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July 23, 2024

They Call Him Mellow Cello

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Ben Sollee, Byron Community Theatre, January 3

Mandy Nolan

So you thought the cello was a sedate instrument, meant only for the orchestra? Well think again. Kentucky cellist and vocalist Ben Sollee has been changing minds all around the world with his foot-tapping indie-tinged soulful folk. Man and instrument are front of stage and it is downright thrilling!

Why the cello? What is it about your instrument that is unique? The cello has stuck with me through the years because of its versatility. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of the orchestra: it can cover harmony, textures and rhythm while having a massive melodic range. In so many ways, it’s the perfect McGyver-like tool for a songwriter such as myself. With this instrument I can have it all.

The cello is an instrument that to date hasn’t really strayed too far from the orchestra (unlike big brother the double bass or little sister violin). Why do you think that is? I’m not entirely sure. Its strength in versatility may keep it from being singled out. In other words, the need for tonal foundation demands the bass. The desire for clear, definitive melody falls to the violin. The cello can do all those things but is not absolutely necessary. But, flexibility and multi-function is a requisite in contemporary music and, for my money, there is no better instrument for the job.

What about you – did you come from a more traditional/orchestral background? I studied classical throughout high school and college, eventually earning my BA in cello performance from the University of Louisville. However, I started touring with blues bands and bluegrass ensembles when I was in high school so I’ve nearly always found myself bending between skill sets. The sound of orchestras is something I miss and they can have the social atmosphere.

What to you are the key elements of a good song/composition? Oh gosh, there’s so many ways to approach a song. I would say, for me, the song must move in a way that fits the character. The momentum of the music must match the narrative.

Can you tell me a little about your songwriting process? The song must be compelling to me first. Maybe it centres on a certain person or something they said that had a profound impact on me. Then I try to achieve the same sensation I had but with music. I’m constantly asking myself, “what part of this experience relates to the human condition.” Assuming I can realise those things then I can whittle away with song form and melody shape, instrumentation, and so on… It’s got to feel like the listener is experiencing the story.

As a committed environmentalist, do you ever get a sense of doom or fatalism about the world particularly in light of new predictions of temperature rises)? The world will be fine, it’s us humans that will struggle. However, I do not get sense of doom at all. There’s a so many forces at work in this world that keeping all my attention on one would distract from all the others. We have a tremendous amount of work to do as a globe to transition gracefully in to this new climate. We have a choice as what degree that change in weather will be. I dedicate a significant portion of my time trying to build and invigorate community because strong, healthy communities is what we will need most to deal with basic needs like water, food and shelter.

What are the themes that you pick up on, particularly in your music? People. Time and again I find myself attracted to peoples stories. Moreover, how people treat other people. Most often the narrative of is derived from an acutely personal perspective. But as a sculpt the themes I try to centre on what specifically I relate to as a human.

Can you tell me a little about Half Made Man – why did you choose to self- produce? A mentor and friend of mine encouraged to capture more of the spirit of the live show in the studio. So I invited some musicians that I know and trust to make music in a more social way. The way I see it, all these musicians are uniquely seasoned after recording scores of records. Once we all got in the room together with our extraordinary engineer, Kevin Rattermann, there was no need for an engineer or really even a leader. We just made the music that made sense to us as a collective based on the songs I had written.

Did you end up achieving what you set out to? Were there bumps or unexpected twists on the way? Well, my intention was to honestly capture the sound of the ensemble in a less curated way. We certainly succeeded in that effort. And, to that end, I thoroughly enjoy listening back to Half-Made Man and hearing each player’s distinct voice. I don’t hear tricky overdubs and detailed scoring, but rather good group craftsmanship.

What track on Half Made Man are you fondest of ? Why? I’m quite fond of The Healer. The theme of trying to fix things or search for truth is a big part of my life. And I like how the songs moves in a cinematic way: beginning with a close shot of idling trucks and drivers in a dense city and slowly panning out to the suburbs and rural areas… it feels like home.

What should we expect for your Byron show? Sheer joy. My percussion, Jordon Ellis, and I won’t be flying all the way across the world for anything less.

Thursday 3 January at the Byron Community Theatre. Tickets go to www.gaynorcrawford.com

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