Whether playing by bow, strum or finger–pluck, Ben Sollee is unique among cellists. The Kentucky native is a poly–dexterous master of innovation who wields his (physically unwieldy) instrument the way others handle a ukulele or a small guitar. He writes songs, too, and sings them. While playing his cello.
A Savannah favorite, Sollee returns to Stopover on the heels of Half Made Man, his fourth album, which has been universally praised and brought him hitherto–unknown national exposure.
Classically–trained, Solee has never been one to rest on his previous achievements; he is a born collaborator, whether it's the Sparrow Quartet (with Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck and Casey Driessen) or his recent stage shows alongside Kentucky storyteller Ed McClanahan.
For this Stopover visit, Sollee will be accompanied by percussionist Jordan Ellis, whom the cellist describes as "eight–armed" on his instruments. "Between he and I playing live, and other fancy electronics that we use, it makes a pretty big racket."
Was there a precedent for the way you play cello? In other words, how did you become you?
Ben Sollee: For me, it just comes from being around other musicians who do it in a different vernacular. I happened to choose the cello in public school and ended up playing with bluegrass bands here and there, and blues bands, and I would pick up techniques and styles from the guitar player, the mandolin player, the bass player. While I had the cello in my hands. I think it's a process of osmosis.
What does collaboration do for you?
Ben Sollee: I always like to say that collaboration is really important for my musical health. What it gives me is the opportunity to express someone else's musical ideas within my own vernacular. Ed McLanahan is of a completely different generation, maybe even culture, that I'm from. But he's one of the great Kentucky writers, and so we have this connection of being from the same stomping ground. We found a lot of inspiration in our collaboration. The collaboration was simply playing to the strengths of each other, letting each other do what we're good at. But then asking each other to maybe try something just a little bit different. And the result was a performance that neither he nor I would have given individually. But together, we created something new.
Do you still tour the country on that custom–made bike?
Ben Sollee: I think it's really important to keep the romance of the road, and not have it all be about tour vans, and buses, rock shows and cheap hotels. We try to do our touring about a third of each year by bicycle. Last year we did a wonderful tour of the northeast, riding out of the Newport Folk Festival up to Portland, Maine. It was just lovely, especially having come off a tour the previous fall where we had to cancel short of the end because it was just too dangerous. That was along the Gulf shore, New Orleans to Florida.
Too dangerous why?
Ben Sollee: There was very, very little infrastructure for us a cyclists. The roads were still pretty beat up from all the hurricanes. And the driving culture down there just wasn't very tolerant of us on the road. To that end, we just found ourselves getting worn out trying to preserve ourselves out there. We're not out there to save the world. We're not trying to "be green," or really even be all that sustainable. The point is for us to go out and connect with communities. And we didn't feel like that was happening. It wasn't worth the risk.
Do you mean drivers were throwing things out the window at you?
Ben Sollee: No, we didn't have anybody throw anything, other than words. We had people that would just ride really close to us. Making really unsafe decisions. I remember at one point we were going uphill on a two–lane highway. We had every right to be on that road. And somebody must have had their Buick well within a foot and a half of the back tire of my bicycle. Which is terrifying! That's a 3,000–pound machine, and you're just a person on a bicycle.