Kentucky-based multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Ben Sollee is a true Renaissance man of the music world. Known primarily for his versatile cello work and soulful voice, Ben has also composed original scores for films such as Maidentrip and Fall To Rise, in addition to producing many accomplished records of his own material with influences spanning from folk and bluegrass to jazz and R&B. We spoke with Ben to find out what he’s been working on and how the Seaboard RISE has opened up the relationship between the acoustic and the electronic in his music.
What are you busy with today?
I’m working on a score for a ballet that will premiere alongside the San Francisco Giants game on TV next summer. It’s a really fun thing to score, really energetic with a big ‘end of the world’ sound to give the dancers something to show off to. The whole idea is ‘Baseballet’ — we put these incredible athletic dancers on the same stage as baseball athletes and see what they can do. Dance is often overlooked as a physical sport and stays generally in the category of art, even though dancers are incredible athletes.
Do you recall the first experience that made you want to start creating music?
It’s likely something that I didn’t notice at the time. My grandfather playing fiddle with his friends, or my dad jamming with his guitar. Music for me as a young boy in Kentucky was a social art-form as much as it was a career. I think that was probably what inspired me to create music and has kept me being very independent of studios.
That being said, the first moment I felt the urge to perform for people on stage was also the same moment I lost my stage fright. In fifth grade, I was on stage with a school choir, and we were singing ‘Tutti Frutti’ (by Little Richard)… which I’ve since learned is an absolutely filthy song. But at the time, it was just really fun. I was standing there terrified on the riser, but I looked down on this school gymnasium and there were kids on skates and hula hooping. I was like, ‘Oh this is supposed to be fun’. From that moment on, I have just enjoyed performing.
You have been gigging on the road a lot. Anything from these travels that you’d like to talk about?
One of the beautiful things about the road is that you get to see how people react to the music. People share stories about their first loves or how they got married to your music, or had their first child to your music. That’s pretty heartwarming.
On a recent tour, we were traveling along the west coast of the States and took a little path through the Redwood forest. We went through Fern Canyon, where they filmed the Endor scenes in Star Wars. Over the years, I’ve hiked my cello into a lot of really beautiful places, in an effort to get away from some of the noise of cities, to try to be just another creature in the woods. So we hiked in a few miles and found a really quiet spot. We set up a little field recorder and played cello in the woods. That was really nice.
What inspired the Steeples Part 2 EP, and is there is a plan to release more for the series?
The Steeples series began as a drive through Appalachia, Kentucky. Sometimes I drive through small towns that aren’t as populated as they once were. The old churches aren’t as full as they used to be and you can see the bones of a community. Looking up those church steeples, they are a little weathered and there are taller things around. If you look across the hills of Appalachia you see little pinpricks of cell phone towers over the hills.
That idea about people not gathering around church steeples as much as they gather around cell phone towers inspired this broad thinking on relationships and how they have migrated, not only in society but also in our personal life. So there are songs on the EP that hit on that theme and when they come to life I record them. Once I have two or three of them I’ll put out that version of the EP. I’m not really sure where the story ends. I imagine over the next two or three years I will keep putting out little pieces of Steeples and maybe it will get collected into a full record, maybe not.
Can you describe what the Seaboard RISE has done for your process?
As someone who spent his whole life learning how to play the cello as an instrument, most of my creative ideas come out through an instrument where I have vibrato and fluid pitch bend. The notes can swell and have different pressure and EQ, because I can do all of this with my bow and fingertips. Because of this, I always felt like I was jumping into a compartmentalized box when I play piano. When I got the Seaboard RISE and opened up Equator, it was like someone had taken cello strings and laid them out on a keyboard. I could bend, blend, and change pressure. It felt much more intuitive as a non-pianist, and it allowed me to use my sample libraries in a whole new way. The Seaboard has allowed me to interface more deeply with all of these libraries as I have come to score more. In the scoring world, you really are pretty much forced into the format of a keyboard or piano.
When I got the Seaboard RISE and opened up Equator, it was like someone had taken cello strings and laid them out on a keyboard. I could bend, blend, and change pressure. It felt much more intuitive as a non-pianist.
Are there any other plugins that you have used with the Seaboard RISE?
I mostly use Equator and Kontakt, which both have amazing sounds. It takes a little more tweaking to interface with Kontakt, but once you get it, you can use these sample libraries to affect the distance and intensity of sound in a room as you are playing. It’s really cool.
What songs of yours were made with the Seaboard RISE?
Most of the songs I have used it on haven’t been released yet. I have used it on stage in the live shows. That’s been really cool because it has expanded the palette of the stage. That’s where I have used it most besides the studio.
I did use the RISE for a film score about Doug Tompkins, the founder of North Face, who passed away last December. Doug balanced urban careers, building clothing companies and going out into the wild. You had all of these big switches — urban synth sounds to very organic sounds. It was cool to be able to use the Seaboard to blend all of these. It’s up on Vimeo.
What can you say about how acoustic and electronic music creation tools complement each other?
Acoustic music is by nature high-resolution. You sit in a room with the instrument and vibrate strings or air, and that moves sound through the room. There is no interface between the quality of the sound coming out of the instrument and what hits people’s ears. Electronic music is getting better and better so that you get much more of that immediate high-res sound communication. That’s exciting to me as an acoustic musician because I never liked getting into an electronic piece and having to program all the details. I just want to play.
The process has gotten better and the sounds are much more interesting these days. You see records that are incorporating field recordings that are going through all of these different processes. You see the blending of electronic sound with acoustic music with folks like Bon Iver and My Morning Jacket. They’re doing so many cool things in that world.
Blending the two worlds for me is all about space. With acoustic instruments you can get a microphone really close to an instrument, but there is still space and air in between. With electronic music, you can literally just get directly to the sound. Acoustic music can get you great depth, but electronic music can bring the sound up into focus. I love exploring those spaces and blending to create something that speaks to me and to others.
You’ve released music on a few different labels, and have collaborated with interesting platforms to release new audio and video content. What are your thoughts on what it means to be an independent artist and what the future of independent music is?
For me, being an independant artist means having both the creative and financial freedom to take your music wherever you please. There are benefits to that of course. You are flexible. Wherever your heart or audience takes you, you can go there. There are challenges to that — you don’t have the marketing capital to really set your project right up beside the bigger things out there. At the end of the day, my goal is to connect with an audience. It doesn’t really take a lot of money to do that these days. You reach out to them, you stay active, you stay engaged, you stay available and put on really banging shows.
I think the future is being really creative with your stage show and incorporating interactive elements and audience participation, incorporating different technologies and projections.
As for the future, the live stage platform is where the revenue is at. There are lots of people putting on lots of shows. I think the future is being really creative with your stage show and incorporating interactive elements and audience participation, incorporating different technologies and projections. I also think there is a huge opportunity for virtual reality.
For me as an artist, I have always struggled to fit my sound ideas onto a record. The stereo left-right format has been really challenging. When I am sitting in a band or playing in an orchestra, the sound is coming from all around me and I have the opportunity to curate that sound depending on where I look and where I listen. But a record forces you into one perspective. I think that with virtual reality technologies and ambisonic recording, it gives an audience member the ability to curate their own experience and really live the music as you hear it. I think that’s where the future of music is.