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Music in Action: Ben Sollee

By Tom Wilmes |

Kick-Ass Kentuckian of the Month Ben Sollee on the intersection of music, community and place.

Musician, activist, cyclist, Kentucky native and technology buff Ben Sollee recently dropped Steeples, Pt. 2, the latest installment in a serialized album release. He's also currently working on a few film scores, as well as producing a record for New York-based songwriter Rebecca Hart. This weekend and next, he'll be performing in an interactive stage adaptation of the children's book Harold and Purple Crayon, presented by StageOne Family Theatre in Louisville. When we caught up with Ben, however, he was helping his brother with some plumbing on a rare day off.

How did the idea for Harold and the Purple Crayon come about?


Well the director of StageOne Family Theatre, Peter Holloway, got in touch and told me about an idea he had to create an interactive stage show of Harold and the Purple Crayon.


It's a very innovative show with a lot of technological elements. Everyone in the audience gets a tablet and, at certain moments when Harold needs some help, we invite kids to draw along and their images pop up on a projection screen behind Harold. There are some interactive moments with the music, too, especially during the pie party. It's really fun.


It sounded very ambitious and musically exciting and, as a father as well as a musician who's into technology, it pushed all of my buttons. We've been slowly building the idea for the show over the last year and a half, and now we're finally putting it on stage. Matthew Brennan, a delightful dancer and mover, plays the part of Harold, and Alphaeus Green Jr. is the narrator.


Ben Sollee-Harold and the Purple Crayon1


You must get approached with a lot of projects. How do you decide what to work on next?


If I did a better job deciding and not just doing them all I'd probably be a more productive person! But honestly, if something sounds cool I just go for it. That's been my M.O. since the beginning.


I think a lot of it has to do with my upbringing. I went to SCAPA, the School for Creative and Performing Arts, in Lexington, and was very involved in theater as well as music. I've really just stayed on that trajectory for years.


It must be both challenging and invigorating to work on all those different projects.


Exactly, and there are themes that connect creatively through all of the projects. I love dance, so I've done a lot dance projects, and I love technology, so I love that connection. One of the projects I'm most excited about is Livestream.


What can you tell us about that?


Through LexArts as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, a team based in New York called Public Works Collaborative and myself received funding to design and build a permanent sculpture in Lexington's Jacobson Park that interprets groundwater from around the state — scattered groundwater measurements — into sound.


The project's goal is to help Kentuckians connect with and gain awareness of one of our most precious resources, which is groundwater. We're going to install it in June next to the new playground. It's been a long time coming and a lot of elements were particularly challenging, but being able to score the sound of Kentucky's waterways is a really exciting opportunity.


Along with your creative schedule, you've always made time for causes that you believe in.


That's true. For me, as a Kentuckian, a huge part of my heritage and passion for the state is based in Eastern Kentucky. My mom's family was from that part of the world, and I love the music and stories that come from that area. I definitely dedicate a lot of time to raising affection for that place, and also raising awareness of things that threaten that place — such as mountaintop removal strip mining.

I feel that music — sound — is one of the best pieces of technology we have to resonate and raise the level of affection around an issue, a person or a place.

I've also done a lot of work with bicycling and sustainability, and lately I've spent a lot of time with educational opportunities — trying to bring music and the arts to a broader community that is more representative of Kentucky today and now. Livestream connects with all of that in a big way.


You've also done a lot of touring by bicycle, including cycling from Kentucky down to Bonnaroo. How does moving at that pace help you connect?


Just in general, we as humans aren't very good at taking in information as quickly as it's coming at us these days. When you spend a lot of time in planes, trains and automobiles as a musician, you find yourself spending more time in between places than actually in them. A bicycle affords a wonderful amount of limitation. You can slow down and, at a human pace and scale, really consider a place and get to know it.


As a musician that's really important, because you can't just output all the time and expect to stay impactful. You have to input at the same time and, for me, the bicycle tours are the right pace for inputting while I'm on the road. Plus the audiences you build on a bicycle tour feel very different than the audiences you build during van tours. People appreciate the effort you've made to come to their communities.


Bringing it back around, how does music inform your advocacy?


I feel like you can zoom out and try to figure out what music achieves — what is it good at? For me I found the answer in a document written by Wendell Berry called "It All Turns on Affection." It's a beautiful lecture that he gave as part of the Jefferson Lecture Series in 2012. Basically, to sum it up more than it should be summed up, he says that you have to know a place in order to desire to protect it.


We can do lots of things in this day and age. We can shoot videos. We can tell stories. We can take picture. But it's hard to really connect with people who have not visited a place. I feel that music — sound — is one of the best pieces of technology we have to resonate and raise the level of affection around an issue, a person or a place.


That's really helped me focus my career at a time when maybe my compass was a little off and I felt like, 'Man, what good is playing music when the mountains are still being cut down? When people's civil rights are still being violated?'
That answered the question for me, and I'm forever grateful to good old Wendell Berry for doing that.


Visit Ben Sollee's website here.


Public performances of Harold and the Purple Crayon, presented by StageOne Family Theatre, are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. March 26 and April 2 at The Kentucky Center for the Art's Bomhard Theater in Louisville. Tickets and information are available here.

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