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    Ben Sollee is a cellist, singer-songwriter and activist. He recently performed in and co-produced “Lift Up Louisville,” a crowd-sourced song spearheaded by Mayor Greg Fischer and Louisville Orchestra conductor Teddy Abrams that features 27 artists with ties to the city, including Jim James, Scott Carney and Will Oldham. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

    As told to Tatiana Ryckman
    Photo by Mickie Winters

     

    “I’ve got three kids. One of them is two months old. My wife Caitlin is just getting over being symptomatic of COVID-19 for the last two weeks. … When Caitlin went from having body pains and really bad headaches to having all of that with a fever, it would’ve been really nice to just go get a test to answer all the questions. She’s a breastfeeding mom (with a) two-month-old baby, but we’re not an at-risk population, and testing has not been widely available.”

     

    “When I am just sitting down to work, a lot of times I’ll put on a nature recording, maybe even a field recording of a prairie or something to recalibrate my ears from all of the other music that I’ve listened to — because what a wonderful symphony nature produces when it’s just living. Sometimes I will take that recording, especially if I’m feeling creatively stuck, and put it into my recording software and use my cello and other instruments to trace the sounds. After a while, I turn off the nature recording and listen to the piece of music that it made. More often than not, that gets me unstuck.

    “When I am really struggling, I have kind of a safety blanket of music that I listen to, which is Edward Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations,’ in particular the ninth variation, which is called ‘Nimrod.’ That piece of music I have reliably been able to use throughout my life to lift me out of despair.”

     

    “There’s just not quite enough hours in the day and it’s a little overwhelming… It’s actually quite overwhelming.”

     

    “It was immediately apparent to me on a single day. It was a Monday, March 9-ish. On that day I had about $20,000 worth of gigs cancel on me and a bunch of projects either got postponed or completely canceled. … I saw all these musicians who make 100 percent of their living off of live shows, having festivals cancel on them and whole tours and album cycles get canceled. I started feeling a little bit of survivor’s guilt because I rotated off being a full-time road musician about a year and a half ago. I started calling and checking in with my friends. A lot of them were going through a certain level of grief. They had lost so much.”

     

    “I started paying my 12-year-old son to watch the toddler during the day for a few hours. I mean, we just made it work. It’s hard to tell our child, Oliver, that he can’t go outside and play with his friends. Especially the next-door neighbor, who he’s very close with. They’ve got a trampoline. They love to go outside and just jump and jump and jump. At first he felt like we were all on vacation. … He wanted to go outside and play with his friends. It was really hard to get him to take it seriously. But once Mama became symptomatic, I think he finally understood the gravity of it.”

     

    “I called my dad to check in one day — he has stage four lung cancer, which was diagnosed this past fall — and for him, he was thinking about the fact that his already short timeline just suddenly got shorter. That brought it home for me.”

     

    “A lot of this comes down to intimacy with the experience. Wendell Berry explained it the best when he said that it all turns on affection — all of us understanding, through our intimate interactions with other people, the worth of something. … And when we read the news about hundreds, thousands of people being affected by this in far off nursing homes in Washington State, it can feel distant and unrelatable because it’s numbers and data. But when we find out that someone we know, that we have an intimate relationship with, (is affected), our world is turned upside down. And that’s not because we value one life over another; it’s because we understand on a deep level what can be lost. And I feel like that is the biggest challenge in addressing this on a public health front. The governor had a hard job. He had to tell everybody how serious it was, and convinced them with data and science and numbers and graphs before everyone was touched by it. … That’s usually what the arts are there for — to help people feel something that they wouldn’t otherwise.”

     

    “Like all the other artists, Teddy Abrams is not insulated (from this) just because he’s the conductor of an orchestra. He had tons of gigs canceled. And for a moment, I think he breathed a sigh of relief. He needed a break. And then Mayor Fischer called him up and said, ‘Hey, I need your help bringing this community together.’ And Teddy answered the call and helped spearhead the Louisville Artists Network program that’s bringing together a lot of the arts organizations to give artists opportunities to play paying gigs online. … He has shown up in the community playing solo for nursing homes.”

     

    “The project’s working title is ‘Lift Up Louisville, An Open-Source Song.’ The concept the mayor’s office and Teddy came up with was to take an open-source approach to both the composition and recording of a song. What would it sound like? Who would be involved? Teddy called me up to help produce the song and wrangle all the artists and figure out how technically we were going to accomplish that.

    “So I set about doing that with a list of musicians that Teddy and the mayor’s office had provided, which included Jim James, Will Oldham, … Carly Johnson, Raul Beatbox and Scott P. Smith — a long list of artists and then added some others in there, including the Louisville Orchestra. We started with a scratch piano track that Teddy recorded, and then sent that out to an initial group of musicians.

    “Tracks started flying in from all over. People were recording in studios that are closed down that they had access to. Some people were singing tracks into their headphones in their closet amongst their clothes. … I noticed that many of the musicians that were able to contribute quickly and with professional gear were middle-aged males. I had to encourage some of our female contributors, and to technically coach them through the process. So there is a knowledge gap, and there might be a technology gap, but then there’s a cultural gap in production, where a lot of the female musicians maybe aren’t as encouraged to (do production). That should be a mission for someone like Fund for the Arts.

    “We ended up having about 30 contributors on this track, which just got mixed. It’s about six-and-a-half minutes long. The song is really beautiful. Now we’re trying to figure out how to release it. The hardest part of editing everything together was to whittle it all down into one cohesive performance, because I loved everything and I wanted everybody to be able to shine.”

     

     

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