February 5, 2008

Ben Sollee’s Learning curve

If Stax Records had started in Nashville in the 1940s, as opposed to Memphis in the 1960s, then its flagship artist might very well have been Lexington-born singer/songwriter Ben Sollee.Of course he’d have to tack on another half-century to his mere 23 years, but his rootsy approach feels like he already has.“I grew up in Lexington,” says Sollee, who plays cello. “My dad used to play a lot of Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding when I was a kid, but mostly I enjoyed listening to female artists like Nina Simone.”Educated in Louisville, Sollee describes his debut album, Learning to Bend, as “a mix of all sorts of things.” It’s songwriting approached with cello, real honest lyrics and a lot of influences from Appalachian roots music. The album, which has only been out since November, is already garnering the kind of praise usually reserved for stoic, established artists twice his age.It’s rare to find an artist who can seamlessly meld classical, bluegrass, soul and folk into a linear sound — without sounding caustic. As a result of producing Learning to Bend himself, the performances of a slew of guest musicians (including banjoist Bela Fleck, Sollee’s bandmate in The Sparrow Quartet) create a beautiful, nuanced mood that’s consistent throughout. By tackling the album with a bare-bones, less-is-more approach, Sollee’s melancholy voice takes the lead over stark arrangements.Lyrically he dances the fine line between passion and heartbreak, blissfully naive and socially conscious, while avoiding pretense and manufactured contradiction.“Lyrics, for me, just come out of what I think about and do with my days,” he says. “If I’m not writing from personal experience, then I choose a character in my mind to represent something very specific.”Bend includes a version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” that’s so affecting, you can’t help but be unnerved by Sollee’s sheer sincerity. “It’s not a straight-ahead cover,” he clarifies. “Because I reworked a lot of the words on that one; it’s only really two of his verses.” Whereas Cooke sings about prejudice, “I made it about the frustration a person feels with not being able to get anywhere in life, because circumstances keep holding them back.”Sollee is also preparing to work with his band again, The Sparrow Quartet. “With The Sparrow Quartet, you have a lot of multi-sided ideas,” he says. “Fighting for your ideas is a big part of being in a group … because you have three other artists that all have really distinct ideas, too.”In March, the group heads out for a series of dates at South by Southwest and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, then Bonnaroo in June. Sollee appears at the 930 Listening Room Friday to reprise his two sold-out record release shows at the 21C Museum Hotel back in November. This will be the last local solo performance he’ll do for a while. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.comBen Solleew/ Mike Mangione, Brigid KaelinFriday, Feb. 8930 Listening Room930 Mary St.$5; 8 p.m.www.the930.org