Ben lee has been looking for a sign. Having survived the blackout in New York City, where he lives with his actress girlfriend Claire Danes, and an early-morning arrival in Sydney, the Australian indie popster is sitting in a Bondi café, checking out the proof sheet of some holiday snaps taken on a recent trip to a crop circle near Stonehenge in England. "To be honest with you, I feel like right now I'm changing very quickly," says the musician, who turns 25 on Sept. 11, "and I feel like I'm receiving cosmic information about my destiny, and it's turning out to be very different to what I had planned for myself."
He's not kidding. At 15, Lee was already on track to fulfilling what he saw as his destiny - "being the biggest rock legend in the world," he says now with a goofy grin. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore had released Lee's EP with Sydney punk band Noise Addict in the U.S., where the Australian was signed up by the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label. A few years later, with Bondi braggadocio, he declared his indie-folk breakout CD Breathing Tornadoes "the greatest Australian album of all time." Then, before you could say Hurricane, the wind went out of the baby Bob Dylan's sails. Grand Royal went bust and, back in Sydney, the singer-songwriter's father, a former Waverley councillor, died. It was around this time that Lee began looking for a sign.
Out of the sky came Placid Lake. Sydney playwright Tony McNamara was looking for someone to play his not-quite Everyman hero in the screen adaptation of The Café Latte Kid, in which the cosmic lovechild of hippie parents rebels by joining the corporate world. By chance he caught a disastrous appearance by Lee on TV's The Panel, in which the musician fell over and disconnected his guitar. "Here was this smart, talented kid who's kind of fearless and doesn't care if he screws up," McNamara recalls. In short, Placid Lake. Lee was sent McNamara's sharply skewed script, in which a dress-wearing Placid must overcome schoolyard bullies and an anthropologist mother more interested in life on Tuvalu than in her own split-level house. "I just remember knowing I was going to make the movie as soon as I read it," says first-time actor Lee. "There was my destiny."
With The Rage in Placid Lake, writer-director McNamara has fashioned a likeably hyperreal comic world. And as a kind of postmodern Candide, Lee's Placid is the film's unblinking eye, over which society's follies dance toward self-knowledge. "We're just flawed human beings," is the conclusion of his New Age high-priestess mother (a deliciously over-the-top Miranda Richardson). Even during McNamara's darkest stabs at corporate culture ("let me live through your young loins," says Placid's vampiric insurance-company boss), Lee's blank bemusement and sing-song delivery keep things relaxed and real. It's a smart curved-ball performance, delivered from left field.
Lee's latest CD is another. Recorded before the fall of Grand Royal, and only now released in the U.S., hey you. yes you covers as much ground as Placid Lake. Produced by Dan "The Automator" Nakamura of hip-hop fame, it veers from the straight-ahead rock of Running with Scissors to the introspective loops of Music 4 the Young & Foolish. In between are the folk-flavored ditties he's best known for - tracks like In the Morning, delivered with a charming lilt: "You learn your lesson, learn your lesson/ Misery is too depressing…"
One gets the sense that our former teen-angst prodigy is lightening up. "I mean, it was a big concern to me when I was a teenager to be a rock legend," the musician says. "And now - I just found myself the other day thinking about Bob Dylan or John Lennon. What a difficult karmic plate to have put in front of you. Thank God I don't have to be that. Thank God my life's moving to a place of peace and ease."
Back at the Bondi café, Lee is still looking for a sign. There's more Placid promotion to do, an Australian concert tour this month, and Mixed Tape, an album of his songs covered by the likes of Kylie Minogue, Neil Finn and Frente's Angie Hart to produce. So will the rock or the film legend prevail? "Well," says Lee, taking a final slurp of his passionfruit, "I'm gonna go get my crop-circle photos developed." We'll see.