Jesse Valencia interviews prolific musician Ben Lee about his latest projects, tours, and his partnership with actor (and now singer/songwriter) Josh Radnor.
Ben Lee is no stranger to being busy—the Australian singer-songwriter has released a dozen albums, produced records for other artists, is working on a musical with Tom Robbins, and, on top of being one-half of the band Radnor & Lee (the other half being Rise and How I Met Your Mother actor Josh Radnor), is a dedicated family man.
How he can balance everything while keeping a head on his shoulders was initially beyond me, but when I first heard Ben and Josh’s record, I was struck by the maturity and calming effect the songs held, both musically and lyrically. In an era where much of pop music has taken on a role of being something akin to junk food, the songs of Radnor & Lee offer a healthy alternative. Songs that make you think and feel, but most importantly self-examine.
After speaking with him about Radnor & Lee and some of his other projects in the works, it became apparent that Ben is one of the most centered individuals I’ve had the opportunity to interview. The group’s eponymous debut Radnor & Lee is available now from Gold Village Entertainment.
Jesse Valencia, The Big Smoke: Radnor & Lee has been described at times as a “religious band” and, while I can see where the press might deduce that, given some of the hymnal tones of this collection of songs, I feel that “religious” is a bit strong. I would describe the vibe I get personally from your songs as more philosophical with spiritual overtones, exploring a wide range of thought and feeling. How do you describe it?
Ben Lee: The religious thing I think has to do with people’s misunderstandings of what it means to be philosophical, or reflective or spiritual. Most people’s only exposure, unfortunately, to spiritual concepts is within the constraints of religion. So, generally, I would say, we’re artists, we’re people who are interested in connecting human heart to human heart, human mind to human mind. I don’t like to limit that to even the word “spirituality,” because people have so many preconceptions about that. Certainly we’re not a religious band, or even a spiritual band. It feels limiting. We’re human beings. We make music for other humans.
The video for “Be Like The Being” is very minimalist with the expressive hand movements and lighting, while the video for “Doorstep” seems to dissolve the wall between the band and your fans to the point that the act of creation has now become participatory. Did the ideas for these videos come from the same place as this collection of songs?
The first video, “Be Like the Being,” I said to Josh, “Hey! Do you have any ideas for a music video that would be cheap and quick?” And he said, “Yeah, I was at a party the other night. I met this hand dancer!” [laughs] And that’s literally how that “Be Like The Being” video came. Within a week we were shooting it. The “Doorstep” video, that was more driven by me, and it was really around, sort of, my passion for engaging my audience. I like it. I find it exciting to let people into that process. Those are the only two we’ve done. One of them Josh spearheaded, the other I spearheaded. I don’t know where ideas come from. They’re inspirations.
Less than a year ago, it seemed a distant dream that Radnor & Lee would be touring, yet just a couple weeks ago you it looks like you had an amazing experience touring South America. Both you and Josh have busy schedules, but with the momentum you guys now have going, are there any plans to do any touring in 2018?
We’re going to the Midwest in April. Nebraska, Iowa, and Ohio, and then we’re coming to Australia in May. Beyond that, we’re not really sure, but I have kids and am married, and we both have very active other careers, but we are dedicated to the band and the possibilities of performing live, so there’s going to be more.
(A mini-documentary directed by Diego Padilha about Radnor & Lee’s recent tour in Brazil is in the works. Here is the teaser trailer.)
The first Radnor & Lee record has been out for a couple of months now. The journey this collection of songs has made—from writing them, to recording them, to now performing them in front of an audience—seems like it’s been a spiritually and emotionally rewarding experience. Now that your fans have had some time to digest the album, what has that experience been like? How are fans reacting to this body of work in a live context?
It’s funny because we made the record in such an insulated experience, it was really just about our friendship and connecting as buddies, so it was funny to let an audience into that at all, but it’s been such a fun and organic process, especially playing live because people know the music, and them singing the words back to us and all of that, it’s been really radical.
This record is rich with self-reflective depth, and you’ve both discussed how your mutual interests in philosophy have sort of carried the ideas driving the narratives of these songs. Do you and Josh plan on keeping this same direction with the next Radnor & Lee record? Are there any songs from the first record that you guys went “we’re going to save this for the next one”?
The second record, the new one, no. There aren’t any songs from the first one. The new record’s quite different. It’s hard to describe music, but it’s more muscle-y. It’s more about embracing as living as a human being, rather than perhaps escaping from it. It’s also about transcendence, but it’s about transcendence through being present, in our bodies, in our human lives.
You’ve been a working musician and songwriter for many years now, and Josh recently said in an interview that you’ve empowered him to explore and develop his songwriting and lyricism more in-depth. I am interested to hear how that development, on Josh’s part, may inform the creative direction of the band. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve been aware the whole time of wanting Josh’s input, not just as a songwriter, not just a lyricist especially, which was sort of a temptation, I think, for both of us in the beginning, but as a musician, production ideas. Collaboration for me is no fun if you’re in control. And so, part of the joy of this has been ceding as much control as possible, at least 50 percent of it, to someone else who I respect. Even though he hasn’t made albums before, well now he has. He’s made one. I respect him as an artist and as a creator.
Josh has also been learning guitar, and you both want to take Radnor & Lee in the direction of being a two guitar band, which seems like a natural next step. How is his playing coming along?
Yeah, it’s really good. All the songs we are writing now are really two guitar songs, and he’s playing live on more and more of the set, playing guitar. It’s changing the dynamic. I also think it’s changing the way he thinks about writing lyrics and singing. I think guitar players will know, there’s something that happens when your hands are involved. It changes the way you think about rhythm.
Tell me a bit about this musical adaptation you’ve done with Tom Robbins, “B is for Beer.” The concept of Robbins’ novella is interesting, about a young girl exploring the world of beer. What led you to collaborate with Tom on this project? A B is For Beer record is in the works as well. How’s that coming along?
I just found the book in Powell’s bookstore in Portland, one of the biggest bookstores in the world, and I reached out to Tom, and it’s probably been, oh man, probably seven or eight years in the making. [laughs] At the moment I’m making an album of it, with great actors, just the songs, and I think a lot of musicals that are a bit harder to pitch, like this one is, a little less conventional, they benefit from having the music out there first, like obviously Tommy, Evita, American Idiot, Chess, there’s so many, so I think I’m choosing that route with it. Tom has just been a joy to get to know him, and to collaborate with him, and try and create something of a standard he has held the rest of his catalog to.
Josh has a new show coming out in a couple months, Rise, which could influence your ability to write and perform together. In the event that happens, what projects do you have in the works for 2018?
We’re not sure yet if Rise is gonna do a second season. I’m hoping it does. At the moment, he’s finished with the show, that will be until July or something. You know, I produced Jill Sobules album, I’m very involved in this new blockchain website called Steemit. I’m really putting a lot of energy into creating there. I always have a lot of things up my sleeves creatively. My wife (Iona Skye) just got a job too, a big acting job (Lena Dunham’s new HBO series Camping), so there’s going to be more parenting on my shoulders also [laughs], but I’m not too worried. I think part of the fun of this is that we do have other things, and it makes us stay grateful for this opportunity.