Ben Sollee is five years into his career as a recording artist, having built a national following through persistent touring and earning high-profile gigs such as Jimmy Kimmel Live and features on CNN. But it still isn’t hard for Sollee to get home to Lexington.
“If anything, it gets easier because I have more resources at my disposal,” Sollee says. “Whether it’s working with West Sixth Brewery for an arts space in that place, producing another Kentucky artists’ record or something else, the resources are more plentiful. The biggest resource that’s hard is just time.”
Sollee is speaking from his Lexington home Tuesday morning, where he has just landed for a little more week. During that time, he’ll perform in Louisville Friday and Saturday and at the Centre College Debate Festival in Danville surrounding Thursday’s vice presidential debate in the Norton Center for the Arts.
Sollee’s music makes social statements about issues important to him, but he says playing the Debate Festival is simply about playing music, not taking stands.
After Thursday, he will go back on the road for a tour in support of his new album, Half Made Man.
It’s a record that finds Sollee expanding the folk-cello vibe he has created for a bigger, more electric feel.
“A huge part of the sound and the feel of this record is the musicians that were involved and how they played and their characters themselves, whether its Carl’s (Broemel) electric guitar or Alana Rocklin’s amazing bass playing, and of course Jordan Ellis, another Kentuckian, has a very signature drumming style,” Sollee says. “Everybody just pitched in with their own character, and that’s what makes the sound, rather than a specific artistic idea.
“That’s really the best shot, to just make music with good musicians.”
Sollee says the largeness of the sound developed organically, due in part to having the musicians together. On previous records, he would have to layer tracks to develop a bigger sound.
“Here, it was so much easier to just say, ‘Let’s rock,’ and from our collective energy we got this big, big sound,” Sollee says.
To make Half Made Man, Sollee went to the well that many musicians have been dipping into to finance recordings, crowd sourcing.
“We put out the call, fully expecting to have several weeks of hard work ahead of us, and the money came in two days,” he said of the campaign on the Power2give.org funding site. “The crowd came and said, ‘Yes, we want new music. Go do it.’”
Sollee says artists should not be fooled into thinking its easy money because the format does oblige them to deliver on promises to their contributors. And he says he is unsure how often an artist can go to that well. But he plans to utilize it for another project that will take him back to his orchestral roots.
“I’m thinking of doing a campaign, probably in the next six months, to create orchestra arrangements of 10 songs,” says Sollee, a Lafayette High School graduate who was in Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras while growing up in Lexington. “What I would hope to do is find an arranger, find out how much that is going to cost, raise the money and hopefully find an orchestra, hopefully a Kentucky orchestra.
The idea behind that project, Sollee says, is to “teach people that folk cello is not about flashy stuff. We can teach the orchestra to grow and be part of that story and do all kinds of artistic, creative things that will open the career to grow.”
For his own story, Sollee is happy to move beyond being viewed as the cello guy.
“It somewhat trivializes it when it’s about how different things are on the cello,” Sollee says. “For me, it’s never been about being the rock cellist or being the innovator. For me, it’s about playing the music that I love on the instrument that I have.”