SONGS OF THE DECADE – 2000’s – BEN LEE.

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Catch My Disease (B Lee/M Southworth) and We’re All In This together (B Lee) 2006 and Love Me Like The World Is Ending (B.Lee) – Ben Lee 2007

Born in 1978 in Sydney and raised in a Jewish household, Ben was regarded as something of a wunderkind with a big future, in 1993 he was leading the band Noise Addict and signed to the independent Fellaheen Records. Owner Steve Pavlovic had heard Lee’s self-produced and distributed 4-track demo, recorded by the precocious youngster in his bedroom and in 1994 the group released their debut acoustic EP Young and Jaded via the Beastie Boys Grand Royal Records.

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He followed up with the album Meet the Real You but at the age of 16, and while still with Noise Addict, Lee had already commenced his solo career, releasing his debut solo album Grandpaw World which failed to chart.

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Whilst in Los Angeles in 1997 he attended the eighteenth birthday party for American actress Claire Danes (below), where he was introduced to the birthday girl by none other than Winona Ryder. Lee was 19 and the two teenagers fell in love, she remarked at the time “I want to be in love always.”

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Danes was a rising star who had started life in New York with her artist mother and photographer father, a liberal family who lived in a SoHO loft, before moving to Santa Monica (Calif), where she got her first TV roles at the age of thirteen. Her big break came when she won the TV screen role in My So-Called Life and received a Best Actress Golden Globe Award in 1994 at the age of fifteen. Danes followed up with her film debut in Little Women (’94), then Home for the Holidays (’95), Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (pictured above with Leonardo De Caprio in’96) and The Rainmaker (’97). She shelved her movie career to major in psychology at Yale University in 1998-99, but then returned to acting later that year and continued to pick up roles in prestige movies including Les Miserables (’98).

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Ben’s first album to interest the local market was 1998’s Breathing Tornados, released on Modular, it flagged new musical directions for Lee with the use of synthesisers and increased instrumentation, charted #19 locally and garnered several ARIA nominations. Around this time Lee unwisely announced that he was “the best songwriter in Australia”, and his detractors quickly moved in to cut down the tall poppy. The single Cigarettes Will Kill You crept into the local top 40, but international success was derailed when Grand Royal Records went into liquidation.

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Lee and Danes co-habited for six years, she continued to advance her acting career with roles in live theatre and television, but Lee was struggling to build on his early success, with little happening chart wise for him between 1999-2004. Despite Lee’s desperate efforts to keep the relationship alive, Danes left him in 2003 and in 2004 she commenced a two-year relationship with actor Billy Crudup (below), Crudup’s former girlfriend Mary Louise Parker was seven months pregnant at the time with Billy’s child, so he was branded a love rat, and Danes a homewrecker, as the toxic tabloids quickly moved into gear.

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In 2004 Lee travelled to India and sought enlightenment in the teachings of the Hindu religion with Sakthi Narayani Amma who inspired him to embrace a new spirituality and to reflect the joy of giving to others in his music. Lee took some time to translate his grief at the collapse of his relationship with Danes into his music, but two songs on his well-received 2004 album, Awake Is the New Sleep, underscored the hurt and remorse that Lee was still feeling over the end of the affair. The album was released in February 2005 via Lee’s own record label, Ten Fingers, and was recorded at the Seagrass Studio in LA with indie-rock producer Brad wood (Liz Phair, Veruca Salt), and the albuim became his first top ten hit at #6 in Aust, and the sleeve credits acknowledged his spiritual mentor “This record was made possible by the Grace, Love, and Guidance of Narayani Amma.

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The album heralded a return to the gently melodic, tentatively introspective indie pop that marked his best work in the 1990’s, and following the breakup with Danes and his spiritual awakening in India, he was no longer the shy innocent juvenile but a mature man whose life experiences were starting to resonate in his music.

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The first song lifted off the album, Gamble Everything For Love indicated that Lee was still hopeful of a reunion with Danes, its message was greeting-card simplistic – the importance of putting love above all else, embracing love and finding the true path to fulfilment – musically it was anodyne and inoffensive and charted #32 locally, Danes however remained in her relationship with Billy Crudup.

