Culture Dose: Q&A With Musician Ben Sollee

Ben Sollee, GLINT Studios

This weekend, a Kentucky-bred talent & his cello electrify the Tractor Tavern stage

Fans adore cellist, singer-songwriter and composer Ben Sollee for his genre-bending, storytelling, Appalachia-loving ways. He’s shared the stage with, among other musical greats, Bela Fleck and My Morning Jacket, he’s a political activist, and he can often be found riding his bicycle to performances, his cello strapped to his back. After seeing him live, you will never view a cello in the same light. Seattleite recently caught up with Ben, who comes to Tractor Tavern this Sunday evening:

Ben Sollee, GLINT Studios

Seattleite: You sure know how to rock a cello. How do you describe your style? What genre might your music fall under these days?

Ben Sollee: I’m a real mutt of a musician: I studied cello classically, played R&B with the family and bluegrass with my grandfather. As I’ve collaborated with musicians over the years, their sounds and techniques have rubbed off on me. So, when I play cello, the audience hears a little banjo, a touch of harp, a lot of fiddling (occasionally dressed with classical), and some rock of course.

S: In what ways have your Kentucky roots shaped who you are today?

BS: If you look at the musical and cultural heritage of Kentucky, you see a prolific history of cross-pollination. Bluegrass is a mix of gospel, gypsy jazz, folk and rock. Then you follow the lineage to a band like My Morning Jacket who pulls from an even wider swath of influences. But the important fact is not that these styles cross through Kentucky, but rather that they bleed together into new distinct styles that become identified with the state. For me, the organic process of growing up there generated most of the aspects of my style.

S: When you were five, how would you have answered: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

BS: I probably would have said I wanted to be Mega Man or a Ninja Turtle… my earliest musical desire was certainly to be a drummer.

S: Who were your biggest supporters when you decided early on to stray from traditional, classical music?

BS: Friends and family. Mostly because they never saw me as straying from any norms or innovating an instrument. They just saw that I was having fun and wanted to make sure I had the opportunity to continue doing so.

S: How is your latest album “Half-Made Man” different than albums past?

BS: Half-Made Man is my first “live” studio record. My previous records featured a lot of orchestration and overdubs to achieve a definitive sound. This time I invited musicians that I love and trust to come make the music all at once with the goal of capturing a more immediate, raw sound. That was crucial as these songs are self-portraits. The words and music illustrate different parts of who I am. It’s hard to get a genuine portrait if I’m the only one playing the instruments and singing over and over again.

S: You are a great advocate of social change. What are the causes you currently care about most deeply?

BS: I want to begin focusing on the very human challenge of transitioning community through climate change. We’re just now seeing what these challenges will be, and it’s going to take a lot of time, energy, and compassion (oh, and cost a tremendously unimaginable amount of money).

S: I absolutely loved your video shot on the Lincoln Memorial steps encouraging Americans to vote. Why did you feel this was an important message for you to voice?

BS: I’ve spoken to a number of folks, young and old, who feel disenfranchised as citizens. They say their voice does not truly make a difference and that no one’s listening. I’ve even felt that way myself from time to time. But, I figure we’re all playing it too safe yelling at the screen from our couch… the point of the video was to demonstrate that an individual is most certainly recognized if they place themselves in a position to be heard.

S: Has being a father given you a bigger sense of responsibility to use your storytelling to promote positive change?

BS: Yes. The thought that one day my son will look at me and say, “Why didn’t you do something about…” really haunts me. Whether it is in regards to livability infrastructure in cities, poverty and food justice, or mountaintop removal and hydro-fracking. At the very least, I want to be able say I got my hands dirty trying to better these challenges.

S: Do you have any plans while out here the Pacific Northwest? Any must-sees or must-eats (or must-hears) on your list before you head out?

BS: The only “must” I have on this run is to put on really special shows. That will certainly consume the majority of time. There are more people than places that I want to squeeze in to the small moments between. If I had my druthers, I’d hang around for a few days with a bike and see some shows in the Northwest.

S: What rituals prepare you for a show?

Sollee, GLINT Studios

BS: As the shows grow and I mature, I’m developing a little bit of a routine: I have about 5 or 10 minutes of stretching I do, followed by some hot tea with honey. If there’s time, I’ll jam out on the cello to get the heart pumping. I wish I could say I have some wild ritual, but I’m pretty simple.

S: If you could ask an idol of yours one question, what would it be?

BS: Dear Bill Cosby, how did you balance your educational and social goals with your entertainment opportunities? I mean, did you have a certain philosophy that guided your decisions?

S: What should Tractor Tavern patrons expect from your show this Sunday evening?

BS: Recently, at a small indie fest in Indianapolis the police shut down the show because it was too loud. I said, “What the cello?” So, it will be more of a rocking show. However, I can’t resist building a really dynamic set, so there will be point of a repose that isn’t more than whispers. The trio features myself and Jordon Ellis playing drums and analogue synth as well as Luke Reynolds performing with guitar and bass.

Ben Sollee plus Luke Reynolds, seated show | Sunday, Nov. 11th at 8:00PM | Tractor Tavern