Ben Sollee says people tend to think of him as just a cellist who sings, but that doesn't quite get it."I've always seen myself as a singer-songwriter who utilizes the cello," says Sollee.
Indeed, Sollee's new album, "Half-Made Man," stresses the songs rather than the cello more than ever — so much so that some have asked if there is any cello on it.
"There's just as much on this record as on 'Learning to Bend' or the other albums. It's just interpreted differently from a sound standpoint. My story as a songwriter has always been about the narrative of the song before exploring this particular instrument. On 'Learning to Bend' (the song) 'I Can't' could've easily been plucked cello, but it just made more sense for it to be a Telecaster with tremolo and beautiful vibes. The same could be said for 'Unfinished' on this new record. It could've easily been the kind of cello that was electrified like on (the album) 'Inclusions,' but it felt more right within this band context to make it rock."
Sollee started playing cello when he was in elementary school after seeing a teacher demonstrate it. While he joined the school orchestra, Sollee was not content to have a strictly classical path. His father and grandfather were playing rhythm and blues and folk, and Sollee learned how to incorporate the cello into a variety of styles.
He began writing songs and landed a spot on the Lexington, Ky., show "Woodsongs Oldtime Radio Hour." He later toured with folk blues artist Otis Taylor. He was then tapped to join the Sparrow Quartet, which included Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck and Casey Driessen.
The group has been inactive for some time. Sollee says he doesn't know if the group will reunite, but he'd like to work with them again.
"That's some busy folks to get together," he says.
Sollee is no less busy than the rest of the group. In the past year he's released a live album, a studio album, toured Australia, collaborated with a stack of other artists, done two tours with the band and crew traveling by bicycle and scored two ballets that were premiered by the Louisville Ballet and the North Carolina Dance Theatre.
The ballets were a challenge.
"It was super-healthy for me," says Sollee. "As a composer, I have all these sounds and I have all these ideas about how they relate to movement on stage. But to be able to see that and work with that in person really makes all the difference. I found that I had to be a little more flexible and make sure that all the music was very movable. It was an interesting compositional challenge. I'm used to telling narratives in song and in compositions. This was about talking to the dancers with music and getting them moving."
The bicycle tours are another type of challenge.
"The bicycle tours are not really about being green or being car free," says Sollee. "They're more about connecting with communities. ... The beautiful thing about the bike tours is that they're so limited. You can only haul so much and you can only pedal so far and so fast. When you're on a van tour there's all these temptations to drive through the night to do the special media opportunity or go just a little bit further for a little bit better guarantee for a show. From a business standpoint, you have to figure out ways to generate extra income, because you're on the road for more time playing smaller shows for less money."
The new album is the first that Sollee didn't create all the parts for before bringing in other musicians.
"I gathered a group of musicians that I trusted and loved, and we sat down and figured out all the arrangements together and then played them live in the studio to tape. And I feel that's given this record a pure energy and a little bit more of a raw sound."
He takes that spirit into live performance.
"You create all these connections and you do all this technical planning and all that does is create a comfort level to allow people to try things on stage. I'm not trying to sculpt a show that's exactly like the records. I'm trying to sculpt as show that's as exciting for the musicians on stage and the audience and that tells a story."
Sollee has plenty of plans for the next year and more musical balls to juggle.
"Juggling is a good word. You just throw one ball higher while you juggle all the others!"
Ben Sollee with Casey Driessen
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 21
Where: The Square Room, 4 Market Square
Tickets: $22, available at www.thesquareroom.com
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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