Ben Sollee might not call himself a “pioneer,” but the cellist/singer/songwriter can’t deny the parallels. “In the way that I’m just using the resources and the ideas that I have around me, it’s similar to what the pioneers did,” the 28-year-old Kentuckian says. “It’s kind of a brave new world for the music industry too.”
He credits his birthplace, Lexington, for some of that pioneering spirit. “It’s always been a cool crossroads in Kentucky,” he says. “And I think it served as that for me, from a musician’s standpoint.” In other words, Sollee gets his funky, blues-folk style honest.
“I’ve always had a profound interest in folk music, because I grew up with it,” he explains. “My grandfather was a fiddler, banjo player, mandolin player, bluegrass musician- slash-old-time player. He was born and raised in the eastern part of Kentucky, in the mountains, and was a big influence on me.”
Meanwhile, around the house, Sollee’s dad was playing the music of Wilson Pickett, Ray Charles, Phoebe Snow, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. “And I loved it,” he says.
Sollee started on cello in his public elementary school in Lexington. “The interest was just founded in the cool sounds the instrument could make — scratchy noises and gastronomical noises that I could make on the instrument as a third grader,” he recalls. “Technique for the cello is mainly conveyed through classical music, so I ended up studying that in school. In doing so, I kind of ended up with two lives. I had my school life where I studied classical music, and then I had my home and social life where I would sit down with family and friends to play all these other types of music, from old time fiddle tunes to R&B with my dad. And that mixture, the consonance and dissonance of those two lives, ended up driving me towards the career I’ve got now.”
Sollee attended SCAPA (School for Creative and Performing Arts) high school in Lexington, and then the University of Louisville to study under cello teacher Paul York. He was also moved by non-traditional players like cellist Rushad Eggleston, fiddler Casey Driessen, and particularly Turtle Island String Quartet cellist Mark Summer. “He did really cool stuff in a very provocative, but not very snooty way,” Sollee insists. “You didn’t get an air of, ‘Look at me, I’m an innovator.’ You got an air of, ‘Man, I love playing this stuff.’”
The cellist was featured on an old-time radio show in Kentucky, and went on the road with Abigail Washburn and The Sparrow Quartet, featuring Bela Fleck. After releasing the album Learning To Bend with Washburn, he decided to go solo. “There wasn’t really anybody out there using the cello to back themselves up playing their own songs. I’d been doing it for awhile out of sheer pleasure,” he says.
“But the idea of making a career of it didn’t come to me until I experienced the road with Abigail, while developing as a songwriter.”
Sollee released the acoustic album My Companion in 2009, and last year released the more orchestrated Inclusions. His new record is a live duo effort with percussionist Jordan Ellis. “That’s been great because he’s such an incredible rhythm player,” Sollee says. “It changes the way I play the cello.
“We use some sampling, varying up the rhythmic textures. There’s stuff that we pulled from the record that Jordan activates from a sampler, through his drum kit. I do some looping, just for light textures, and then Jordan also covers bass lines through the sampler as well. This tour is very much about celebrating the live record, because it was a lot of fun to record.”
An awareness of his fellow Kentuckians and natural surroundings is important to Sollee’s music. He’s been outspoken in opposition to the mountaintop removal that goes on in coal country. “My art is just me telling the story of who I am, and through doing that I feel like I can connect to a lot of other people if I do it in an honest way,” he says. “And who I am is a humanist. It strikes me wrong that we would treat some region of our culture and other humans in a way that we would not like to be treated.”
Sollee also recently made news by ditching his van, and touring, instruments and all, on bicycles. “The bicycle touring was really about connecting with people and being engaged in the communities that we travel through and put on shows,” he explains. “For me it’s not enough to pull up the van and haul all the stuff in and play a show, and then drive out to the cheap hotel and then repeat. I want to experience these places. I want to know what they’ve got going on, and take the time to see them as I travel through. It seems hard to do that if you have the van or if you’re on the airplane. You need some type of limitation, and bicycles provide that.
“Performing and recording is a very output- oriented process, and if you don’t spend time inputting and re-charging, not just physically with sleep and food, but also emotionally with beautiful things and ideas and encounters with people, then you’re not really going to be able to sustain it. Right now I’m all about sustaining a music career. I’m not in this for a sprint. I’m very much in this for a marathon, because I love making music.”
Sollee has no plans to move from Lexington. “It’s in the middle of the country where a lot of things take turns,” he reasons. “A lot of trucking and shipping and train infrastructure comes through here. Then it’s got lots of hills and nooks and valleys where people from all cultures have found places to settle down and carve out a life, and all their influences and backgrounds have mixed together. So in a post-modern sense, everything’s here. It’s the crossroads of many different things.”