Ben Lee: Catch My Disease (which can currently be viewed on Hulu) is an intimate and playful portrait of the Australian singer-songwriter who has been a musician since his early adolescence. It illustrates his rise to pop stardom and the media scrutiny and issues of celebrity that come with it, as well as the spiritual journey that changed his life, while giving insight from Claire Danes, Jason Schwartzman, Michelle Williams, Mike D, Zooey Deschanel and Winona Ryder.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, Ben Lee talked about making a documentary that is so personal, how the whole thing came about, how surprised he was about just how much his spiritual journey affected and changed him, what makes a great live performance for him, the most definable moments of his career, and the musical he recently wrote, based on a book by Tom Robbins, called B is for Beer. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: This documentary is so personal that, at times, it becomes a bit uncomfortable to watch.
Was that something you were totally okay with, or was it something you just had to learn to deal with?
LEE: I’d say it’s something that happened in stages. In general, I would say the over-arching principal of my attitude towards creativity is, if you put it all out there, it’s going to be worth it. Discomfort and vulnerability are not necessarily things to be avoided in life. That being said, it’s had many confronting moments on the journey. I don’t know. It’s something I’m continuing to process and try to understand. The beautiful thing about it is that it charts a real period in my life. I think most people would say, up until they had kids was one chapter, and after was another. So, it really reflected back at me some brutal truths about my life. I think I fancied myself incorrectly too intelligent to fall for the Trojan horse of wanting to get famous, and seeing myself as above that desire of something that seems to be so prevalent in our society. But looking at my life, I see how it was actually driving me the whole time.
Did it feel like a push and pull between wanting fame and wanting respect?
LEE: Exactly, and most of that is happening in the unconscious. We don’t even know what’s motivating us. We just try our best to survive. The funny thing about it is that, like most pieces of art, you end up playing out very archetypal truths. How many stories have we seen about someone who thought the Holy Grail was in one place, but it turned out to be somewhere else entirely? It’s the drama of the human experience. It’s funny to see that played out, through your own life. And then, there’s the pressure to have answers for other people. As a musician or a performer, you’re meant to have this attitude behind everything and know what you’re about, but it’s ridiculous that someone 14 would have any idea of what they’re about.
LEE: It wasn’t necessarily a documentary, in the beginning. It was a collaboration, using film. We talked about a lot of abstract models, like [Jean-Luc] Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil, to blend documentary with narrative. I guess what happened was that it dragged on for so long that (director) Amiel [Courtin-Wilson] needed funding to keep it going. At that point, you end up having people going, “Okay, look, is this going to be a little art film, or is this going to be something that people can actually watch?” So, he ended up having to do some childhood stuff and things that, initially, we weren’t imagining to be part of this. But, I think it ultimately is a better film because of that. I still am really proud that he kept so much impressionistic material in there. It isn’t just about narrative, but it’s about creating atmosphere. I think he did some beautiful cinema. Amiel is a really good filmmaker.
With most musicians, they’re playing something of a character on stage and in interviews, and in this film, people talk about how you were this arrogant rock star that you weren’t really, in your personal life. Do you feel like that’s also partly because, when you start out so young, you have to show a certain level of confidence to get people to take you seriously and respect you?
LEE: I’d like to think that. But, look at Taylor Swift. She doesn’t seem arrogant to me. She might seem like other things, but she doesn’t seem like she needs to have all the answers. So, I don’t know if it’s just about being young. It might be more of a family dynamic that you end up playing out with the media or the world at large. I think I was a bit prematurely mature, as a child, and I just started playing that out in public, too. It’s a weird mix. Who knows exactly why it happens. I’m sure that’s part of it. If you’re the type of person that has the temptation towards being a know-it-all or being prideful, having people put tape recorders in front of your face is not going to help the situation.
LEE: I think the level I experience it on is pretty minor, but it’s one of those things I try to be in the moment with. You just have to be authentic with how things are, at each given point. As a music fan, whether I like or dislike something isn’t even that interesting to me. Who cares, if I like it or dislike it? It’s about trying to have compassion and understanding where somebody is coming from. That is what I appreciate reading about. I don’t want to read a dissertation from a critic about whether they think something is good or bad. If they can transcend the personal and say, “Okay, here’s a person that’s made something. I’m going to assume that they have a reason for doing that, and I’m going to try to understand what it is.” The more I meet people that have that energy, the more comfortable I feel, as an artist.
Were you surprised about how much exploring your spirituality affected you, as a musician and as a person?
LEE: That’s a good question. Yeah. I think I thought what a lot of people think when they first get into spiritual stuff. It’s almost like a hobby. People go, “You know what? I want to be a well-rounded person, so I’ll add push-ups to my regimen.” They think they’re going to add this little thing. But for me, what ended up happening was that it actually turned my whole world upside down. There’s a great expression that says, “God is a jealous lover,” and it’s a very accurate expression that has nothing to do with whatever you see god or nature as. The mystery of life refuses to take a backseat. If you want to be intimate with it, it wants all of you. So, that did surprise me. It’s so consuming. Once you start, you can’t think of anything else. It’s one of the mysteries. Who knows why it’s like that?
In doing this documentary and having to relive your life and experiences during this time, was there anything that most surprised you about the journey that you’ve been on? Could you have had any idea that you would have gone on this path with your music and career?
LEE: One of the biggest and most pleasant surprises is that, even when you have that need to keep up an appearance of being right or knowing, there is life after admitting you don’t know and that’s beautiful. This is a whole film about me getting it wrong, in a way. There are all these belief systems that say it’s not okay, but you actually become a more interesting person and more relatable and more able to connect when you have been through that type of a journey. I think the biggest surprise to me is that life is still going.
Once you get a certain level of success and have fans who love what you do, they want you to just keep doing what you do, as opposed to growing, but as an artist, you want to grow and evolve to be creatively fulfilled. Do you have to just get to a place where your main concern is just making yourself happy?
LEE: Yeah. I literally make music for my wife and my friends. I’ve seen so many stages of my career where people like everything up until X album or Y album, or they like everything from X album onwards and nothing before. Everyone has their own personal story. And then, there are other people who, through some miracle, have grown with me, at the same time. I just have to accept that that’s out of my control. I don’t feel beholden to my fans. I don’t even really know who they are. But, I know that this whole thing started with me making stuff that I got off on, and I’ve gotta believe that that’s how it’s going to end, too. That’s the only way it can go. There are a lot of artists who have gotten pretty caught up in that. That’s why I like the defeatist attitude. Just assume that no one is going to like it and that no one cares, and you’ll end up making something that you really like.
Apart from any technical aspects, what makes a great and satisfying concert for you, when you’re performing live?
LEE: I think it’s more about a state of relaxation. If I feel really authentically in my body, then everything seems to click. But, sometimes I can only get into that, if the atmosphere is already conducive to that with the sound and all that stuff. There are moments where, as a performer, you’re on stage and you feel like you’re exactly where you’re meant to be in the universe. It’s a rare and beautiful thing when it happens.
As an artist, what would you say are the most definable moments of your career?
LEE: The moments when I first made something, like when I first wrote a song. It pleases me so intensely. Everything else after that is just the act of communication. But, the real creation are those moments that are just so profound.
What path do you see yourself on now, musically? Do you feel like your music reflects wherever you’re currently at, in your life?
LEE: I made the record about Ayahuasca, which is a very abstract record with a lot of instrumental music on it. That’s not something I particularly envisioned or saw. I also finished a musical based on a book by Tom Robbins, called B is for Beer. That’s extremely lyrical, playful and comedic. So, I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I like making work about consciousness, in any form. I’m excited to do that, and that can take a lot of different shapes.
Is that musical something you’re hoping to see on the stage?
LEE: Yeah, that’s the goal. It’s cool. I’m pretty excited about it!
Ben Lee: Catch My Disease can be viewed on Hulu.