Ben Sollee’s first two albums had plenty of moments that soared emotionally, and they were filled with meticulous performances, but they were also missing a spark that his live shows never lack.
Sollee is lucky enough to have honest friends, however, and one of them offered some advice that profoundly shaped Sollee’s excellent new album, “Half-Made Man.” Jim James, of My Morning Jacket, told Sollee that he needed to capture on record the same raw qualities that lifted his shows.
“He really encouraged me to do as much live in the studio as I could,” Sollee said. “I look to Jim as a mentor in a lot of ways and took his advice seriously, and I feel like what came out is something that’s a lot more personal, a lot more alive.”
Sollee, who lives in Lexington but spent many years in Louisville, celebrates the release of “Half-Made Man” tonight and Saturday at Headliners Music Hall. He’ll be with his road band, Jordan Ellis and Luke Reynolds, but doesn’t rule out a guest or two. Reynolds and Silver Tongues open tonight; Reynolds and Whistle Peak open Saturday.
Sollee went into “Half-Made Man” with specific thematic ideas. If the album was going to sound more like people sitting in a room, making music, then he wanted the songs to be equally intimate. He describes the album as a collection of self-portraits, many of them informed by his transition into full-blown adulthood with the addition of a son.
“I’m 28, and that’s a really interesting age to be at because you’re transitioning from a lot of the things that you thought you would be to all of the things that you are,” he said. “I really wanted to document that.”
Sollee made the album in Louisville with Kevin Ratterman engineering and recording. Ellis joined him along with My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel, Alana Rocklin, Jeremy Kittel and Abigail Washburn. Sollee said that he the band completely, which allowed him to let go and set aside the perfectionism that drove the making of “Learning to Bend” and “Inclusion.”
Sollee trained to be a classical musician, and he’s toured and recorded extensively with Washburn and Bela Fleck as part of The Sparrow Quartet. Both can be tightly wound scenes.
“In that world, there’s a sense of trying to make sure that what you play is impressive, and how it’s recorded is impressive — there’s a feeling that you need to get it just right,” he said. “For the Sparrow Quartet record, for a couple of those four-minute songs, we cut 9½ hours of audio.
“This record (‘Half-Made Man’) is almost the polar opposite of that, but it takes a plan. You need to sit down from the beginning and dedicate yourself to going for the raw performances. ... I leaned on the musicians a lot, because if I tried to arrange them too much, then I wasn’t going to get the Polaroid image that I wanted. I was going to get a doctored-up PhotoShop image.”
Political activism has been a consistent element in Sollee’s career, from stumping for clean-air initiatives to raising awareness about mountaintop removal mining. He hasn’t abandoned any of that — people who arrive at this weekend’s shows by any means other than a car get a $5 voucher for the merchandise table — but he has shifted his viewpoint somewhat.
“I think it’s becoming more and more humanistic, which is just a more basic way of living,” he said. “In some ways it’s almost more intensely political because it’s happening on a human level, a person-to-person level, connecting to the fact that we all are struggling, and that supersedes all of the political, socio-economic stuff.”