MUSIC

Ben Lee talks his COVID anthem, moving home and how he grew up in the mid-2000s

THANKFUL: Ben Lee is loving life being back in Australia permanently for the first time in 24 years.

THANKFUL: Ben Lee is loving life being back in Australia permanently for the first time in 24 years.

ONLY if you were living in a bomb shelter off-the-grid last year could you have avoided hearing Ben Lee's indie-pop ear worm, We're All In This Together.

No song seemed to incapsulate better the predicament the world suddenly found itself.

The track, originally released in 2005, featured in everything from public health campaigns urging people to wear masks, socially distance and wash their hands to cheesy Nine Network TV commercials.

Suddenly a 15-year-old minor hit was a COVID-era anthem.

"What happened with that song last year was different because it wasn't in a big commercial or anything, just organically people started playing it and talking about it," Lee says.

"Those moments in careers are very weird and very rare where organically quite literally this wave comes. For me, it was funny because when you make music and it doesn't get a reaction in the first six months, we tend to look at it as bit of a failure.

"But this was a reminder that organic moments happen totally on their own schedule. You cannot predict when a song will take on a meaning or become useful."

This renewal of interest in Lee's music coincided with the 42-year-old leaving Los Angeles in December and moving back to his native Sydney for the first time since he was 18, along with his British-American actress wife, Ione Skye, and their daughters.

Lee describes it as a mixture of homecoming and playing host, but it's an experience his whole family is loving.

"A really positive thing both my wife and I have been feeling is in the States, the intensity with which everyone pursues their career, including us, it can be exhausting," he says.

"I think because Australians value quality of life so much it's like an in-built protection against becoming workaholics. There's just a better balance, I think, between work and life."

The return to Australia has given Lee a chance to take his OMG I'm Playing Gigs Again Tour to regional towns like Yamba and Coffs Harbour and he's even returning to music festivals later this year with Sunset Sounds at Roche Estate in the Hunter Valley.

Ben Lee - We're All In This Together

The line-up features other Australian artists like Xavier Rudd, Pete Murray, Kasey Chambers, The Beautiful Girls and Josh Pyke, who enjoyed their commercial peak in the 2000s.

"It's taken me some time to figure out how to do festivals," Lee says. "I remember talking to the producer Mitchell Froom who said, 'your music isn't good to take drugs to and that's why it doesn't work at festivals'.

"To an extent he's right. It's not as obvious a fit as other things are at festivals. At festivals you generally don't listen to the lyrics as much, you're just outside, you're partying with friends, you're drinking, it's music to party to.

"Particularly for festival shows I've realised you really have to lead the party for the audience. Bands that do well at festivals are great party hosts basically.

"It's something I've realised how I could do it in a way that felt authentic to me."

The mid-2000s period, which Sunset Sounds embraces, was a time when Lee released two of his most successful albums Awake Is The New Sleep (2005) and Ripe (2007) and the singles Gamble Everything For Love, Catch My Disease and Love Me Like The World's Ending.

ON TOUR: Ben Lee will perform at Sunset Sounds music festival on November 30.

ON TOUR: Ben Lee will perform at Sunset Sounds music festival on November 30.

It was also when Lee shrugged off his '90s reputation of being arrogant - Bernard Fanning famously described him as a "precocious little c---" - to reveal his chilled and lovable demeanour, he's since become renown for.

Lee's music also shifted away from the indie-rock of Cigarettes Will Kill You and Something Borrowed, Something Blue towards a blend of indie-pop and folk.

"When I think of the mid-2000s I think of it as a time that I began my adult career," he says.

"It was a time of becoming less conflicted about success or connection.

"I started feeling less complicated. I'm now 25 and I'm becoming an adult and this is what I'm doing with my career. It was a landing for me."

Lee has continued releasing new music over the past decade, taking curious detours into concept albums about dream states, children's music and even a collaboration with actor Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother fame.

A 12th album is finished and expected to be released later this year.

"Maybe it's just getting older and knowing who you are, but it feels like it's a definitive statement that I've wanted to make in a long time," he says.

Ben Lee plays at the Street Theatre, Canberra (April 30); Unibar, Wollongong (May 6); Lizotte's, Newcastle (May 15 & 16); Albury SS&A (June 4), Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre (June 5) and Sunset Sounds at Roche Estate in the Hunter Valley on November 20.

This story How COVID-19 made Ben Lee cool all over again first appeared on Newcastle Herald.