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Ben Sollee on the power of a song

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“There’s no such thing as a protest song. There is a song of protest and there are people who create action,” said musician and Oxfam supporter Ben Sollee. “That’s music’s role—to be a gathering place, a catalyst for conversation.”

Last week I tracked down Sollee to ask him about contributing his song, “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain,” to Oxfam’s new video “Plant hope. Give a tree” (above).  As a music fan, I was curious to hear his thoughts on how a particular song—whatever the genre —can help bring a message to life.

“The thing is, music will work its way into people’s daily lives,” said Sollee, who spoke via Skype after a gig in London. “It can educate, inspire, or create change on a person-to-person level. It has that ability to become a part of someone else’s story.”

Take “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain.” Though the spare, contemplative melody fits perfectly with the story of Oxfam’s tree-planting program in rural Ethiopia, Sollee’s original inspiration came from a very different landscape. After ending a relationship with a woman from California, “I came back to [my home state of] Kentucky and the leaves were changing, and I thought about her. She had this beautiful red hair,” Sollee said. “I looked to my left and a whole mountainside was green, but one tree was this orange color. I wondered, what made the tree change color before all the others?”

The result was a song based around that sense of gentle regret—the idea that “you can be reminded of someone, have a lot of love for that person, but it may not be reciprocated.”

In fact, Sollee told me, writing about very personal experiences actually helps others find their own emotional meaning in his music.

“I find that a lot in songwriting: If you write a song to be accessible to a large group of people, like trying to write a popular song, it’s not as successful as [writing] on a human level. ‘I’m hurting’ as a human kind of thing,” he said. “That’s the level where we’re all connected.”

In addition to contributing music to Oxfam videos, Sollee has been a longtime supporter of Oxfam’s work, and particularly of Oxfam America Unwrapped. Last year he even created a special tour video asking fans to buy bicycles as holiday gifts. So as we concluded our conversation about music, I wondered: what Oxfam gifts would he recommend this holiday season?

“The water purifier is pretty eloquent. The bikes, of course,” said Sollee. “And then, I really like giving people a pile of poo—it’s hilarious, and necessary.”

Read more blogs about music.

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