25 years later, Grandpaw Would reflects Ben Lee’s endurance as an alt-pop mainstay
There are certain artists who proved they were prodigies early on. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Steve Winwood immediately come to mind, but there are countless others worthy of recognition as well.
Australian Ben Lee ranks among them, given the fact that he joined his first band, Noise Addict, at the age of 14. He was still in his teen when he went out on his own and embarked on a prolific solo career that had him hailed as a legitimate indie auteur.
Lee was only 16 and technically still tied to Noise Addict when he began working on Grandpaw Would, the album that was destined to emerge as his first proper solo endeavor. Recorded in both Sydney and Chicago, it found producer Brad Wood behind the boards, reprising a role he had taken with Noise Addict as well. At the same time, Granpaw Would found Lee changing his tack, opting for a much mellower sound, one defined by acoustic guitars, lilting melodies and a sprawling sort of sound tempered with diligence and desire. There was even a song titled “Sprawl” that summed up that sentiment completely. Various other offerings — “I’m With the Star,” “Side View” and “How Can That Be” in particular — kept that lithe and lilting perspective firmly fixed within the album’s overall trajectory.
VIDEO: Ben Lee “Pop Queen”
Not that Lee was languishing in lethargy; songs such as “Pop Queen,” “Bolt” “Song 4 You” provided an emphatic urgency and energy that befitted his teenage enthusiasm. Likewise, the fact that the album would eventually include 18 tracks — 21 on the Japanese version — reflected the fact that he had plenty of ambition he hoped to share all on his own.
“I was writing all these other tunes that are mellower and based around $2C acoustic guitar,” Lee wrote in the liner notes. “I never actually had an idea of what I would do with them, but they kept powering out, so when the opportunity came to record them in Chicago with Producer Superstar Bradley Wood, I was excited about it for two reasons. Firstly, Brad Wood has helped make one of my favorite albums of the last few years, and secondly, the idea of clearing the vaults of my unused songs seemed like a really cool idea.”
The process began with Lee venturing to Chicago during his winter school holiday and spending two weeks with Wood and his roommates while recording. Various guests dropped by, among them Liz Phair, who added vocals to two of the tracks, the aptly named “Pop Queen,” and another song curiously titled “Away with the Pixies.” Both songs were eventually released as singles. However once Lee returned to Sydney and resumed his studies at school, the suggestion was made that the record would likely benefit from a few more songs as well. In the liner notes, Lee admits he was reluctant to pursue that plan due to the fact that Wood’s production had already set the bar so high, but when Wood’s assistant offered to fly over and oversee the sessions, Lee readily agreed.
Upon its release on June 22, 1995, the album received only marginal attention, but on the album’s back cover, the label itself, Grand Royal Records (which dubiously referred to itself as “consistently the best selling record label of its kind in recording history”) called the album “a meaty, beaty, swinging, ring-a tingling, hopping, popping section of tunes that represent all that’s about today’s pop scene.”
A quarter century later, that daffy description may seem somewhat farfetched, but the fact remains, grandpa would likely approve regardless.