It's funny how things work out sometimes. In October of 2002, I crossed paths with singer/songwriter Ben Lee at a sound check party for a Vanessa Carlton concert that I won tickets to from a local radio station. I had no idea who this guy was, but after the sound check and concert that evening, I found myself enjoying his sort of straight-forward acoustic rock-type songs filled with both deep meanings and fun lyrics. Flash forward to mid-May 2004, when I found out he had starred in an Australian coming-of-age comedy that would soon be hitting Canadian screens. As luck would have it, the press screening was scheduled during a lull in an otherwise crazy schedule of films, so I thought, "What the heck, if his acting is as good as his music, then this should be worth losing a couple hours of sleep and another couple of hours writing up the review." 90 odd minutes later, I emerged from the screening with a newfound respect for the man and thought he'd make for an interesting interview subject. The interview was arranged for Friday afternoon at 3:00pm and I began preparing my questions.
Flash forward to 3:00pm Friday afternoon, the appointed interview time, and I dial the number given to me by the publicist. It's ringing and then suddenly and abruptly I get his voicemail. Thinking that another interview must have run long, I hang up, choosing to wait another 10 or so minutes before calling back. When I do call back I get the voicemail again, so I leave a polite message and wait for him to return the call. Nothing happens, so I contact the PR person, who looks into it and gets back to me an hour later saying there was a mixup and he's on a plane destined for Vegas to tape an appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly. No biggie. The interview gets rescheduled for Monday at 3:00pm, a holiday up here in the Great White North, but that's fine with me. Imagine my surprise when the same thing happens on Monday. It seems as though Ben's cell phone has some signal issues, or he's just busy. The interview gets rescheduled again for Thursday afternoon (the night before the film's theatrical release), which just so happens to be in the middle of a busy screening week. Thursday comes and I wake up to an e-mail from the film's publicist saying that Ben's cell has coverage issues in Vancouver (my base of operations and where he'd be playing a concert that night), asking if I could meet him at the venue before the show.
Six days later, the interview was finally going to happen, so I went downtown to the world famous Commodore Ballroom at the appointed time, ready to go. As strange as it is, it's snowing on Granville Street in May, and I arrive at the venue to find only some roadies and club staff there. Apparently Ben's late. After hanging around for a while and a couple of phone calls, Ben shows up and we go backstage to talk about music, movies, and the enigma that is Ben Lee.
The first thing I notice about Ben is just how nice of a guy he is, apologizing and joking about the various problems that led to the last-minute rescheduling of the interview. Sitting backstage in a dressing room, he offers me some food and a drink, and the chit-chat begins. We talk about The Day After Tomorrow, the film I'd see later that evening and the reason for the FAKE snow out front, as he tells me about a "Making Of" special he saw the night before. He goes on to explain his interest in the film and how it has a message that most Hollywood films don't. With that topic out of the way, we got down to the business at hand: his new film The Rage in Placid Lake and his latest tour.
Mark McLeod: If you had to describe your character in one word, what would it be?
Ben Lee: Artist.
MM: You want to expand on that at all?
BL: Well you said one word...
MM: (laughing) Okay, why did you pick that word?
BL: For me, Placid's journey is about the awakening of an artist. An artist is not just someone who makes tapestries. It's anyone who lives in a creative environment. Making art is the way you set the table, the way you get dressed, the way you choose to live. It's symbolic and an expression of yourself, and that journey to that awakening can be painful and different for different types of people. That's what the story of Placid Lake is about to me at least.
MM: Now how about a one-word description of yourself?
BL: One word? ... I don't even feel that I really even exist anymore. It's hard to really choose a word to describe yourself. I'd say Ben, I guess, but even that seems so vague. It's like an approximation of my personality, which is pretty much the surface of what's happening with me. Describing anything that is a process makes it seem static. Ben seems ambiguous enough to work.
MM: It seems, in Hollywood anyway, that it's trendy now-a-days to do the singer-turned-actor thing? Why do you think everyone is trying to be omnipresent?
BL: I can't speak for anyone else. I didn't choose to do anything. The project found me and it was in my lap, and I felt compelled towards it. You know, the story and the people. It didn't feel like a decision to make, it was so clearly something I was meant to do. So that's my side of it, and I think for a lot of people, like I said about being an artist, is there's no medium that's better than any other medium. If you have something to express, something you want to effect people, it doesn't matter how you do it. All methods are as good as anything else. They are all part of creating something that helps people dream. So it doesn't matter one way or another how that message gets out.
