Born on September 11, 1979, in Sydney, Australia. Addresses: Record company--New West Records, 9215 W. Olympic Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212, phone: (310) 246-5766. Website---Ben Lee Official Website: http://www.ben-lee.com.
Australian alternative rock prodigy Ben Lee earned admirable critical credibility at a relatively early age. His home-recorded single debut as a 14-year-old in the band Noise Addict attracted the interest of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Beastie Boys' Mike D. The single earned Lee a record deal before he was even out of high school.
By that point, though, Lee had already been honing his craft for years, having written his first songs at the age of ten. At 13, the Sydney native had formed Noise Addict. It's not surprising that Lee's age was as much a topic of discussion as was his music. Reviewing his 1995 debut solo album Grandpaw Would for Rolling Stone, Christina Kelly wrote, "It's hard to believe lyrics this dead-on were written by a kid this young. Then you realize that only a 15-year-old could write songs with such a perfect combination of innocence and cynicism."
"I Wish I Was Him" brought immediate attention to Lee and to Noise Addict bass player Daniel Kohn and drummer Saul Smith. A tongue-in-cheek ode to Lemonhead Evan Dando, "I Wish I Was Him," included the oft-quoted lyrics, "He's got six different flannel shirts, Airwalks not thongs/He even understands the words to Pavement songs." A new version of "I Wish I Was Him" first appeared on The Taste in My Eyes, a 1994 EP issued on the Australian label Fellaheen. When Noise Addict's American debut, the EP Young & Jaded, was released on the Beastie Boys' label Grand Royal in 1994, it included the original recording of "I Wish I Was Him," along with a cover version of the Jonathan Richman song "Back in Your Life." The same year, the band also released the EP Def on the Ecstatic Peace! label.
Although Noise Addict was sometimes likened to fellow Australian teen rock band Silverchair, a number of writers noted that the primary similarity between the two bands was the age of their members. Unlike the grunge-oriented Silverchair, Lee and Noise Addict demonstrated more of a pop sensibility. As Sara Sherr wrote for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, "Lee mixes elements of innocence and wisdom, catchy songs with witty, poignant lyrics about girls and pop music, and the struggle to be yourself in a world populated by interchangeable scenesters."
Started Solo Career
In 1995 Lee took a brief hiatus from Noise Addict to record Grandpaw Would, an engaging outing that was praised in the Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock as "a joy: one catchy little pop song after another." The album featured background vocals by Rebecca Gates of the Spinanes on "Pop Queen" and Liz Phair on "Away With the Pixies." Lee returned to Noise Addict, which now featured new guitarist Romy Hoffman, to record 1996's Meet the Real You. It would be the last album Lee would record with Noise Addict before splitting from the group to concentrate on a solo career.
The following year Lee issued his first post-Noise Addict album, Something to Remember Me By, which was recorded at the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal studio in Los Angeles. Writing for the Detroit News, Tom Long called the album "a personal, complex and affecting work that doesn't necessarily show a wisdom beyond his years; instead it shows a wisdom about his years, and may be one of the best albums of 1997." The album again teamed Lee with producer Brad Wood, who had worked on Lee's first solo record and Noise Addict's last. Wood had also worked with alternative rock acts Veruca Salt and Liz Phair.
Something to Remember Me By featured some reasonably well known alternative rockers backing Lee, including Hole's Melissa Auf der Maur and That Dog's Anna Waronker on backing vocals. The album tackled more weighty themes than his previous outings, which Lee said he did consciously. "It's not a light album, something you can really put on in the background," Lee told Steve Appleford of Rolling Stone. "There's no reason to let people off lightly just because they've already paid for the record."
Continuous Musical Growth
By the age of 20, Lee had already released his third solo outing, 1999's Breathing Tornadoes. The album, which incorporated more musical technology than previous efforts, demonstrated Lee's continuing musical growth and garnered the Aussie even more critical accolades. Newsweek praised the record's "infectious electrofolk." Lee told Billboard's Carrie Borzillo, "I just feel I've been so literal so many times in the past; this was the first time I experimented with different degrees of abstraction. I wanted to talk about more complex feelings." Evelyn McDonnell dubbed it "infectious" and "charming" in her review for Interview, while Esquire said the album "hit the pop-alternative nail on the head."
For Breathing Tornadoes, Lee worked with producer Ed Bueller, who was well known for his work with British acts like Suede and Pulp. "I didn't want to be in the situation where you fall into old habits, and before you know it, you're making the same jokes and using the same sounds," Lee told Borzillo. The album, Lee's first for Capitol Records, featured the single "Nothing Much Happens," which was co-written by former That Dog violinist Petra Haden.
