wanted “Half-Made Man” to have a “raw, real-time performance quality.” How did you accomplish that? Was it the writing, production, choice of musicians or number of takes?
Ben Sollee: Good question. I mostly had invited a group of musicians that I trusted, not only as musicians but as friends, to help create and perform these songs. Because I wanted it to not be them performing parts to these songs, but rather them sharing their musical voice on these songs. And those musicians were Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket, Jeremy Kittel, formerly of the Turtle Island String Quartet—and he’s played with all sorts of folks all over the world. Just wonderful musicians. And we all sat around as a family and worked out the arrangements acoustically with each other and when we got it close enough—not completely perfect, but close enough—we went to our recording spaces and recorded everything together as a band. And if there were any edits, they were edits together as a band, like when we would punch in, as a performance, all the while keeping this philosophy that people want to hear, and we wanted to hear someone going through an emotion, going through something, and I think you can really feel that when it’s performed versus when it’s curated.
SL: You’ve said that you believe in “the inherent good of human beings.” Do you feel like you are in the minority in that regard, especially among artists?
BS: No, I don’t think so. I think sometimes I’m the biggest champion of that idea, but I don’t feel like I’m in the minority. I feel like creating as people, just the idea that we create as individuals and share it with the world, is a good thing, so it’s hard to debate that as artists and to say, “Well, OK, if you feel like it’s all so bad out there, why do you even make stuff? Why do you keep going?” So I think I just happen to be the most optimistic and the biggest champion of that idea because I do feel like we as creatures are inherently good. I just feel like the struggles of trying to maintain variations of happiness are what lead us to a bunch of craziness.
SL: There seems to be a sense of optimism, both musically and lyrically, in your songs. Is that a deliberate choice, or is that a product of your personality and worldview finding its way into your music?
BS: Yeah, it’s just the way it is. I never write something like “Oh, that’s too dark.” If it’s a meaningful, honest expression to come out of me, it comes out. And if it’s something that I’m trying to coax out in some type of really creative way, sometimes it just doesn’t come out. I can’t always finish songs if they’re not finish-able, if that makes any sense. So if they don’t mean enough, if they’re not profound enough of an idea to me personally, then they don’t usually get finished. And so the ones that get finished are generally the most complete an idea.
SL: As a musician who is fairly active politically, what role do you think musicians have in political discourse? Do they have a responsibility to promote their values?
BS: I think musicians have a responsibility to themselves to create significant and meaningful work. And if that is, to them, writing songs that are about sex all the time, that’s totally their prerogative. For me, it’s really important to build and grow community. And sometimes that means protecting communities, as in the case of Appalachia, where communities are being just destroyed for this process of mountaintop removal strip mining, or whether that means creating more conversation with community by creating complete streets where people have room to bicycle and walk and drive their car and where people can get around. I feel like that’s a big part of my artistic expression, and it’s a big part of the artistic expression of quite a few artists, and those are the artists that I gravitate towards. I don’t necessarily think, to get at the core of your question, that there’s any one code of conduct for artists and musicians. I feel like that’s the beauty of what art is. Art is the choices that we make, and for many of the most popular folks, if the choices that are being made are about big, mainstream ideas—about sexuality and about wealth and about…sexuality. I don’t know—that’s just so much of what I hear out there. And I don’t pretend to know where they’re coming from because everybody comes from a different place. It’s just what I care about.
SL: Much noise has been made about how streaming services, such as Spotify and Pandora, are killing the music industry. As an independent artist, what do you think of streaming services?
BS: Libraries didn’t kill the publishing industry. I don’t think that online streaming libraries of music are going to kill the music industry. I think when you run the numbers, it probably is heartbreaking to see that if all those people had bought CDs, you could have made a lot more money as an artist. However, you would have to spend a lot more money to make all of those CDs, and, after everything’s said and done, you put a bunch of crap out there into the world, physical stuff: paper, plastic, so on. And this lets people be able to experience your music in the world without that heavy footprint. And so I think, overall, streaming services are much more lean and a much more favorable way for people to learn about and experience music. I still think and believe, right or wrong, that people who love art and want to cherish the art that you make will get involved in what you’re doing if you’re doing a good job telling your story because I think that’s what it all comes back to. People don’t just buy music just because it makes them feel good or just because they want to associate with a certain type of social class. They buy music because they want to feel like they’re a part of your story and your thing. So for that reason, I think that it’s all good.
SL: Do you prefer intimate, indoor shows or more expansive festival sets?
BS: I like them all; they just offer different experiences. A big outdoor fest offers opportunities to make big, broad gestures with melodies and instruments. And intimate venues, like 60 people, you can be so much more fleet, and you can tell little stories that are intricate, and you can play songs that are much more delicate. And so I like them both, and I think it’s important for artists to be able to play and perform in both of those settings.