MM: So if the right project comes along, you'll do it. You wouldn't do like a vanity project for a whole bunch of money? You'd only do projects you believe in?
BL: Well maybe, if I was interested in making money at that point. I mean, you have to make money. Like for me, I put all the money I make back into making more stuff. I don't really take holidays, I'm always seeking inspiration. If I needed money, I'd definitely do something for it. But it has to be along whatever my purpose is at that moment. Sometimes that's financial, but I'm not a greedy person, even creatively. I don't need to feel like I'm capable of doing every kind of art. I don't need to do everything. I just need to do what's right at that moment.
MM: So the movie came out around a year and a half ago in Australia. Now it's slowing coming out in North America. Do you think this will give your fans over here something different and possibly find you some new fans?
BL: Probably, who knows though. I always feel like the work I do to this point is very much on the fringes of society. I play music and often I do gigs like this where I support other people and play for their audiences. I have enough faith in what I'm putting out that I don't need to get huge amounts of credit for it. I'd love to really experience something that really catches on, but I don't know if that'll happen. There's no guarantees of that. So I find a lot of satisfaction in little victories like seeing people smile and feeling people respond at shows. I don't know what the effects of this movie are. I know that people see it and say it makes them think about what they are doing in their life. Are they on their real destiny or are they conforming in some way? I think that's probably a good thing. I hope it does more than win me fans, I hope it makes people question what they are doing.
MM: I saw you open for Vanessa Carlton last year. I think I even met you at the sound check...
Before I can get the rest of my question out, Ben interrupts me saying "That's cool!" and asks if the show was here (meaning the Commodore), to which I reply that it was just down the street. He then goes on talking about the following...
BL: I do a lot of that you know, playing for other people. I try not to have too many rules about what I do or don't do. I listen to my heart and I go 'Yes' or 'No'. I mean, there's really only ever two choices, 'Yes' and 'No'.
Realizing that my question was pretty much already answered, I decided to shift gears and find out his thoughts on the whole manufactured pop-star thing through shows like American Idol.
BL: It seems to be that American Idol isn't that much different than the songs you hear on the radio or on MTV, where there's a huge interest in what you (the artist) can get out of it. I mean, artists get into music to get something out of it. It might be a band that just wants to screw loads of groupies or to make money, for them it's all about the get. I've always been interested more in artists that are about giving. I just put that (Idol) in a whole category with everyone else who has an agenda that's not about sharing. I've got other things in my life going on that I don't need to watch something like that.
MM: In researching this interview, I stumbled upon your website (ben-lee.com) where it has a list of some cool things you'd seen or read or heard lately, and you mention the movie The Mayor of the Sunset Strip about rock jock Rodney Bingenheimer. What's your take on the movie from the artist's point of view? I mean, he's sort of like a groupie but yet not really.
BL: It's funny because there's something pure about groupies too. What really makes things happen in the world is devotion and faith. You often see people who are devoted to something that seems stupid and just their faith in something activates in them and you see a real surge of power. It's nothing to laugh at that someone is devoted to something like pop music. It's not a small thing.
MM: What's next for you musically?
BL: I just finished recording two albums. One is my new solo disc and the other one is where I wrote every song for a different singer. Just trying to find the right label to put them out.
MM: How's that going, especially with most labels trying to find that next top 40 chart sensation and ignoring the singer/songwriter type stuff?
BL: I'd love to be top 40 but they don't seem to need me.
MM: Any movie projects in the works? Anyone offered you a follow up?
BL: I don't have any plans. I don't generally plan things. I have a lady back home helping me go through things, but I haven't found that right project just yet.
As quickly as it began, it was over and I was left with a greater understanding of what makes Ben Lee tick. I made my way out the back door of the Commodore Ballroom, out into the dingy Granville Street back lane, and headed towards the front ready to see a summer blockbuster that would most likely be nowhere near as interesting or thought-provoking as the short conversation I had just had. As I crossed the street and the snow flowed from the sky, I got ready to shift gears and get back to work.
Ben Lee's film The Rage in Placid Lake is now playing in Toronto and Vancouver from TVA Films. Special thanks to Ben Lee, and to Bonne Smith at StarPR for putting up with my constant phone calls and e-mails, and for being determined to make the interview happen even though at times it may have looked like it wasn't going to. Also thanks to the staff at the Commodore Ballroom and members of The New Pornographers and their road crew for not laughing me out of the building while I waited for Ben.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.