The bicycle-riding singer/songwriter talks with Pollstar about his training, influences and why playing a cello isn’t necessarily a girl magnet.
There is nothing ordinary about Ben Sollee, the genre-mixing artist known for bringing the cello to the forefront, not only as a lead instrument but as an improvisational catalyst as well. Combining elements of bluegrass, jazz, pop, R&B and whatever captures his interest, Sollee isn’t an artist one can instantly categorize. Classically trained, he’s that rare creature that stands alone in a musical universe of his own creation.
Aside from his cello, Sollee is also concerned about the environment and often rides his specially constructed long-frame bicycle to gigs when possible, with his instrument and supplies strapped onboard.
Sollee talked with Pollstar about his new album, Half Made Man, saying he took a more “live approach” to the recording sessions than he did for past efforts. He also discussed composing on the cello and how the instrument is a “Swiss Army Knife” that, when composing, allows him to do everything he wants “quickly and efficiently.”
He also thinks it would be awesome to have a cello tech on tour. Maybe someday…
DeLuna Music Festival, Pensacola Beach, Fla.
September 23, 2012
What attracted you to the cello?
I picked up the cello in public school. It was really the sound that the teacher made. The teacher was a violinist more than anything and when she played cello, I was really attracted to that scratchy, groaning sound the cello could make. So instantly I was drawn to the fact that I could make all kinds of different sounds on the instrument. As I’ve grown over the years, it’s really been that same sort of attraction to the diversity of sounds the cello can make. It really allows me to make the music that I make on it.
Considering the size of the instrument, was it difficult to handle when you were a child?
In public schools, you don’t start [music] until you are 8 years old. I had a smaller cello, a three-quarter size. It was a little bigger, but it wasn’t so big nor was I too small that it was a real burden to carry. I had a fence I had to climb over on the way home. I would climb over the fence with my cello, which, maybe, was a precursor to bicycling with my cello.
Do you compose on the cello?
I do. I do a lot of my compositions on the cello. In part, that’s because I think of it a little bit more as a core instrument than my training taught me how to think of it. It allows me to kind of pick out harmonies and stuff.
Is the experience similar to what someone may encounter when composing on a guitar or a piano?
It’s tricky to explain such a thing on the phone. I think if someone was a fly on the wall, they’d see me experimenting between folk textures … If anything, say I was making a sketch of the song at my house. First, I would play out the basic rhythm and chord changes on the cello while I’m singing. Then I’d cue up another track and do a bass line where I’d pluck it out. Then I’d cue up another track and do background texture pads to fill things out. Then cue up another track and there’d be some melody work. Stuff like that.
From a one-stop-shop, Swiss Army Knife standpoint, the cello is the best tool you can have as a songwriter because it can do all those things quickly and efficiently.
At this point are you hearing the song strictly as a cello piece, or are you hearing it more as what it will sound like completed and with other instruments on the track?
I think at this point I’m hearing more of a complete picture. I’m hearing the sound of the drums, the chord changes and the string overlays. It’s more like composing for the instruments of the band than any particular instrument.
What’s a Ben Sollee recording session like?
In the past I spent a lot of time prearranging and orchestrating and doing a tremendous amount of overdubbing in an effort to get things just right, so to speak. And a part of that is my background, coming from the classical training world and a kind of new string movement here in the States.
But I’ve gradually migrating to the live in the studio approach where I just try to capture a wonderful performance. This record is a real step forward for me for that. Instead of me trying to play everything I invited musicians I trusted and knew, to be themselves and play the music on the record. We played it live in the room together. I think it made for a much more breathing record.
You’ve played with several artists that are known for improvising. Bela Fleck, for instance. Can you just wing it?
That’s a big part of me these days, to just go for it. I try to get the authentic performance even it is a little more planned. But I’m definitely down with just jumping up and trying to improvise. That’s mainly what I do these days.
Many improvisational musicians talk about being in the “zone,” that moment when everything feels perfect and they’re at one with their instruments and the music. Can you remember the first time that happened to you?
The first time I was in the zone was during a little jam in a coffee shop in Richmond, Ky., the same town I met my wife in. Just a bunch of friends getting together. I guess I came to play on the open mic. We all had so much fun that once they closed down the coffee shop we stayed and jammed for a long time.
I remember, it was the first time I had a bunch of people who didn’t necessarily know where I was coming from, just seeing the cello as I was playing it and not for all the other things that it is. There was a bass player, guitar player and percussionist all jamming and there were a couple of moments … you just don’t experiencing other than listening.
I think it would be akin to someone climbing all the way to Mt. Everest and re-reading everybody else’s journal about it. I think it’s much more your own personal experience. You’re so in the moment that you’re not thinking about before or after.
How many musicians played on Half Made Man?
It’s a collection of me and four other musicians. We have Alana Rocklin who is an incredible, multi-faceted bass player. Jordon Ellis, who often plays percussion for me. Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket does all the guitar work. And this wonderful violin/fiddle player named Jeremy Kittel. They all come from diverse backgrounds, some of them have classical or jazz training, so we can speak on that level but at the same time just sit down and rock.
Regarding your training, do you stay in touch with your teachers?
I try to stay in touch. Definitely with the teachers that put the cello in my hand. I stay in touch with quite a few of my private teachers.
Do they comment on your career?
I think they’re real proud. If anything, they didn’t know what they were forming. There was a struggle with me as a student because I asked a lot of questions. Sometimes they didn’t have answers, sometimes it took too much time to answer them. I know I was frustrated at the same time. They tried to put as many tools in my bag as they could.
