ben lee with madisen at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Saturday (March 18). $16.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
If the average nerdy caucasian indie rock dude-sician invoked Gandhi and mentioned travelling to India to study with a guru during a casual conversation, I'd probably call him a pretentious douchebag.
But when Ben Lee follows up a discussion of qi gong (the Chinese healing art he practises) and learning from South Asian "spiritual teacher" Narayani Amma with, "It's like Gandhi says, "Be the change you want to see in the world,'" I want to invite him home for herbal tea and flatbreads.
It's not just that you can tell Lee genuinely believes the philosophy he espouses; it's that the lanky Aussie singer/songwriter radiates unabashed openness and unaffected warmth in every sentence.
After spending literally half his life in indie rock and enduring being half of a well-publicized celeb couple-slash-breakup (damn you, Claire Danes), the 28-year-old Lee seems completely unjaded. It's enough to justify a little Zen flakiness.
"Every now and then I can get bogged down in other people's rules," he begins, trying to describe his newfound inner peace. "There are those basic ideas like the implausibility of getting a second act in show business (that's John Travolta) or that you're too young to make anything meaningful, or that pop songs can't change the world.
"Then I realize nothing about me has ever conformed, so why would I conform to their myths? And the more I realize that, the more confident I get. The reason I've come on this journey is to let people see, "Man, this guy's been through 14 years of ups and downs and only now has he released his most commercially successful album, but he's still full of joy.' There's hope!"
Check out Lee's most recent and apparently most commercially successful disc, Awake Is The New Sleep (New West), a set of earnestly upbeat strum-along tunes that urge you to "just go for it," remind us "we're all in this together" and gently suggest listeners "gamble everything for love."
The gently quirky folk-pop sound might be way too sweet for fans of Lee's original four-track bedroom-punk band Noise Addict, but the dude's had 14 years to sand off his hard edges.
"The aesthetic's incidental for me," Lee explains. "I still write catchy songs, because I feel the hooks are the sugar that makes the medicine of the message go down. Since I studied with Amma, though, I've gone from just wanting to express myself to wanting to do things that'll change to world."
Our man's thrown himself into trying to help out emerging bands. It's a pay-it-forward sorta thing in the same way Lee got a huge boost from Thurston Moore (who released Noise Addict's demo on his Ecstatic Peace label in 93) and the Beastie Boys (who signed Noise Addict and, later, solo Lee to Grand Royal), he acts as a hookup when he sees unsung potential.
Take Montreal lo-fi pop girl group Pony Up!, who never would've guessed that heckling Lee during his first show in their city would lead to a deal with cool U.S. indie label Dim Mak.
Lee says it was all you guessed it karma.
"You know those moments in life where you experience huge revelations? That night, I was playing Montreal for the first time, and our van was broken into. Though we had fancy equipment, DV cams and techno stuff lying about and loads of cash in the glovebox, the only thing they took was my knapsack, which just contained a book about crop circles.
"Later that night, the girls in Pony Up! were flirting with me from the balcony, and we hung out after the show. They passed on their demo, and I heard something I knew would've really hit me when I was young."
As luck would have it, he found himself in a meeting with Steve Aoki from Dim Mak, who offered his help in "starting a label... or whatever" if Lee ever felt the urge.
Pony Up! wound up releasing last spring's self-titled EP on Dim Mak (Lee put it out on his own Ten Fingers imprint in Australia) and are preparing to unleash their forthcoming Make Love To The Judges With Your Eyes LP on the label.
"They did it with Howard Bilerman (ex-Arcade Fire) again, and it's just beautiful, really mature and dark," effuses Lee. It's kind of a concept album about what it means to be a young woman, which is always intriguing to me."