“It’s weird, because when I first heard it, I thought she was a hillbilly. I just assumed, because it felt so real, it felt so authentic.”
Ben Lee’s instinctive assessment of the music of Gillian Welch is surprising, but perhaps understandable given the mysterious authority it commands as it evokes both feelings of the past and the present.
I think it’s a really beautiful experience that music is different when we revisit it.Ben Lee — Don't Look Back
“Gillian Welch is so interesting because she’s so steeped in musical history and understanding of the American blues, folk and roots traditions, yet she writes from a very current perspective,” Lee says.
“Her lyrics don’t really sound like folk songs from the early 1900s, they sound like someone who has taken all of that in, digested it and now is talking about the modern world.”
Ben recalls that it was Conor Oberst who set him straight, informing him that there was much more substance to Gillian Welch’s musical background than he’d first thought.
“She was finding an aesthetic that matched what she wanted to say poetically and the way her voice sounded, so it’s almost more interesting than if she was a hillbilly,” Lee discovered.
“It’s not totally a façade, like a Marilyn Manson thing or a David Bowie thing, playing a character, because it’s a very steady character. Her career continues, she’s in that character, and it’s her!”
Lee is right in the sense that Welch did make a decision, and a lot of it came down to the impact of hearing one particular song.
Earlier this year Gillian Welch told Don’t Look Back about the song that was crucial in helping her understand the possibilities of her voice and artistry.
Although The Stanley Brothers song ‘Rank Strangers’ helped a lot of things fall into place for Gillian, her song ‘Revelator’ has the opposite, but still highly stimulating, effect on Ben Lee.
“I find that it always opens up really beautiful questions,” he says.
‘Revelator’ reminds Ben of a transitional period in his life. A long-term relationship had just ended, he had no home as a touring musician, relying on crashing on people’s couches, and he was preparing to make his most successful album Awake is the New Sleep. Its sound was hugely influenced by Welch’s album Time (The Revelator).
After experimenting with electronics a lot through the late-‘90s/early-‘00s, he was keen to refocus.
“I wanted to get back to songs that I could write on guitar and sing,” he says.
“I think that was very connected to listening to her record, driving around LA. Each time I hear a songwriter that is clearly very good with guitar and vocals, it makes me go, ‘oh why did I ever try and do other stuff?’.
"If the song is there, it stands up without all the hoopla and all the production. It’s like ‘oh yeah, it’s a person playing guitar and singing, that’s what I first fell in love with’.”
The album’s continued presence in his life suggests that perhaps there’s more yet to be revealed.
“I came back to it recently,” he says. “It’s not an album I forget about and it’s still very impressive, but it sounds different. I think it’s a really beautiful experience that music is different when we revisit it. It’s not that fun when its dated itself really badly, when you feel, ‘oh there’s nothing there for me anymore’.
“But on those occasions when we go back to a record and it feels rich in a whole different way, that is really exciting.
“It’s definitely one of those records. It’s like a mirror and you just go to it and you see yourself.”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Ben Lee on Don't Look Back.