Music News & Reviews

As he embarks on a rock-ier path, cellist Ben Sollee has come a long way

Ben Sollee opened for My Morning Jacket at Memorial Coliseum   on Sunday April 17, 2011 in Lexington, KY.  Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Ben Sollee opened for My Morning Jacket at Memorial Coliseum on Sunday April 17, 2011 in Lexington, KY. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

The electric finale with which My Morning Jacket sealed Smokin' From Shootin' last month at Memorial Coliseum was both a career culmination and a new beginning for Ben Sollee.

In terms of a zenith, it was a glimpse of rock 'n' roll heaven. As the tune wound down, the Lexington cellist was on his feet with his instrument held high — almost at chest level — tapping out a coda to complement the Louisville band's sonic squall.

But the song — one of three instances when My Morning Jacket called Sollee onstage to collaborate — also capped off what was, in essence, a new career chapter. Earlier in the evening, he opened the show with a trio set of his own and remarked on the differences between playing to the 2,500 fans on hand and the handfuls of patrons who showed up to hear him at area coffeehouses just a few years ago.

In short, it was a celebration of how far the classically trained Sollee, 27, has taken the cello in a popular music context as well as the distance his indie fan base has been willing to follow his sounds and songs.

"It was a fun experiment," Sollee said a few days later by phone from Frankfort. "It was also really good to do it not with some anonymous big band that you have to be an opener for, but with friends and fellow Kentuckians.

"It was an opportunity to dive in, fill up the space and try something new. I had a great time.

Sollee was trying out a lot that was new during the show at Memorial Coliseum. He was giving Central Kentucky its first live listen to songs from his forthcoming album Inclusions and to a new band that included Austin, Texas, violinist/vocalist/bassist Phoebe Hunt, formerly of the Lone Star swing/pop ensemble The Belleville Outfit, and Frankfort drummer Jordon Ellis, who figures prominently in the textured sounds that dominate Inclusions.

"We did a little tour with these songs in February to test everything out," Sollee said. "There was already a great band spirit. There was this air amongst us that whenever we took this music to the stage, we were just going to let it live. That's an important thing to me because there is no one way to perform these songs. Yet they exist on their own terms depending on who I'm playing with."

The 11 songs comprising Inclusions were born out of collaborations with a very different trio, one that placed Sollee in the company of two nationally recognized DJs.

"DJ 2ndNature and DL Jones helped present me with the idea of a sound collage," Sollee said. "As a classically trained player, everything I knew about music was based solely in creating a sound from scratch. With DJs, it's about taking existing sounds and rearranging them. So you're using people's basic mixes and changing them up so the music is your own. That was a real eye-opener for me."

Their recorded collaborations didn't surface on the final version of Inclusions, but Sollee generously thanked the DJs atop a list of album credits for helping him "crack the code" in the recording's overall sound.

You hear some of that layered effect in songs like Electrified, a highlight of the Memorial Coliseum set, and in the crisscrossing brass on Introduction that leads into the bright processional Close to You. The emotive outlines, however, continue the upbeat story lines expressed on Sollee's 2008 breakthrough album, Learning to Bend. Similarly, the foundation of each tune, no matter how pop-friendly or soulfully rockish, is rooted in one of Sollee's first musical loves: folk.

"I have this admittedly rose-colored, optimistic view that pretty much everything is folk music — the music of the people. But I've found when it comes time to market an album, you get people tossing labels at you like 'orchestral pop' or 'pop cello,' which, to me, don't make any sense.

"I feel like Inclusions is a folk record. When we had conversations with publicists and managers, they kept saying, 'But we want to relate you to what else is out there.' I just wanted to show, through the prism of the cello and growing up in Kentucky, that this is what modern folk music feels like. It sounds like the people and places in my life. And I love it for that reason."

Another distinguishing trait of Sollee's music is the sense of community it strives to embody. Such a spirit was expressed vividly during a 2010 tour with fellow Kentuckian Daniel Martin Moore and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James — using his side-project alias Yim Yames — that spotlighted the blight of mountaintop-removal coal mining. That topic also triggered the Sollee/Moore album Dear Companion.

The community sensibility will surface again at Sollee's concert Thursday at The Kentucky Theatre. Some of the proceeds will go to Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop. An avid bicyclist, Sollee has used pedaling as an exclusive means of transportation on some tours.

He attributes much of that community awareness to his time as a teen on WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, where he played regularly as part of the house band.

"I practically grew up in the stage band, watching all these musicians come through," he said. "Some were tired and haggard and griped a lot about the industry. Some were at very successful points in their career. Some were just starting out.

"When I started to tour a lot and couldn't do WoodSongs anymore, people kept telling me, 'Don't turn your back on this experience. Don't ever forget about it.'

"That's something that stays with me a lot."