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Ben Lee Talks ‘Ripe’ New Album

Ben Lee is not as popular in the U.S. as he should be. But down under in his home country of Australia, the ragamuffin nice-guy is a mega-star. Lee is the winner of six Australian Recording Industry Association Awards, the Aussie Grammy equivalent, all of which were distributed to 2005’s double-platinum pop outing, Awake is the New Sleep, and its accompanying super-hit “Catch My Disease.” In addition, Lee is one third of the Bens project, which features Ben Kweller and Ben Folds, as well as a frequent collaborator with rock’s upper echelon, including the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando. Considering his resume, it seems as if the former Noise Addict frontman is well overdue for U.S. mainstream rock stardom.

Speaking to from Los Angeles where he is currently capping recording efforts on his sixth LP, Ripe, tentatively dropping in September, the 28-year-old artist divulges details on his forthcoming effort, as well as his passion for pop music, reality TV, and his hero, Jay-Z.

“I started writing it right after Awake is the New Sleep. So basically it’s been a two and a half, three year process,” Lee told about the lengthy timeline his new material has endured. “And I entered the studio with 80 songs.” From there, Lee and newfound producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews, Ben Folds) cut the batch down to 12 songs over the better part of two months in a recording environment entirely foreign to the indie rock troubadour. Having routinely set up shop in an organic, home studio setting, Lee opted this time around to enter a hit-factory studio — sandwiched between the Smashing Pumpkins and the Scorpions — tap a gang of seasoned musicians, and revel in the uncharacteristic atmosphere of his new digs.

“We’re in the same studio [the Village Recorder] where Supertramp did Breakfast in America,” Lee exclaims. “Initially I was kind of skeptical of the whole way of recording in this expensive legendary studio, but now there’s just a level of professionalism that I explore on this record.”

And with Ripe, professionalism has translated into pop music. “I’ve gone through experimental periods, and I’ve realized that I should leave that to Trent Reznor, there are a lot of artists that are much more flattered by the sound of experimentation than I am,” Lee explained. “I’ve never been skeptical about pop music, and I’ve always believed that the best song in the world should be the catchiest, and should be popular, and should be the cleverest, and the most soulful. I want my cake and I want to eat it, too!”

Revealing album track titles, Lee references a handful of interesting collaborations: A duet with Mandy Moore titled “Birds and the Bees,” “Sex Without Love,” a song co-written by Rooney’s Robert Carmine, which channels Cheap Trick, and “Love,” a tune penned alongside Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden, which Lee states is straight-up pop punk — “It’s just a bit more rock than things I’ve done before.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “What Would Jay-Z Do?” explores the outsider’s perspective of the American dream, offering props to Hova for ascending from a street thug crack pusher to a brush-your-shoulders-off record label executive, “that is really incredible…something that could only happen in America.” “American TV” is a musical celebration of the States’ broadcast exports. “I write a lot of my songs while watching television,” Lee states, “I like the [MTV’s] The Hills, I prefer the more manufactured ones [reality programs] because I think it’s cool to watch people talking about real life.”

Although Ripe‘s subject matter runs the gamut, ranging from heavily lovey-dovey songwriting to topical media reflections, Lee assures there is more to the album’s mission statement than diverse pop sonics. “It’s not a macho record, but it’s about feeling like a man, feeling ready to make your mark, and say your peace, and take a risk, and really be in this world,” Lee exposes. “It’s about its [life’s] ups and downs, and sadness, and sex, and all the things that are so fun and scary about being a human, and feeling ready for it.”

And considering Lee has been in the business for 15 years, we can only image that he is indeed “ready for it.” WILLIAM GOODMAN

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Talk: Will Ben Lee’s forthcoming record top the whimsical hits of Awake Is the New Sleep?