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Ben Sollee intertwines art, life

staff report • Aug 30, 2011 at 3:59 AM

Ben Sollee wants his audiences to experience all the beauty and banality that life has to offer. It’s a serious request, and his enthusiasm is genuine. Armed with a cello, Sollee is canvassing the country, sometimes by bicycle, imploring folks to rediscover the connections between music, art, film, dance, their community and personal relationships. These factors ultimately translate to the mindset and making of Sollee’s new project, “Inclusions.” Beyond bridging genres and demographics with earnest, dynamic songwriting and passionate performances, Sollee seeks to intertwine his music with art and life. Sollee will showcase “Inclusions” for local audiences when he makes a stop in Johnson City on Sept. 1 for an 8 p.m. show at the Down Home. Tickets are $16 in advance. The theme of “Inclusions” is large, humanistic and universal — how relationships influence us all, whether intentional or not. The classically trained pop cellist recognized his community and relationships in every facet of “Inclusions.” Collaborating with local visual artist Phillip March Jones, the album art for “Inclusions” brings a visual reference to the allegory of the album. Sollee’s newfound rhythmic intensity comes courtesy of a compositional backbone provided by his old friend and tour confidant, Jordon Ellis. Listeners are also treated to the voice of Cheyenne Marie Mize, who threads soaring harmonies throughout, as well as songwriting for “I Need.” “I love this record,” Sollee admits. “I love it for all of its meanings, explicit and incidental. I love the people I got to work with and the sound they helped create. I love how challenging it was to excavate some of the musical ideas and how others washed up in conversation. In these songs, I can hear the city I grew up in and the people that lived down the street.” Sollee first emerged with his inviting 2008 debut “Learning to Bend.” Saturated with sweeping moods and visceral maturity, the album showcased a wild mixture of musical approaches that Sollee describes as “classically influenced folk with leanings of R&B and soul.” “Learning to Bend” caught the ear of NPR’s “Morning Edition,” which heralded Sollee as one of the “Top Ten Great Unknown Artists of 2007.” While people were getting their first listen of “Learning to Bend,” Sollee was out touring with banjo player and songstress Abigail Washburn as part of the Sparrow Quartet. The ensemble, also featuring Grammy-nomistand on their own, and he is out there in this world with those songs and that cello and that God-given voice of his, riding his bike and fighting the good fight and doing all he can to help make the world right.” Later in 2010, Sollee embarked on the “Ditch The Van Tour.” He and his band abandoned the comforts of a motorized vehicle and hauled their gear and instruments (yes, the cello, too) across the country on bicycles. Sollee’s mission was to engage a greater sense of community involvement at every performance. By huffing it on two wheels between cities, instead of driving or flying, Sollee and his crew were able to discover people and facets of the country in ways that traditional touring could not allow. “It’s not about being green or even sustainable… we want to exploit the limitations of the bicycle to slow down and experience the rich communities and people that I’ve spent years flying by and driving past,” he said. Sollee isn’t satisfied with just being a musician. It is absolutely paramount to him to incorporate collaborations, regardless of age or credentials, in his personal and professional life. “I’m such a mutt myself, biologically and socially, that it just makes sense to express that as my pedigree,” he said. “In the end, that’s what folk music is all about; each of us telling our own story.” nated fiddler Casey Driessen and multi-Grammy winning banjoist Bela Fleck, explored the congregation of eastern and western folk music. The critically acclaimed ensemble toured throughout the world, including a US Ambassadorial tour of Tibet. In 2010, Sollee collaborated with fellow Kentuckians Daniel Martin Moore and My Morning Jacket front-man Yim Yames on the Sub Pop-released “Dear Companion.” The album explored Sollee’s desire to use musical encounters as a catalyst to inspire environmental stewardship. Additionally, Sollee works with regional non-profits like Appalachian Voices and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to help preserve a cornerstone and major influence of his songwriting — his ancestral Appalachia. Last summer, Sollee teamed with his “Dear Companion” collaborators for the Appalachian Voices tour — an eight-date tour to raise awareness about the destruction caused by mountain top removal coal mining in central Appalachia. “I never expect to see that cello in one piece after Ben gets done playing it,” Yames has said. “He bows and beats and works it over with a passionate fury rarely seen. Don’t get me wrong — he can play it and hold his own with the most schooled and delicate scholars out there, but more importantly, Ben makes it live.

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