Music News & Reviews

Cellist Ben Sollee is finishing up a 'slightly crazy year'

Ben Sollee, a Lafayette High School graduate, will perform in Australia heading into 2013.
Ben Sollee, a Lafayette High School graduate, will perform in Australia heading into 2013.

Slow growth. It's the term Ben Sollee uses to describe the purposeful pace at which his music, as well as the themes and inspirations behind it, has caught on with a national fan base.

Look at the past year, though, and one might sense some acceleration. He has played numerous benefit concerts in the Lexington area, scored several ballets and film projects; released the album Half Made Man, the seventh recording in five years to bear his name; and, yes, there was that little show he was part of in Danville this fall when the country's eyes were on the city for the vice presidential debate.

Still, Sollee, 29, sees his career expanding at a rate that remains under his control.

"It's been a good but slightly crazy year," said the celebrated Lexington cellist and multistylistic songwriter. He will perform his final stateside concert Wednesday at the Lexington Opera House before concluding 2012, and beginning 2013, with a monthlong tour of Australia.

"I don't want any single year for me to just explode. Then you have to deal with all of the non-explosions of the next year. It's all about small growth."

In a year that is taking Sollee from Danville to Down Under, the focal point remains Half Made Man, a record that widens the cellist's already broad stylistic reach with music that packs elements of blues, jazz, rock and more into songs with strong folk and pop structures.

"The goal was simply to connect in a more genuine way with people. In a lot of ways, the last album was more introspective," Sollee said, referring to 2011's Inclusion, although the performance recording Live at the Grocery on Home surfaced this year before Half Made Man. "I think some audiences found it to be abrasive at first, although they seemed to embrace it after awhile."

In many ways, Half Made Man is as much about taking stock of a life rooted in art and activism as it is about moving forward. The Healer, for instance, outlines the kind of disconnect necessary to find one's personal — and, perhaps, artistic — calling.

"The Healer is a song about the part of myself that is always trying to fix things. It was a challenge to myself, in a way, but I tried to be almost cinematic with it, too," says Sollee, a Lafayette High School graduate who was in Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras while growing up in Lexington.

Sollee said the song was inspired by the life of iconic outdoor photographer Ansel Adams, who also was an avid environmentalist and, in his youth, a budding musician.

"Ansel Adams was a great pianist. He really struggled for a time with what he would eventually become, a musician or a photographer," Sollee said. "But he also had this great passion for rural landscapes and the wilderness. That was something that really resonated with me, this passion for community."

Helping out on The Healer is banjoist Abigail Washburn, a musical ally since before the days she and Sollee performed in the Sparrow Quartet with her husband, Béla Fleck, and Casey Driessen.

"Abigail is my musical big sister, which is funny because she is about the same age as my real big sister," Sollee said. "She has given me so many opportunities and has shown me how to build a music career. We spent years chasing buses, it seems, by opening shows for other artists. It was back-breaking work, in a way. And wallet-breaking, too."

The recording process for Half Made Man also proved to be different — and in many ways, preferable — to the way Inclusion was constructed.

"In the past, we relied so much on pre-arrangements and overdubs that it became hard just to step back and see the project for what it was," he said. "On Half Made Man, the band played arrangements acoustically and shaped the parts to their own voice. From there, we cut everything live to tape for a sound that seemed less curated and more found."

One might assume that Sollee's concert at the Opera House was intended strictly as a promotion for Half Made Man. But the cellist has continually emphasized community as much as his art. As a result, this week's show will emphasize community and someone else's art. The performance will be a benefit for Institute 193, the non-profit North Limestone gallery and art space that hosts works by artists from Kentucky and the Southeast.

In keeping with Institute 193's spirit and mission, Sollee plans to open his own performance and studio space in the Bread Box, the complex at West Sixth and Jefferson streets that is home to, among other businesses, West Sixth Brewing Co. and Broke Spoke Community Bike Shop.

"The challenges that face visual artists are the same that face musicians and other performers. I think that's where a place like 193 comes in," he said. "It isn't trying to be the hippest place. They're simply addressing that challenge. And I have a personal connection to all of that. I've seen how amazing art can be."