Columbia When Ben Lee was 18, he heard Bob Dylan's song 'Isis' playing on a…
- Posted on Nov 4th 2011 1:00PM by Theo Spielberg
Carlos Alvarez, Getty Images
How did you become involved with Pioneers for a Cure?
I was invited to take part in this program through a woman named Beth Ravin, who I know from the NARAS group (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences). I was part of that group for many years, six or seven years. I would go to the monthly meetings and all that stuff, so I know Beth. This is a project she was involved in and asked if I wanted to do this. It sounded really interesting.
Did you come with a song in mind?
They had a list of songs that were public domain. You could pick just about any song as long as it was in the public domain so that they didn't have to pay for the rights. I'd kind of known 'Streets of Laredo' from I forget where -- I went to sleepaway camp as a kid, I probably learned it there. I always thought it was a beautiful story. I always liked the part about him being wrapped in sheets of white linen. So I chose that one.
Did you have a particular cause in mind?
All the money goes to a hospice that's near Marblehead, Mass. My husband's mother and father both passed away from pancreatic cancer and his mother in particular received really good care from the hospice. They had come over to the house and kind of helped her through her final days, so I donated the money to that charity. If you want the exact name of the place I think it's on the website.
What was the inspiration for re-recording all of your songs for the 'Close-Up' series?
Um, twofold. One is there have been times where I have heard an artist that I love and I've thought to myself "God, I wish I could just hear the song." Whether it's Leonard Cohen or in some of Joni Mitchell's albums where she's had a couple of tracks near the end where its just her and the guitar and its so powerful I think when people can pull that off.
Second, I thought I'd just do what I always wanted to do which is re-record the songs and release them myself as a way of owning the songs. I own the publishing to my songs but I don't own the recordings. This gives me something tangible that I can sell at gigs, I can license it to other people, I can license remixes. In fact, with the 'Tom's Diner' version that came out on Volume Two, we put the different elements on iTunes so people can do their own remixes if they want. It kind of gives me control over the physical recordings in a way that I don't have otherwise.
Why did you include a new song from 'Carson McCullers Talks About Love?'
I don't want to limit myself to that aesthetic for the rest of my life. I want the freedom to do whatever I want, and if that means, who knows, working with Danger Mouse on something, who knows? I've always allowed my imagination to take me to the next place and I would like to continue doing that so I don't want to be limited by the economics.
'Tom's Diner' was one of the first songs to be compressed into an MP3 file. How do you feel about being called "The Mother of the MP3"?
[Laughs] Ultimately I'm proud of it. I feel I had a tiny role in history, which I'm proud of, I have to say. I met Carl Heintz Brandenburg several times and we're both sort of tickled by the story. I'm also aware that it sort of led to the whole demise of the music industry as we know it. It was almost incidental that they used my voice.
How do you feel music has changed since the advent of the MP3?
In some ways we're back to what it's always been, which is a person with a song and an instrument on a stage, looking at other people. But now you can do it in your room, you can have a webcam, you can have your own channel on YouTube.
I really learned that when I did my Second Life concert five years ago. I wasn't actually in a room with these people but I was in a room with their projected selves. These were people from all over the world: Korea, Australia and England; I was in a studio in New York. You'd think it would be a very disconnected experience but it actually wasn't. I found it to be a strangely spiritual experience. Some of them were texting their thoughts as I was singing and I could read them. I was playing and someone was operating my avatar right next to me so I could see what was going on. At that moment in time, because of the bandwidth I guess we could only have 60 people and weirdly enough, they could only enter without their hair, because the hair took up so many bits. So everyone had to leave their hair at the door. In a way that you don't get when you're standing on a stage playing to a real audience. You can look at someone's face but you don't know what they're feeling or thinking. If you're lucky they'll be up dancing or expressing themselves in some way. It's not like they're texting to you what they're feeling. Hopefully you can see it in their eyes but half the time you can't really see the audience anyways.
Follow @Spinner on Twitter | Like Us on Facebook | Sign Up for Our Newsletter