When it comes down to it, there's really no specific formula on how to write a song. In the same way, there's no requirement of which instruments can and can't be used. Sure, guitars and drums are probably the most common, but who says how something should or shouldn't be done on the highway to musical creation.
Enter Ben Sollee. The classically trained cellist isn't breaking new ground when it comes to playing the cello, but then again, there aren't many cellos being played outside of the orchestra either.
"I grew up in a family of musicians and chose an instrument that had all the techniques related in a classical vernacular," he says by phone from his Kentucky home. "That informed a style, but it's also amazing to play with musicians like Abigail Washburn and Otis Taylor. My style has developed organically and not to become popular; it's just a part of my story."
Sollee's abilities on the not-often-found instrument have opened quite a few doors for him — from studio work to live performances. During this year's Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, Sollee could be seen on stage with My Morning Jacket, Justin Townes Earle, The Low Anthem and Nicole Atkins. He's also working on a score for a ballet with the North Carolina Dance Theatre in Charlotte for early next year.
"When I jam with people, the cello makes it more distinctive," he says. "In the world of indie rock, folk and pop, it's not a main instrument. There are tons of reasons why the cello is not more broadly played. It's been a flag or badge that's made me a different combination of ingredients."
He adds that he doesn't consciously take a different approach to his music. He uses traditional techniques to play the style of music that he grew up with and is around him. He doesn't feel like he's creating a groundbreaking style, as much as creating more popular music with a not-popular instrument.
Part of that might come from the need to be seated — though that hasn't made the piano or keyboard unpopular.
"Sometimes, I want to get up and go," Sollee says. "I've tried different things standing up, but that instrument — unless you change it wildly — it's meant to be played seated. It's come from a long line of instruments that were made to be played seated, and it sounds different in that way. If I stand at the expense of the ability to play, I'd rather pick up a different instrument. It's too great of a trade-off to stand up. There are punk kids out there who are going to make great sounds some day taking a different approach to the instrument."
Aside from the instrumentation, another side of Sollee that makes him different than the average musician is his unique take on touring. Sollee, who earned his degree in music performance, is trying to space out his touring these days in order to spend more time with his 3-year-old son. That hasn't stopped him from taking a different approach.
Two years ago, Sollee decided to hit the road and tour on a bicycle. He's done that a couple of more times since then and plans to do it again this fall, traveling from Baton Rouge, La., to Orlando, Fla. Sure, it takes some convincing of his bandmates, but the journey is definitely worth it. His tour stop in Charlotte will be on a more traditional mode of transportation.
"I never think 'What was I thinking?' about the bike tours, but I think that about the van tours," he says. "The bike tours slow things down and you get a sense of place on the tour. I love it and find myself missing it when I'm not doing it that way. If I had my druthers, I'd do all my touring that way."
Sollee said he wasn't in any kind of shape mentally or physically for the first bike tour, but it all worked out. He says they had a few sporadic run-ins with poor drivers not willing to share the road, but for the most part, it was a memorable experience that the entire band enjoyed.
"It's changed the way I think about how touring impacts communities," he says. "I have a true appreciation for the energy it takes and the distances it takes to get people down the road. If you were to ask the people I work with, they would tell you the same. It's a different kind of commitment and reward. It took awhile to get them on board with it, but when the tour ends, we're all in tears and hugging. It's such an amazing experience."