Here is what the accomplished musician had to say:
Ben Lee: Yeah, I mean it didn’t initially start as a documentary, it was just some kind of cinematic collaboration and we were going to kind of let that play out in whatever matter. It was probably going to be more abstract. But I think what ended up happening is the longer these projects drag on we needed to sort of broaden it out and actually have it be something communicable. But I still think Amiel’s kept a great amount of the abstraction and atmospheric stuff. So it wasn’t like we went in going, “Let’s make a documentary about me,” which even for me is a tad melodramatic. It just sort of evolved naturally after a certain amount of years and we had so much footage that we just kind of said, “What do we do with this?”
When it did start to morph into a rock n’ roll documentary about your life and career, how did you feel about revealing some of the personal footage from your life that is in the movie? Did you feel comfortable looking back and revisiting some of your old relationships and experiences on film?
Lee: It was really weird. I still feel weird looking at the cover of the DVD because it’s got old friends, and old girlfriends on it. It’s a very unusual and specific thing, which I’m kind of interested in talking to other people who have had documentaries made about them now because it’s a very unique circumstance. But I guess at the end of the day, I sort of just always believed that you have to put it all out there and then you’re good. You know what I mean? Like the less nervous you are, the more open you are, and the more vulnerable the creative person, it just sort of ends up playing out better I think. So whether it was good stuff or painful stuff, it still felt like I could stand behind it, and that it still had some value to it.
As we sort of alluded to already, a lot of the documentary of chronicles your former relationship with actress Clare Danes. Personally, I think my girlfriend would kill me if I made a documentary about my life that focused on my relationship with an ex-girlfriend. How does your wife, actress Ione Skye feel about that aspect of your life being documented in this project?
Lee: The documentary was already so far along by the time me and Ione even got together. I mean that’s for sure very awkward time that Ione doesn’t really want to shoot. I mean she loves all the stuff at the end (that features her), but she doesn’t want to watch me making out with ex-girlfriends, but she is you know Ione first and foremost is an artist too and she understands. But as a creative person everything you do, it doesn’t begin and end when you get up to a microphone or something, so your whole life is part of your creative expression so she’s been amazingly supportive about it.
You mentioned that Ione loves the end of the film, which documents your relationship with her, but how does she feel about having her wedding video and the birth of your child displayed so prominently in the documentary?
Lee: She’s been very cool about it. I think she just really liked Amiel. But look, I think it would be weirder for her if that stuff were not in the film.
India and your path to finding the Hindu religion is a big part of the film as well, could you talk about that aspect of the film and how your religion has led you on your journey as an artist?
Lee: Particularly that period in my life that the film documents was really about my relationship to success and fame as a narrative to what was important in my life or what my goals were and my increasing disillusionment with that. Then the religion eventually came into my life by really jumping head first into spiritual questions. It’s a continuing process. I’ve never really believed the sort of born again theory of you’re just going to give it up to God and everything’s great. There’s a question about how do we sit on this planet that’s spinning in the chaos and how do we relate to this great unknown of being human beings? So I guess the only thing I would hope is that I became a happier person by really beginning to tackle my spiritual yearnings. It’s not even about finding answers, it’s just about really asking questions.
Obviously, you have been pursuing your career since you were basically just a kid, and as you mentioned, your ideas of fame and success have morphed and changed. Could you talk a little bit about that chapter of the film, and how you look at fame and success differently as an artist now?
Lee: It’s pretty straightforward looking back; I mean I think I wanted be Michael Jackson in 1986 as a kid and seeing that all happen. That was really what I thought being an artist was about. It’s sounds so ridiculous now, but I look at how many people are doing reality TV shows now. I mean there is an assumption that the more people that know about you the better you are, or the happier you are, or the more successful you are. I guess what has happened for me in my life has been a genuine long term and slow shift in my goals and aspirations. Everyone wants every project they do to be super successful. I mean it feels good to have everyone tell you that you are super great, and it’s nice to make money. That’s not to disregard how good both boastings feel when they happen. But I don’t know, I just approach each project now kind of assuming no one’s going to care and I find that hugely liberating because I’m not thinking about how is this going to make me look to people.
To that end, Awake Is the New Sleep was a real game changer for you as an artist, wasn’t it?
Lee: Yeah, I mean that record did really well so yeah that was huge for me.
You said that when you were younger you wanted to be like Michael Jackson, and that makes me think of your song, “I wish I was him,” which was about your admiration for The Lemonheads singer Evan Dando. Could you talk about how he inspired you early on and what it was like touring with him when you opened for The Lemonheads?
Lee: Well, I think he’s probably gone through somewhat of a similar journey in the sense that he wanted a very traditional 60’s bubble gum sense of pop stardom when he had it and had the opportunity, and I think he found that a to be very sour experience. I’m not sure, because I haven’t spoken to him in a while, but I’m not sure if he currently has a different framework with which he understands the drive to make music and perform, but I’d be curious about that. I think a lot of my peers, and of course in every generation, there are people who go through thinking that being successful is the Holy Grail, and then realize that it isn’t.
Finally, part of the title of the documentary is Catch My Disease, which is just a great pop song. As a fan, I’ve always been curious about the origin of the chorus that you wrote for that song. “They play Good Charlotte on the radio, and that’s the way I like it. They play Sleepy Jackson on the radio, and that’s the way I like it. I hear Beyoncé on the radio, and that’s the way I like it. They don’t play me on the radio, and that’s the way I like it!” Could you talk a little bit about creating those lines, choosing the different artists to include, and what your were trying to say about your career with that song?
Lee: I was actually backstage in Pomona jamming with my band in the dressing room and I was just saying stupid lyrics. I think the original demo is “They don’t play me on the radio because I’m gay.” I was just really trying to make other people laugh and I just sort of stayed with that and tried to be free of stress. I mean obviously, I think that song was the biggest hit I’ve ever had. So to a degree there was an impulse of wanting people to hear it, but at the same time I think I genuinely feel like I’m okay being outside of the music industry.
Ben Lee: Catch My Disease is currently playing for free on Hulu.
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