Ben Lee has been messing with our expectations in the best ways for 25 years. With the release of his new, contagiously happy album, Love Is The Great Rebellion, Ben sat down with Trunkworthy to talk about a songwriter he loves, the great Jonathan Richman.
An artist who very much influenced me – but is not quite considered at the level of his peers, like Neil Young or Gram Parsons or Lou Reed – is Jonathan Richman, because he embraced this child-like spirit. He opened up a whole world for me, musically – in his simplicity, but also in his courage. He worked in a field that was almost akin to children’s music sometimes, but it wasn’t for children. It was for grown-ups, but it was for the child inside us. So I think from a music critic’s perspective it’s very easy to dismiss that. We tend to have this idea that only things that are heavy and murky and punishing are credible.
Jonathan Richman carried the punk rock spirit into music for everybody. I don’t know anyone else who did that. At the end of the day, Nirvana, The Television Personalities, artists who were inspired by that type of music – they still ultimately made music for youth culture. It wasn’t inclusive of your grandparents. It wasn’t inclusive of your new-born baby. It’s very rare to find a songwriter who truly is making music for everybody with no prejudices . . . and Jonathan Richman understood how ‘punk rock’ that was. There’s a really interesting conceptual thing going on.
Later in his solo career, there’s a song that I cover sometimes called “I’m Nature’s Mosquito” – [sings] “Well little mosquito there must be / Some beauty in you that I just can’t see / Well there is, you’re right, son / You see, God loved me when he made me / The same as he loved you so / I’m nature’s mosquito.” You know, what a complex philosophical idea, about inter-dependence, and about what’s natural isn’t always pleasant. And about compassion; and understanding that we all have different viewpoints. Then there’s almost this Christ-like message of, like, love your enemy. The mosquito is the enemy, it’s an irritant, and he’s saying make room for your irritants. It’s very evolved and very interesting.
Check out Ben’s new single, “Big Love”: