What do you do if you’ve been touring the world for the past decade and, at 25, you’re having what amounts to your first midlife crisis? If you are coming off a very public breakup with your longtime movie-star girlfriend? If you are headline news at home, but just another face in the crowd in your adopted hometown of New York?
If you’re Ben Lee, you write an album of existential pop songs and call it Awake Is the New Sleep (February 22) and enjoy how you’ve turned heartbreak and the search for life’s big answers into the strongest album of your career.
“My job as an artist is to go a little further, be more vulnerable and get to a riskier place than an ordinary person would,” Lee, 26, said of songs such as the menage-a-trois fantasy “Apple Candy” and the atmospheric ballad “Get Gotten,” the lyrics of which paint him as, well, intense.
“I got songs that give/ I got songs that prove/ Songs I use when I want to seduce/ And I want to seduce you/ Why won’t you let me?” he sings in an intimate near-whisper on “Gotten.”
But would he really go so far as to, say, use “God to pick up girls”? “Yeah, that’s my job,” he laughed, admitting he may have looked for some divine intervention in the past. “I’ve lived with a certain kind of abandon and commitment to my passion, my music, and that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
Luckily for fans, that abandon was also plowed back into such joyous, infectious pop nuggets as the album’s first single, “Catch My Disease,” a jangly, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, bell-ringing tune about taking life as it comes.
“Please, baby, please, open your heart and catch my disease,” Lee pleads in his best blue-eyed soul croon. But while he’s a top name in his native Australia, success has been harder to attain in the U.S., something he jokes about in the song when he sings, “They don’t play my songs on the radio/ And that’s the way I like it.”
“It’s not sour grapes,” he said. “The irony is that it’s the catchiest song I’ve ever done, but part of me feels like I’m coming to value the power of anonymity and being underestimated. There’s so much great work being done anonymously on the planet, like when you go to the deli and buy a bagel and the guy at the register smiles at you and he’s not mean. That’s a little moment of hope that he won’t be thanked for.”
Like many instantly hummable ditties, the song was conceived and recorded on the fly, very quickly, and in this case, backstage. Lee was touring with Phantom Planet, and, on the final show of the tour, a backstage jam with the band inspired the song’s lyrics to tumble out all at once.
Lee began his career in his native Sydney, Australia, at age 14 with his first band, the pop-punk group Noise Addict. Though short lived, NA attracted the attention of the Beastie Boys, who released Lee’s first solo album, 1995’s Grandpaw Would, on their now-defunct Grand Royal label. He followed with the mostly acoustic 1997 album Something to Remember Me By, 1999’s guitar-heavy Breathing Tornados and 2003’s beat-crazy Hey You. Yes You., produced by Dan the Automator. In between, he’s collaborated with Kylie Minogue, the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, released a series of EPs with Ben Kweller and Ben Folds as the Bens and, in 2003, made his feature-film debut in the Australian indie “The Rage in Placid Lake.”
But for most Us Weekly -reading Americans, Lee is best known as the former boyfriend of Claire Danes, whom he dated until last year, when she left him for actor Billy Crudup, who famously split with eight-months-pregnant girlfriend Mary-Louise Parker around the same time. There are a number of songs on Awake that sound like they could be about the breakup (“Ache for You,” for one), but Lee said things aren’t that black and white. “People would expect a breakup record,” he said, “but Claire and I are great friends and, weirdly for me, that whole period in my life is not one where the heartbreak is a dominant feeling.”
Lee said he comes closest to dealing with the split in the country-tinged pop ballad “No Right Angles,” in which he sings about “suspicious minds.” More than anything, though, he said the song is about his own unbending will and how he can sometimes be difficult to deal with. Like the raucous up-with-people anthem “We’re All in This Together” – which features cameos from Har Mar Superstar, members of Rilo Kiley and producer Brad Wood’s daughter – even Lee’s breakup song is infused with a sunny, upbeat outlook.
“I’m playing to my strengths when I allow myself to be full of hope,” Lee said. “There are certain times in my life and career when I felt the battles were too difficult. Like in ‘Begin,’ where I talk about hitting a wall and looking up at the sky. This whole record stems from a change that is something I don’t have the vocabulary to be articulate about, like that childhood dream when you are in your house and you find a new room you didn’t know about. That’s what my life was like when I was making this record, almost like I remembered what I came for.”
Whether American audiences finally connect with Lee’s sound on this album or not, he said he’s satisfied that Awake is his best snapshot of that dream. “I’ll never forget a moment when I was playing a college in L.A. and a kid who was a huge fan asked me, ‘Ben, have you tried to be successful?’ That was so funny to me. I am successful! I’ve made a career in music, and that’s not easy.”