Do you think your teachers saw you as doing something other than playing in an orchestra?
I think the teachers had a pretty good sense that I wasn’t going to end up in an orchestra. I remember my college professor saying, obviously, I wasn’t going for an orchestra but I still needed these tools in my bag. I think he was right.
You also play mandolin and guitar. What other instruments do you play?
One of my favorite instruments to play is bass. R&B, any kind of percussion or bass.
You said most of the Half Made Man sessions were live with everyone playing at once. What else is different about the album compared to your previous releases?
Conceptionally, it’s a collection of self-portraits. All these pieces and parts of me that I wanted to capture in a non-curated kind of immediate play, hence the live performance. I think age 28 is a really interesting age because we’re transitioning from a lot of the things we thought we’d be to the things we are.
The other thing, a lot of people are curious where the cello presence is on the record. There’s a ton of cello in there. It’s kind of “Where’s Waldo” with it, though, interpreted many different ways.
Is it, or, at one time, was it difficult to sing and play the cello at the same time?
At this point it’s no more difficult than singing and playing another instrument. But at first? Yeah, it was a huge hurdle to be able to do it. What I do now is definitely the result of being able to stack a lot of small tricks on top of lots of other small tricks to be able to pull it all off. But now it’s become second nature.
Are there any occupational hazards unique to a cellist?
Cellists have always had bad shoulder problems. Yo-Yo Ma, my teachers, various folks – shoulder problems are the cellist’s problems. You’re tied down, your butt is sitting on a chair and you’re reaching around this thing. I think that’s the main occupational hazard. There are all kinds of other social and mental things.
You begin to think, in life and community, about things, how you approach them musically. If you’re playing cello, you’re often in a supporting role. Very rarely are you in a lead roll. If you are, it’s only for a moment because orchestrators and composers often use the cello to pivot between pieces of the ensemble. I find myself in that role a lot.
Is your relationship to the cello similar to a guitarist and his/her instrument? That is, do you have a collection of cellos and does each one sound unique to your ears?
Yeah. My dream is to have a cello tech. How awesome would that be? You’re in the middle of a cello show and someone walks out and hands you another cello and takes yours and goes back and tunes it. That would be so surreal.
I do have a small collection of cellos and they’re very different.
How many do you take on the road with you?
Right now I take two. I take a wonderful Kay cello. If you know Kay, they’re not fancy instruments but they’re unique instruments. It’s all plywood. I got it off eBay for $200 and fixed it up. That’s my main rock instrument.
The other one I play is a really nice instrument made in a shop in New York by a fellow named Guy Rabut. That’s a nice cello, it represents the pure cello sound in the show.
Do you take a collection of bows on the road?
I have my nice wooden bow that is incredibly sensitive and detailed. And I have my ax bow that is carbon fiber and made by this company called CodaBow that I use to go into the rock clubs and hack away.
Ben Sollee performing above the dancers during the ballet “Dangerous Liaisons,” for which he scored the music.
Who would you like to play with but you haven’t yet had the chance?
I would like to do some music with Ani DiFranco, Paul Simon. Bill Cosby – I love his musical mind. He’s really good, beyond the records he’s produced and created himself. Whether it’s his psychedelic piano records or all of his other goofy stuff. I think he has a great musical mind. I think Esperanza Spalding would be a fun person to play with. There’s so many.
Is the cello a girl magnet?
No (laughs). The cello is not, or has not been a girl magnet. If anything, it’s a guy thing. Guys like seeing girls playing cellos. At least, that’s the stigma out there. I will have to say, candidly, gay men have been more interested in the cello playing than the straight women.
NPR once called you one of the top ten unknown artists of the year. What’s your take on that?
It doesn’t really mean anything. It’s kind of a nothing statement with the exception that it’s coming from NPR – this is an unknown person we think you should know about. There’s a tremendous amount of unknown people. To be plucked from them is an honor, I guess, but what’s the measuring point here?
What do you have planned for the coming years?
I’m going to do some more work making music for stage and ballet. This year I have two different ballets that I wrote the scores for. And do some touring on my bicycle and do some more collaborations. I have various projects that I’m producing for different artists. Amongst all that, really just keep working hard on being a good dad and husband. That takes equal or more effort than the career.
As a musician, what’s the best bit of advice anyone has given you?
My cello teacher in college … tried to explain to me why I needed to do all this stuff and why I needed to focus. Most of the time in my life I was all over the place.
He said, “Listen. You have a tremendous amount of talent. You recognize that, I recognize that, we all recognize that. But you haven’t expressed the responsibility that you have to take care of it.”
And I felt like that was not just about my cello playing but about the whole story, that responsibility of what you’re going to do with it, taking care of yourself. That’s not an easy thing to do, to be responsible for your talent and take care of yourself. I think that’s a guiding light for me in a lot of ways. Who I am, what I do, how I get there, who it benefits, who it hurts, all those different things.
“Instead of me trying to play everything I invited musicians I trusted and knew, to be themselves and play the music on the record.”
Currently on tour, upcoming gigs for Ben Sollee include Oberlin, Ohio, at Cat In The Cream Oct. 12; Indianapolis at Connor’s Pub Oct. 13; Ann Arbor, Mich., at Blind Pig Oct. 14 and York, Pa., at Strand-Capitol Performing Arts Center Oct. 16. Visit BenSollee.com for more information.