To promote the album, Lee was slated to tour the northeastern United States, as well as open several shows for the band Cracker. In a 1997 article in Entertainment Weekly, Lee exhibited his knack for digging beneath the surface of issues, which apparently extends beyond his songs, as he discussed his career. "I'm dealing with my soul and the souls of the people who listen to me," Lee told writer Matt Diehl. "However I'm judged, I'm gonna make it through and I'm gonna do it all."
In late 2002 Lee released Hey You, Yes You on the Modular label. He has continued to explore with noises and sounds, expanding on the experimentation of his previous albums. Along with the musical developments, Lee has continued to try and express his inner thoughts. Even his sense of silliness comes through on "Running with Scissors."
In an unusual but spontaneous twist, Lee joined together with fellow monikers Ben Kweller and Ben Folds to record an EP called The Bens. The three performed on a nine-date tour in Australia. They all knew each other from similar concert tours in the past, and their fans had begun to talk about them recording together. The musicians began to joke about it among themselves, and soon the joke became a reality. "We were all going to tour Australia separately," Lee said in an article on MTV.com. "And we were all friends, so we just decided to do it together."
Career and Personal Changes
In the fall of 2003 Lee took another direction when he was sent the screenplay for the movie The Rage in Placid Lake by Sydney playwright Tony McNamara. "I just remember knowing I was going to make the movie as soon as I read it," Lee told Time International. Lee accepted the role of the lead character, Placid Lake, in the satirical comedy about an offbeat teenager trying to find his way through life.
Lee's longterm relationship with actress Claire Danes (of movies such as the Mod Squad and the television series My So-Called Life) continued until 2004, when in a very public breakup, Danes began dating actor Billy Crudup. Many people expected Lee to release a "breakup" album following the long-term relationship, but Lee remained on his former musical path. Awake is the New Sleep was released in 2005, and the album showcased his strong construction of both the music and the telling of a story. Echoes of past works displayed themselves in more complicated forms. "Lee has such an unassuming way and deceptively light touch with these alt-pop tunes---from the countryish gallop of "Gamble Everything For Love" to the moody brooder "Ache for You"---that it can be easy to overlook his sharp ear for melody and smart lyrical spins," stated Chuck Arnold for People.
Despite their musical complexity, Lee's songs are usually heard as ditties that fans are quickly able to pick up and sing along with. It is this combination of complexity and simplicity that may finally draw the attention of American audiences to what the Australians have recognized all along: that Ben Lee is a talented singer-songwriter with a long future ahead in the music business.
by K. Michelle Moran and Sarah Parkin
Ben Lee's Career
Formed trio Noise Addict in Australia, 1992; first self-recorded single with Noise Addict, 1993; released debut EP, The Taste in My Eyes, on Australian label Fellaheen, 1994; first solo record, Grandpaw Would, released on Fellaheen/Grand Royal, 1995; left Noise Addict for solo career, 1996; released solo album Something to Remember Me By, 1997; released Breathing Tornadoes on Capitol, 1999; released Hey You, Yes You, 2002, starred in The Rage In Placid Lake, 2003, released Awake is the New Sleep, 2005.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Grandpaw Would Fellaheen/Grand Royal, 1995.
- Away with the Pixies (EP), Fellaheen, 1995.
- Something to Remember Me By Grand Royal, 1997.
- Breathing Tornadoes Grand Royal/Capitol, 1999.
- Hey You, Yes You Modular, 2002.
- Awake is the New Sleep New West, 2005.
- With Noise Addict
- The Taste in My Eyes (EP), Fellaheen, 1994.
- Young & Jaded (EP), Grand Royal, 1994.
- Def (EP), Ecstatic Peace!, 1994.
- Noise Addict vs. Silver Chair (reissue of The Taste in My Eyes ), Fellaheen, 1995.
- Meet the Real You Fellaheen, 1995; reissued, Grand Royal, 1996.
- With The Bens
- The Bens Sony, 2003.
- Robbins, Ira, editor, Trouser Press Guide to '90s Rock, Fireside, 1997.
- Billboard, February 20, 1999.
- Detroit News, June 12, 1997.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 1995; February 2, 1996; May 23, 1997; May 30, 1997.
- Esquire, March 1999.
- Interview, February 1999.
- Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, January 17, 1996.
- Newsweek, April 12, 1999.
- People, March 21, 2005.
- Rolling Stone, May 18, 1995; March 20, 1997.
- Time International, September 1, 2003.
- "The Bens," MTV, http://www.mtv.com/news/yhif/the_bens/ (June 20, 2005.)