An interview with cellist Ben Sollee, who will bike to Bonnaroo
Nestled into a lush farm in Manchester, Tennessee, the blockbuster Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival will roll out an impressive set of sustainability green goals as a backdrop for its amazing slate of shows next weekend, June 11-14. The great lineup notwithstanding—from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to Wilco—acclaimed cellist and crooner Ben Sollee may stand out as a singular act in reducing the festival’s carbon footprint.
Selected as an NPR Top Ten new artist to watch, Sollee’s unique work has been hailed as a blend of Al Green’s soulful pipes with Yo Yo Ma’s original string compositions. He will forego the jet arrival and zig-zag his way over 300 miles through the Kentucky hills and Tennessee Cumberlands on an Xtracycle (extended-frame bicycle). Sollee will be pulling his 1930 Kay cello, along with 60 pounds of equipment, for the weeklong tour, as part of a benefit of Oxfam America’s development programs. Sollee has also been a vocal participant in numerous anti-mountaintop removal benefits in the region.
Recipient of the UK A Greener Festival award, Bonnaroo has always placed an emphasis on local and sustainable ways of making music. For the 2009 festival, its goals include the incorporation of renewable energy sources, sponsorship of food vendors with locally grown produce, providing alternatives to plastic water bottles, and on-site compost piles. By utilizing the Duck River grid, the festival hopes to reduce its generator use by 70 percent; the festival is in the process of developing its own solar energy power.
Festival participants will be able to visit the Bonnaroo Victory Vegetable Garden, as part of the Planet Roo village, an area dedicated to preserving the environment and promoting healthy living.
On tour with his latest album, Learning to Bend, Sollee is currently in the process of recording a new album that deals with environmental concerns and sustainability. His digital EP, “Something Worth Keeping,” features the duet “Only a Song” with Jim James of My Morning Jacket. His new project will be issued in the fall of 2009 as part of a campaign to promote awareness of the mountaintop removal strip mining, and will feature Jim James and Daniel Martin Moore.
Sollee answered a few questions on the eve of his tour, which will include these dates:
June 4, Frankfort, KY, Coffee Tree Café
June 5, Danville, KY, Community Arts Center
June 6, Berea, KY, Coffee and Tea
June 7, Somerset, KY, Carnegie Arts Center
June 8, Albany, KY, Clinton County Library
June 9, Cookeville, TN, Backdoor Playhouse at TN Tech
June 10, McMinnville, TN,Capalano’s
June 11-14, Manchester, TN, Bonnaroo
Jeff Biggers: While your trip is on behalf of Oxfam, is there a green motive to your tour, a move to lessen your carbon footprint as a traveling musician?
Ben Sollee: Definitely. The musician mentality that I’ve picked up on in my time is “take every opportunity, turn nothing down.” When you do that you, as I have been doing for about 5 years now, you find yourself on red-eye flights, early morning trains, transatlantic flights for one performance and so on. The bicycle introduces a beautiful limitation: I can only go so far as my body and top speed will allow. That in and of its self makes touring far more sustainable and less impactful on the environment. However, before I discovered the Xtracycle and its long-tail hauling system, it was impossible for me to even dream of traveling by bike with my cello, equipment, merch, and supplies.
JB: Why this moment, why Bonnaroo as a destination? What hatched the bike tour idea?
BS: I saw a clip on CurrentTV about Xtracycle and immediately dreamed up the idea of touring that way. Bonnaroo is one of the biggest gatherings of music, art, and culture in the country that just happens to be in my southern neighbor Tennessee. It was within reach and was a strong place to bring the idea of sustainable, regional bike touring by musicians and strong media center to spread the word about Oxfam America’s amazing work.
JB: What kind of training have you done? Not much. I’m not a cycling fiend but I do love to ride.
BS: To me this tour is going to answer an important question for a lot of us road-worn musicians, “Can a musician who is not much of an athlete or training cyclist really hop on a bike with their gear and manage a tour?”
JB: Will you let your ride speak for itself, or will it be part of a larger message in your concerts, ie, a way of mobilizing involvement in Oxfam and other efforts?
BS: Filmaker Marty Benson is riding along with me to document the tour and he’s delivering daily micro-documentaries to the our blog, Pedaling Against Poverty. He’s invented all kinds of homemade camera mounts for his Xtracycle to really capture the feel of a bike tour with the benefit of not having to consume fossil fuels. These videos will speak for the tour on every front and will provide little opportunities to spread the word about Oxfam, Xtracycle, and Topo Ranch. Beyond that, I’m putting on the best show I know how to put on.
JB: Going thru the hills of Appalachia, the foothills of the Cumberlands, do you plan to stop and do a little cultural fact finding along the way, collect songs, etc?
BS: Absolutely. I want to take the opportunity to showcase some of the amazing artists cradled in Appalachia through Marty’s micro-documentaries and hopefully discover some new art myself. Mostly, I’m excited to ride through and be re-inspired by this landscape that I’ve grown up in and around.
JB: Finally, your Kay cello dates back to another era, when traveling on the road was at a slower pace, and cut through small towns–how do you hope to recreate that sense of community and awareness on this trip?
BS: Curiosity, I guess. We’re going to be riding through the heart of these towns and people will have questions. Conversations will take seed. In the end, the music will bridge any gaps in vernacular and we’ll have a great show. It’s important for me to remember that I’m going to these places on an invitation from the community. Booking agents didn’t book this tour. Rather, the community found places to host us.
Here’s a clip of Sollee performing, How to See the Sun Rise: