Artist Spotlight: Ben Lee

Artist: Ben Lee

Played at City Winery: February 25, 2012


Q&A With City Winery

Your music career took off when you were really young, 14 years old. Was age ever a problem for you? Were you at all overwhelmed?

Well, at the time I just desperately wanted to get out of school and the regular, mundane teenage life. But now, in retrospect, I think I was on the younger side to deal with some of emotional issues: the criticism and other pressures. But, everyone’s life has different challenges, so that’s where I dealt with a lot of stuff.

Were you ever turned away or not able to do something because you were too young?

Sometimes when I’d play in a pub I’d have to go in and out the back door, I wouldn’t be able to hang out in the dressing room at all. And there were some gigs with bands like Pavement in the 90s when I was so excited about the gig but I wasn’t aloud to watch them after we played. It’s kind of silly.

You got your start with the band Noise Addict. How did your ­­­­­experience with them affect and/or help shape your solo career?

I’ve never really separated the two. Making music, and just being a human being, it’s a daily learning experience. There’s definitely been a continuum, where each project and each experience has led to an appreciation or internal ripening that’s led me to the next thing. I’ve never felt like anything was wasted.

You grew up in Australia but you now live in LA. Do you consider yourself an Australian artist or an American artist?

I’ve always been more interested in boundlessness. I’ve never been a nationalist person, I’m more interested in experience, and connection, and emotion. So that’s not really a big question for me. People are obsessed with where you live and where you’re from. But, I could easily move somewhere else!

What’s your favorite song to play live?

It changes a lot, but the song we sound checked with today, “No Right Angles,” I always enjoy. There’s a song off the new record called “Lean Into It” that I also really enjoy.

Do you have a song that you always connect with, even if the crowd isn’t into it?

Yeah, all of them. I always cynically assume no one’s going to be into it, and I always try and connect with it on my own. There are a few, like “Catch My Disease,” that I do every night because it’s expected by the audience. So for those it’s sometimes a little harder to connect with emotionally because the rebellious side of me says, “Ugh, I don’t want to do something just because it’s expected. “

You put out a new album this past October, Deeper into Dream. It was a concept album of sorts, right? What inspired that idea?

For almost the last ten years, my central interest in my records and my music is consciousness, and different ways of interacting with it, and creativity and connection. And dreams come from the same place, where the psychological, spiritual, creative surges of inspiration come from. So for me it was just another way or examining what it is that’s making the motor run in this whole thing. I did a few years of dream analysis, and that really opened me up to looking at dreams as a portal into the unconscious. I always right what I’m interested in. I used them as a jumping off point to explore what we don’t know about ourselves.

Any big plans for 2012?

At the moment, I’m working on a musical of the book B is for Beer by Tom Robbins. And my new album’s almost finished, it’s called Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work, which will hopefully be out sometime around September.


Artist Spotlight with Lucy Kaplansky

Artist: Lucy Kaplansky

Played at City Winery: February 10th, 2012


Q&A With City Winery

When you were 18 you decided not to go to college, but to move from your hometown of Chicago to New York to pursue your musical career. What inspired the change?

I met a guy who loved my singing and we formed a duo. I was 17, I was in high school and he had finished college, he was 5 years older than me. So he wanted to move to New York. And the other thing that happened was there was a huge article in the New York Times about a folk revival in Greenwich Village, this was 1977, and that’s really what propelled us to New York. The place was Folk City, which is no longer there. So I was 18 when we moved, and my parents were freaked out I wasn’t going to college, but they let me go.

But it felt like the right thing to do at the time?

I guess at the time it was the right thing to do. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but somehow I ended up OK and it all kind of worked out.

What made you then decide to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology?

That’s a long story, but I’ll try and make it short. So, I came to New York to be a singer and it was actually going really well. And when I was 21 I got a really, really good write-up in the New York Times. I could have really pursued it but I was too neurotic and too conflicted and decided I didn’t want to do music, and at 22 I quit and decided to go and become a therapist. I went back to college at NYU and ended up deciding to become a clinical psychologist because I thought therapy was interesting. I did that for a few years, got my doctorate, and then started therapy with a really, really good therapist and realized that I was running away from what I really wanted, which was to be a singer. And that’s when I came back. That was 1993 or so.

Were you still as involved in your music or did you have to put it on the back burner?

It did take a back burner. I didn’t pursue it in any kind of active way. People had me sing on their records, I sang on a Suzanne Vega album and Shawn Colvin’s, but I wasn’t writing and I definitely wasn’t performing.

You also perform with a group, Red Horse. How is playing with them different from playing solo?

It’s all the difference in the world. The trio is two of my old friends, Eliza Gilkyson and John Gorka, and we’re all singer songwriters. We’re taking turns singing lead, we’re doing lots of harmonies, and I don’t have to just front the whole show. So, it’s fun in different ways. They’re incredibly funny and we laugh a lot. I love singing with them and we’re doing mostly different songs than I do in my own show. But doing my own show is also really exciting, and much scarier.

Have you all written together?

No, we haven’t done that yet. We recorded an album of mostly each other’s songs, but we have not written together yet, although that’s certainly possible.

Has playing with them taught you anything that you’ve used when performing solo?

Oh wow. I guess I’ve been doing the solo thing for so many years that I kind of take the solo thing and bring it to the trio. The trio’s just very different because we’re playing off each other, and when I’m solo there’s no one to play off of, except the audience. So they’re really very different animals for me. Both fun in their own way.

In all your years here, what’s the weirdest/funniest thing you’ve witnessed on the streets of New York?

Wow, there’s an awful lot…You know, I saw the best Halloween costume ever in the Halloween parade, so that counts. It was a guy who looked like he was sitting in an outhouse. He had built himself an outhouse with fake legs and he was propelling himself down the street. And that was the best Halloween costume I’ve ever seen and maybe the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in the street. My daughter loved it too; she was seven at the time.

Where’s your favorite place in the city to go and relax?

Home. Home is definitely my sanctuary. Even in the midst of a loud, crazy city it’s relatively peaceful. And that’s where I do everything. That’s where I write, that’s where I practice, if I ever practice. That’s where I have my life, really.

Do you have a favorite wine?

I like Chardonnay. There’s a wine my husband and I discovered years ago, I think at the Union Square Café, called Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which is the best white wine I’ve ever had.


Backstage at John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders (Feb 4, 2012)


Josh Ritter

SP: You went to Oberlin College to major in Neuroscience and then switched to music, majoring in “American History Through Narrative Folk Music.” What made you change your mind?

JR: I’m not good at organic chemistry. I never thought there was too much of a difference between science and music, so I think the real deciding factor was that I wasn’t smart enough for neuroscience.

SP: Your parents were neuroscientists, right? Did they encourage your music?

JR: They did. They never put any pressure on me to follow their footsteps. My only reason for starting out that way was because that was what the kitchen table talk was about. So I always figured there wasn’t anything else that you really did.

John Wesley Harding

SP: What is your absolute favorite part of the Cabinets?

JWH: I absolutely love it when the show gets going because it’s just like a snowball running down a hill. I put quite a lot into shaping the show before hand, but all of those decisions are made by the time we start and it’s just like, ‘yeah, let’s see what happens today.’ But it doesn’t happen by magic, it happens because people work hard. All of the performers are people I like and I figure if I like them that’s enough of a thread through everything. It’s my mixtape for the world.


Artist Spotlight: Marc Broussard

Artist: Marc Broussard

Played at City Winery: February 2, 2012


Q&A With City Winery

You can hear all kinds of genres in your music: R&B, gospel, funk, blues, jazz, country, rock…who influenced you when you were young? Who did you play on repeat?

Well, my father is a musician so my father’s tastes in music were very influential on me. And he is predominantly interested in jazz, specifically jazz fusion. So, that can be maddening for a singer, because jazz fusion doesn’t have a singer. So it was a struggle to find a voice, to put my ear on something that really piqued my interest. And every time Stevie Wonder came on, or Otis Redding, or Marvin Gaye it was exactly what I wanted to hear. So those guys definitely influenced my heavily. You’re going to hear some country tinges just because of some of the co-writers that I’ve worked with in Nashville. And all the other stuff is just a personal preference.

On that note, your music has been described as “Bayou Soul.” How would you define your own music, and your unique sound?

I like the term Bayou Soul, mostly because it’s an invented term to describe something that’s unique, I think, and that’s me. So that’s kind of an honor that somebody would think they need to create a unique term for a guy like me. And I would describe my music as Bayou Soul. I think that’s a pretty accurate description in and of itself.

Your first studio album is entitled “Carencro”, after your hometown. How much does your connection with Louisiana influence your songwriting and your music in general?

It’s had a tremendous amount of influence. I live across the street from my parents on the street that I grew up, and my wife and four children are there and we’re a very close family. So, everything about me as a man stems from my relationships with my family. And that translates into my writing, so Carencro is hugely influenced by them.

You’ve also been really involved in the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, including donating all proceeds of your 2005 release Bootleg to Benefit the Victims of Hurricane Katrina to the cause. Can you talk a little about your experience?

We started the Momentary Setback fund after Hurricane Katrina and we really didn’t know what was going to come about. But through some pretty small moves on our part, just simply turning the record button on at a show and putting a product out, we were able to raise substantial amounts of money. Almost all of that money went straight to United Way. Obviously, there was an outpouring of support from all over the world after that storm and luckily we were able to do our part in some small way to help people get back on their feet. It’s something that I think is very important for an artist. Whenever there’s a need that we can fill, I think it’s important that we step up. Philanthropy is definitely a huge part of who I am.

One of the first things that drew me into your music is your amazing vocal range. On Carencro, the difference between the lowness and grittiness of “Home” and the high, bright, catchy “Hope for Me Yet” blows me away every time. Is that your natural vocal range or did you have to work to acquire it?

I push it pretty hard. A lot of the songs I sing are probably outside of my comfort zone. I’m a baritone, but I often sing in the tenor range. I can’t resist it. I try to write songs in lower keys and everyone says I sound so good up there. So after years and years of that I’ve just resigned to the notion that I’ll blow it out on any given night and hope for the best.

This is City Winery after all…do you have a favorite type of wine?

Yeah! A Brunello.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re in New York City?

I like to eat anywhere, but I think eating in New York City is an adventure. I try never to hit the same spot too many times in a row. For instance, I ate here at City Winery for lunch and I had a lamb wrap that was so good. So yeah, I like to eat in this town.