“I think now more than ever, for the artist and the audience, it's about more than just the songs or the music you put out,” Sollee says from the backyard of his Kentucky home during a recent phone interview. “It's about the complete story that you're telling.”
For Sollee, that means making careful, considered choices about the organizations he partners with and the causes he supports. It means touring “about a third of our time by bicycle.” It means offering handmade goods for sale at the merchandise table at his shows.
Music fans want to be “part of a movement or a complete story,” he says. “People are paying attention to that because they can consume things so quickly in the digital age.”
Sollee, 28, is a generational native of that pairing of music and meaning in a wired world. His tour rewards mindful, engaged fans with a little thank-you bonus.
“We're offering people that ride their bikes, take public transport or walk to the show a $5 voucher at the merch table,” he says.
This time around, Sollee himself won't qualify for the voucher; he's not rolling into York on a bicycle the way he did in 2010 when he played at The Depot, a show he recalls with fondness.
“The hardest thing about being a musician on the road is that you're traveling at this superhuman pace,” he says, describing the rush to set up, play a show, break it down and get back on the road. His first bike tour — a jaunt to Bonnaroo — changed everything. “The pace suited me so much. It was slower. When you rode through communities, you were actually in those communities in some small way.”
Musical influences: That sense of connection and rhythm finds its way into his music, an indescribable reach of pacing and style that puts blues-rock, indie confessional, folk, jazz, bluegrass and other influences side by side on his latest album, “Half-Made Man.”
“My vernacular is very global, and I think that can be said for the music that we are making in this generation,” he says. “If there's too much intention in mixing the specific styles ... then it's not going to feel genuine.”
Sollee comes by the mix honestly; it's an organic outgrowth of a Kentucky childhood in a musical family and the exposure to world music the Internet offers.
“What I'm after is kind of telling the story of where I came up,” he says. “My dad was a guitar player and my mom sang; my grandfather was an Appalachian fiddler.”
He took up cello in school, where classical music was the norm. But he'd come home and learn R&B tunes from his father and bluegrass from his grandfather.
“I always had this dual life between my institutional cello life and my social cello life,” he says. He started writing his own music and lyrics in high school, “and then it grew into something I wanted to do more and more.”
In expressing his own voice, Sollee found, too, the joy in understanding other voices.
“I feel like collaboration is a big part of my musical health,” he says. “It forces you to express other people's musical ideas through your own experience” and provides the reverse opportunity as well — to see his ideas expressed through theirs.
“That's the best part of it,” he says.
New album: On “Half-Made Man,” Sollee put aside the notion of micromanaging arrangements in favor of allowing free-flowing expression in the studio.
“I got musicians and friends I trusted very much, and we all got in the studio together and recorded the songs live,” he says. “When we were going to explore all those musical ideas, it wasn't just me searching for sounds; it was like a big musical search party.”
Feeling their way through the album's 10 tracks, the musicians reached a place where the voice remained an intimate link to the singer even as each song contributed a unique sound to the whole.
“The album is a collection of self-portraits, so from my perspective, I'm looking at how well the portraits turned out,” Sollee says, citing two songs as personal favorites. “I really like ‘The Healer' and I really like ‘The Maestro,' because I really think about that a lot, dedicating my life to something as fickle as music.”
Sollee's dedication and his willingness to let each song follow its own path paid off in the studio.
“We could make some things very intimate and immediate,” as with the plaintive whispers of “Roam in the Dark,” “and then we could just jam” as with the urgent demand of “Get off Your Knees,” he says. “We all trusted each other to just go there.”
If the audience at the Capitol Theatre on Oct. 16 can trust Sollee half as much, they'll get there, too.
Cellist Ben Sollee will perform “a full mix of stuff” from his newest album, “Half-Made Man,” and his first three albums at the next concert in the CapLive music series.
The show starts at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, at the Capitol Theatre, 50 N. George St., York. The doors open at 7 p.m. Special guest Luke Reynolds also will perform.
Tickets are $16.
For more information about the concert, call (717) 846-1111 or visit www.strandcapitol.org or www.caplivemusic.com.
For more about Sollee, visit bensollee.com.
— Reach Mel Barber at email@example.com.