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A shot across the bow

BEN Sollee rides a bicycle and plays the cello. Not at the same time, usually. He is a singer and songwriter of quality, a cellist of high standard and a musician mixing folk, bluegrass, jazz and R&B.

Clever as he is, the Kentucky native evidently missed the memo about cellists wearing bow ties, tails and sitting in temperature-controlled halls.

''Unfortunately I got that memo, I got it double time and I got it forcefully,'' Sollee says. ''Which was all right; I just chose not to listen to it. Not to be rebellious or anything, but because there was a lot of music that I wanted to play and the cello itself, being a wooden box with strings, is so versatile that it allowed me to play those other styles.''

In any case, he has spent plenty of time ''in a tux on a stage playing Beethoven'', and even spent some at school in a marching band. He has been both seriously uncool and more hip than a Fitzroy hipster.

The cello has a strange relationship with pop and rock fans, for whom it might mean Electric Light Orchestra, and all the horror that implies, or a really special moment, such as the beautiful Smiths B-side Oscillate Wildly, where bassist Andy Rourke featured on the instrument.

''I think the cello has managed to maintain itself within the popular consciousness because people hear it and they hear part of themselves in the sound of it, the voice-like quality,'' Sollee says from his van as he navigates the mountains of Nevada. ''I think it's fascinating to watch somebody put their whole body into playing an instrument …''


As a writer, singer and performer with four albums behind him (the latest is this year's Half-Made Man), Sollee is more than a cellist crossing genres. He sees no need to nominate which of his disciplines is paramount, preferring to describe himself as ''someone who is sharing a story about where I came from and what I am about, through the avenues of music and social media, lectures, education''.

How successful is he at fitting those elements together? ''It depends on how you measure it, friend,'' he says. ''But I think from the standpoint of connecting with people on a human level, most often I'm really successful.

''People find something in the music or the story or the bike tours or the activism …''

And there we see the other string to this already full bow. Sollee is active on a range of socially aware projects, from Oxfam and poverty at home to the environment (hence the bicycle) and voter registration (playing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington).

Nevertheless, he doesn't like being called an activist. ''I know a lot of people who are real activists … I prefer to think of myself as more someone who socially engages with activists,'' Sollee says. ''If you want to build something in the community, if you want to get something done in your career, you have to dive in there and do it yourself. But it's hard, gosh it's hard.''

Ben Sollee plays the Northcote Social Club on January 10, Meeniyan Town Hall, South Gippsland, on January 11 and Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, on January 12.