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The second single lifted and the standout track was the more engaging Catch My Disease, which was not about STDs, but about Lee embracing his new-found Hindu principles of opening your heart to everyone so that they may share your music and the message within. It introed with handclaps, Lee on acoustic guitar, Brad Wood on drums, Lara Meyerratken on keyboards, fellow songwriter McGowan Southworth on electric guitar and bassist Rob Hann.

Ben’s first ARIA-winning song, and one that resonated yeaers later when Covid entered our lives.

It was rhythmic in a catchy kind of way, and demonstrated that Lee was maturing as both a songwriter and performer, and imbuing his music with more character and depth, while the lyrics denoted some self-loathing and angst on his part –  “My head is a box filled with nothing …Your body’s a dream that turns violent” and after namechecking several US locations – Pomona and Santa Ana, he even had a dig at radio programmers who play “Good Charlotte, the Sleepy Jacksons and Beyonce … on the radio” but often ignore his efforts “They don’t play me on the radio/And that’s The way I like it,” it hit #23 locally, charted for 36 weeks, and won the ARIA Award for Best Single of the Year.Typical of Ben Lee’s promo videos there was a crowd of people cavorting in front of a white screen,the participants sharing the vibe included, cheerleaders, a footy mascot, people with shopping trolleys, hula hoopers, martial arts exponents, line dancers, a Hassidic Jew, a ventriloquist doll, interspersed with the band performing the song – quirky, goofy and probably cheap to make.

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The third single off the album was We’re All in This Together which was again inspired by Hindu teachings which emphasized the connectedness of humanity, and the fundamental truth that the things we do affects others, maybe he was still pining for Claire Danes and wanted her to know how much he still missed her.

It was syrupy, low-key acoustic indie pop and at #49 was a minor local hit, but it has become a ubiquitous soundtrack for many TV advertising campaigns including Coca-Cola, the Salvation Army Red Shield Appeal, Industry Super Funds, and the S.A. Government. The album Awake Is the New Sleep was successful, climbed to #6, occupied the charts for 54 weeks, and sold in excess of 150,000 copies. During this current period of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also become a rallying cry for people to stay connected, be supportive, and considerate towards each other, as we observe the alien practices of social distancing and in some cases self-quarantine. Ben’s Catch My Disease has also become another eerily prescient pandemic song of considerable significance, which has also seeped back into our collective consciousness in more recent times.

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It seemed that with his fourth studio album Awake Is the New Sleep, he had matured, and mellowed into a tuneful, tongue-in-cheek singer/songwriter, a kind of Evan Dando (Lemonheads) – warm, fuzzy, friendly, sweet-natured, and relateable, but without Dando’s substance abuse. But Ben’s music was never dangerous, risky, or edgy, more the songs of a precocious kid with an impish, slightly mischevious quality, a boyish wonder and a naïve sense of humour.

He could certainly create well constructed, wistful, romantic, guitar pop, but with his sixth studio album Ripe released in 2007, he was 29 years old, and he still sounded the same. The best song on the album was Love Me Like the World is Ending – it was more gentle, acoustic indie-pop lite, somewhat formulaic, innocuous and unthreatening, but it was his most popular single release, climbing to #18 locally.

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The promo clip was amateurish with people lined up on a sporting field and throwing water bombs at each other, the metaphor for how we can affect each other’s lives was clumsy and gauche, the singer deservedly copped his share of the water bombs before the clip finished.

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Lee’s seventh studio album Rebirth of Venus was a quasi-concept album about femininity, and apparently an attempt to re-invent himself as a champion of equal opportunity and gender rights, and while well-intentioned, and innately melodic, it was also criticized for being preachy and embarrassing, it failed to resonate with fans, stumbled to #24 and fell out of the charts after three weeks.       

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In 2008 Ben Lee married British/American actress Ione Skye (below), daughter of 60’s folk/pop star Donovan, in a Hindu ceremony in India, and in 2009 Claire Danes and actor Hugh Dancey tied the knot, Danes has been a constant presence on our screens in recent years with her starring role in the Homeland series for which she has won several Golden Globe and Emmy Awards.

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