Ben Lee should be better friends with Conor Oberst. The two have been running mates for the crown of most consecutive days considered either a genius boy wonder or the junior Dylan, sometimes both at the same time, for as long as they’ve been putting out records. Their careers have mirrored each other in their details. Both young songwriters began writing when they were barely double-digited, recording hissy, fuzzed up introspections that soon fell into more and more of the right hands. They’ve grown up through their songs and, in their early 20s, were both linked with equally young Hollywood starlets. You’d half expect them to reference each other frequently in conversation, talking about all the good times they have just sitting around riffing about life over a few bottles of cheap wine, in their respective apartments. Dinner guests, best buds—you want to believe that they would have the power to finish each other’s sentences, should they ever be engaged in the same conversation. Where their parallels turn curvy is in their temperaments and how they cradle them.
Lee, the 26-year-old Australian, is two years younger than Oberst, the black-bangy torchbearer for an entire, sad-eyed generation of emotive pessimists. Both deal from their hips and shoot from their chests. They bare their hearts so you won’t have to, with Oberst giving it straight and leaving a mess and Lee doing the same but making a point to hold your hand while doing it. It’s a very small gesture, but he’s come to believe it helps.
“It’s really strange, because I feel a sort of cosmic connection to him,” Lee said of Oberst. “But we take very different approaches to what we’re doing. I do think that there’s a similarity to our ultimate goals. I think we’ve been on each other’s radar for a long time.”
Lee’s songwriting has taken on a different pulse with his latest record, Awake Is the New Sleep. It’s his offering to a world taken by gloom, the antidote to hopelessness and despair. He’s spent his time questioning and it’s working. He’s not only concluded that his desire is to make a positive difference with his music, but that his vulnerability is a real connector.
“It’s actually easier to connect with people than you think,” Lee said. “Music’s a very tangible thing that can give you inspiration and hope. I was getting evidence of that.
“I think the idea of the record is waking up to more joy. The full experience of being alive and living with an open heart—there’s nothing like it. I’ve always loved the idea that if we have just a short time here, saying, ‘I’m going to wring every last drop out of this.’”
The years and years of development that Lee has put himself through since his early days as a loud punk in Noise Addict have made him into a better writer with the evidence all over a new record that should be considered his first adult work. He’s no longer a phenom with all that room to grow.
“I was looking at the music industry and thinking, ‘I’m four years older than the people who are considered the biggest things right now,” Lee said with a laugh. “Ben Folds told me the other day, ‘You’re in a great position because you’re a late bloomer and a veteran. You stepped up to bat late, but you’ve got so much experience.’ And I think that’s a pretty good deal. I probably make different mistakes than most 23-year-old, groupie-shagging, coke-snorting bands of brothers do.”