Photo by Taylor Crothers Ben Lee has long known what he does best: “I write songs that teenage girls like,” he says over the phone in his twangy Australian accent.
But let’s be honest: What isn’t he good at? Not only has he written songs since age 14 as part of the pop/punk (as opposed to pop punk) act Noise Addict and been a successful solo artist for the past decade, but his résumé also includes duets with Kylie Minogue; songwriting duties on much of Evan Dando’s 2003 album, Baby I’m Bored; collaboration with those other mellifluous Bens (Folds and Kweller); and even a bit of acting, like the title role in 2003’s The Rage in Placid Lake.
Next up: record-label mogul. Well, not quite, but Lee met Dim Mak Records founder Steve Aoki at a dance night he frequents when he’s in LA, and now his Ten Fingers Records will release albums in conjunction with Dim Mak. First up is the quirky, all-girl indie-pop act Pony Up! They’re releasing a self-titled EP and a split seven-inch on which Lee covers Modest Mouse’s “Float On” for the flipside.
And not just content to be a regular renaissance man of indie art and culture, Lee finally, truly feels like he’s found his real calling: to wake up his listeners with pure, unadulterated joy. That would be his fifth solo album, Awake Is the New Sleep (New West), with longtime collaborators Lara Meyerratken on keyboards and backing vocals, guitarist McGowan Southworth, and drummer Brad Wood, plus guest turns by Jason Schwartzman (yes, that Jason Schwartzman!), Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis and ultimate party stud Har Mar Superstar.
“Definitely something opened up, and I started feeling connected to life in ways I used to feel alienated,” Lee says. “And it brought with it a degree of—I don’t want to say responsibility because that sounds boring, you know? It was more like an opportunity to do something good and positive with music in a way that I hadn’t had access to before.”
Yes, all you brooding indie rockers, Lee is coming for you, and he won’t rest until he’s put a smile on your face. And just try to resist him, what with honeyed pop like the gentle album opener, “Whatever It Is”; the lovely, reggae-influenced rocker “Gamble Everything for Love”; the elegantly rendered, full-on hippie bliss-out of “Begin”; and the clap-happy party “Catch My Disease.”
“It’s impossible to play these songs and not feel the energy of them because they’re an expression of tenderness and compassion,” Lee says. “And the shows, they’re like parties, but it’s not like debauchery. It’s just, like, people come to smile. And I like being that guy that they can come to.”