If Ben Sollee looks to be an unlikely rock star (he's unassuming and usually bespectacled, possibly sporting a bike helmet and definitely carrying a cello case), just wait until he starts playing. The Lexington, Ky., musician may resemble a math tutor but he can captivate an audience from the first note. (During this year's HATCH festival he launched his LAB performance with an a cappella number. The crowd went from full roar to awed silence in a matter of seconds. And, according to a Bonnaroo dispatch, he passed out flowers to his fans at the festival.)
On his new album, Inclusions, Sollee opens with an intro "Inspired by a field recording from Basque Country, Spain," according to liner notes — a cacophony of woodwinds and percussion — that leads into "Close To You," an uninhibited, ardent number that's both easy and soaring. It's more orchestrated, more populated with horns and organs and electric guitars that Sollee's previous albums, though Inclusions hardly seems like a departure. It’s more of a progression. The cello (which Sollee began playing in elementary school) is still there; "It always did what I needed it to do," he says. Also carried over from Sollee's previous work is a sense of collaboration.
Before striking out as a solo act, Sollee toured with banjo player/vocalist Abigail Washburn. The two were introduced by mutual friend/Asheville musician/Toubab Krewe contributor Rayna Gellert. "We did some touring in Tibet where we pulled in the four musicians who would become the Sparrow Quartet," says Sollee. Those musicians included Washburn's now-husband Bela Fleck and fiddler Casey Driessen, a recent Asheville transplant. "We all had to learn how to clarify our musical ideas and bring them to the group and that, for me, as a young musician was really important."
Sollee worked with bluegrass, blues and pop bands, and backed up singer/songwriters. "As I've developed and my ideas have grown, I've worked with different people and collaborated," he says. "This is what shakes out of it all." In 2009 he recorded Dear Companion a collaboration with two other Kentucky-based musicians, singer/songwriter Daniel Martin Moore (who plays the Grey Eagle on Sunday, June 26) and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, to draw attention to issues of mountaintop removal (a form of surface mining that levels mountain ridges and summits).
"I've had so much influence from the music of Appalachia and the people and culture of Appalachia," says Sollee. And: "It would be a real shame for my son to turn 12 and be really into hiking and not have these mountains to hike on."
If there is a hint of Appalachian influence on Inclusions, it’s less in the mandolin, autoharp, banjo and bowed lap steel that Sollee plays in addition to the ubiquitous cello. Instead, it’s an Appalachia filtered through Sollee's distinct style. His songs have the rhythmic cache and pop-savvy soul of Paul Simon classics, without so much as a borrowed note from that seminal folk artist. “You really have to focus on where you are if you're going to be distinctive,” says Sollee. If a musician gets caught up in what’s big on blogs and airwaves and tries to reproduce what he hears, “you'll be the average of all those sounds, rather than the intuitive, specific sound if you just tell your story in an honest way.”
The collaborations on Inclusions are about instrumentation and musicians, but they're also "the people, places and things in my life," as Sollee says in the album's notes. It's about stories, a concept dear to the musician. On social media outlets, he says, "people become purveyors of their local place because they're just trying to be individuals and tell their story at this huge kitchen table."
Sollee is interested in unique places and voices, and, in the past, has tried to encounter both by bicycling between shows. He and his bandmates tow their instruments (including the cello) on special trailers. "It's about slowing down and being a little bit more involved in the communities we're traveling through," he says. "And it's just part of our story. I think musicians these days need to realize that people aren't just buying the music, they're buying the whole story."
On tour for Inclusions, Sollee realized that he couldn't cover enough ground by bike, so this time he's asking his listeners to do the pedalling. "It's all the people coming to the show that makes the big carbon footprint," he says. He's teamed up with the Cliff Bar Two Mile Challenge, which encourages people to cycle for trips within two miles of their homes. "We do think riding to the show is an enjoyable way to do it, and we try to book our shows in places where there's public transport options or people can walk," says Sollee.
And there’s this: When the musician was last in Asheville, he organized a small concert and crafting session at the Dry Goods Shop where participants learned to make linoleum block prints. "The whole idea was to do a community-oriented art project," says Sollee, who has no end of enthusiasm for a good collaboration. Or artistic endeavor. Or world-saving missions. Naturally, "that generated some artwork that we’re going to use as gifts for people who ride to the shows."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Ben Sollee (Thousands opens)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Thursday, June 23 (8 p.m., $13 advance/$15 doors. theorangepeel.net.)