Whether collaborating on Daft Punk covers or riding to Florida, cellist Ben Sollee does things on his scale.
"The thing that I don't enjoy is what we're pulling up to right now, which is when you just sit in traffic," cellist Ben Sollee says. He's driving in California on tour, and he enjoys the people watching and the wind farms, but it's not his preferred way of touring. The last time he played New Orleans, he was starting a bike tour of the Gulf South that he had to cut short in Pensacola.
"It was too dangerous," Sollee says. " The culture of the drivers was not tolerant at all to us being on the road. At some point, it became so fatiguing that it stopped being worth the risk. We're not out there trying to save the world and go green. We're out there trying to use the bikes to slow down and connect with the communities and have fun."
Sollee will perform at the Old U.S. Mint Saturday night will Helen Gillet opening, and he is committed to having a career in music his way. His most recent recording is a cover of Daft Punk's "Lose Yourself to Dance," which he recorded with Austin's 16-piece chamber pop group Mother Falcon. The song isn't on an album or EP, nor is it on bandcamp or a similar monetizing platform. Instead, Sollee posted it on Soundcloud, where it's free to stream. "The purpose of the track was to be able to connect with those folks," he says. "It's fun to be able to share it with other people."
"Lose Yourself to Dance" seems on its surface like an odd cover choice for an indie-pop singer/songwriter/cellist with a classical music background, but Sollee grew up in house where his parents listened to R&B, pop, funk, and soul. He has also become interested in electronic instruments. "I've been contrasting the cello with synthesizers to get to new sonic territory," he says. "It is basically four oscillators."
His most recent album, Half-Made Man, is as surprising as "Lose Yourself to Dance" in its own way. Nothing on it sounds like a vehicle for the cello. The textured sound of a bow on strings is clearly audible at times, but it's usually associated with fiddle sounds. "A lot of times when it's up front, people don't know it's a cello," he says. "That's okay. That's part of contextualizing the cello. There're a lot of voices on the cello that aren't utilized within the normal conventions of the cello world."
With no instrument competing with Sollee for attention, the songs themselves stand on their own without obvious musical agendas, each engaging in its own way. "DIY" is an Americana hoedown, while "The Healer" is shimmering acoustic pop. Still, it's a clearly unified album, held together by a consistent musical palate and a clear lyrical point of view as he tries to scale down life to a size where real connections are possible.
That desire was part of the impetus behind Sollee's decision to crowd-fund Half-Made Man. "It creates a really powerful connection between the artist and the audience," he says, but it also came with pressures. Honoring the incentives for contributors is very time-consuming, and he found it hard to get the hopes and desires of the fans who contributed out of his head. "It's a lot like when you get together with your extended family," he says. "Suddenly, their stories and what they've got going on in their lives are much more prescient. I felt a little less free, a little more obliged to take care of the bigger family."
His desire to make connections led to his decision to leave the classical music world. Sollee found classical music conventions distancing and exhausting. "I didn't want to build a pedestal and sit on it," he says. "I never hire a violin player to play the parts on the record; I hire them to put their voices on the record. I like the artistic freedom of being more fleet and collaborative and small."
Sollee's Saturday night show is a Walk/Bike/Ride show. Those who walk, bike, bus or take a streetcar to the show will receive a $5 token at his merchandise table.
For an interview with Helen Gillet, see our email conversation at The New Orleans Advocate.