Ben Lee is an artist who doesn’t believe in the common parameters ascribed to most musicians. Over his 25-year career, he has steered a teenage punk band to overseas success, recorded film soundtracks, made an album about Ayahuasca, teamed up with actor Josh Radnor to create mantra-heavy healing music, hosted a series of successful talks about life, music and spiritually, launched a business selling essential oils, starred opposite Rose Byrne in the film The Rage in Placid Lake, recorded an album of songs about Islam, and covered an entire Against Me! album. And that’s the abridged version.
His latest venture is suitably offbeat: a musical named B is for Beer, which, despite the adult title, is billed as “a musical for adults and children alike”. Or as Ben describes it in the below chat, “the trip you didn’t even know you wanted to go on.” Based off a 2009 novella written by Tom Robbins, the soundtrack is set for release in September, with the entire theatrical production to follow.
I spoke to Ben this morning about this open-hearted, psychedelic production.
Without knowing too much about the plot, it would appear this is a rather left-of-centre project. I understand it is based on Tom’s novella. How did the idea come about to turn this into a musical? How did the three of you come to work together on this?
I had been curious about the idea of writing a musical for a while, it was something I was exploring lightly. When I stumbled on Tom’s novella “B is for Beer” it checked all the right boxes for me – it was about consciousness, super quirky and existential, and had a very cheeky sense of humor. I came to realise the journey I would embark upon with Tom was really the key thing for me, though. Working with him so closely over such a long period has definitely transformed me as an artist.
This is new territory for you. What has been the biggest challenge in getting it underway? How has the learning curve been?
My projects, even when they have reached mainstream success, have always grown from seeds planted from outside the system. This project is the same. It is not a project geared towards pleasing tourists looking for an easy Broadway show – I like those too, but this isn’t that. This is deconstructive. Its a sugar-coated pill that asks giant questions about who we are, what we want, and what makes us human. I would say letting the project breath and find its authentic path and voice has been the biggest challenge. Being off the beaten track can be daunting sometimes.
What lessons did you have to learn/unlearn when writing music for something like this?
Writing for different voices and ranges was a big one. And developing a more complex sense of harmony.
The soundtrack will be available before the play is in production. I assume this was a deliberate choice. What made you land on this order of things?
It has precedent. Tommy, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, American Idiot – these were all albums before stage shows. As someone that knows how to make albums, and is totally unexperienced with putting on a musical theatre production, this felt like the path of least resistance.
You put on a performance at the Largo. Did you make any major changes after that? Were there any surprises watching it spring to life?
The main thing that came out of that was realising just how weird the show is! I had lost sight of that, being so deeply immersed for so long. Seeing it on stage I realised Tom and I had created something very unusual, and I would have to be patient and inventive with how to get it across to people!
You’re currently working with Josh Radnor, a very talented actor and screenwriter. Have you spoken about collaborating on something more theatrical in the future?
It has come up in passing. Both Josh and I are very committed to following feelings of genuine inspiration, so anything we collaborate on would have to come from that space.
What about Ione [Skye; Ben’s wife]? Will she be involved in the production – or is it way too early to say?
I don’t know. There are many unknowns with this project!
You’ve done some acting in the past. Are you considering an on-stage acting role once this production is underway?
Not particularly. But you never know. I want to serve the project and Tom’s legacy. Happy to do whatever is best for it.
How did Belinda Carlisle become involved in the soundtrack?
I met her last year and we bonded over loving essential oils! When I was trying to find the right person for the beer fairy, I was trying to think of someone equally ethereal and badass. Ione suggested Belinda and I fell in love with the idea. Belinda is a yogi and a rock ‘n’ roller. She is a new age healer with a badass past. That’s a rare combo. As soon as I asked her and told her about the project she totally “got” it. That’s how you know its the right person – they want to be there!
I know it’s a terrible thing to ask artists to summarise their work, but considering you are trying to get funding for this, I assume you’ve had to think a little about this: What would your elevator pitch be for those interested in seeing this, but not sure whether it is suitable for a family/group outing/date?
This is a psychedelic musical about alcohol and consciousness for kids and grownups alike – its the trip you didn’t even know you wanted to go on.
Help ‘B is for Beer’ become fully realised by checking out the Kickstarter, and pre-ordering the album (or simply donating). There are a bunch of great rewards on all tiers, and you can even sing vocals on the official soundtrack.