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(The Sunday Mail [Australia] - October 4, 1998)

Ben Lee is the greatest Australian songwriter of all time - and that's just according to biographical notes put out by his record company.

In person, the 20-year-old Sydney musician makes no apoligies for how great he thinks he is.

"I want to be one of the greats and I think I'm already up there in Australian history," he said.

"There's not all that much competition. There's some great songwriters, but none who have ever attempted to be the best.

"It's never been an Australian thing to really compete and I am a very competitive person. I really want to be the best, like, in the world and it could be 100 years down the track before people realise it."

Speaking from Melbourne on a recent promotional tour, Lee, now based in New York, is about to release his third solo album, Breathing Tornados.

He has established himself as a favourite on the American alternative music scene with fans reported to include Fran Drescher and Jerry Seinfeld.

His girlfriend, film star Claire Danes, was also a fan before they met through a mutual friend, actor Winona Ryder.

Lee is all too aware that occasionally it is his two-year romance with Danes, rather than his music, that keeps him in the headlines.

"I don't really want to talk about it," Lee said. "Our relationship is all good. I love her. Everyone knows about it and I don't feel that anything we have becomes anything more by talking about it."

They travel to Sydney every few months to "hang out at the beach and with my family".

Lee entered the music scene at 14, fronting private school punk band Noise Addict.

Their first performance was at a fundrising sausage sizzle at Sydney's Waverley Library where they were discovered by promoter and Fallaheen Records head Stephen Pavlovic.

They were signed and released their first - and last- album, Meet the Real You, on his Ecstatic Peace label in America.

"I always had bigger dreams for Noise Addict, but I didn't tell anyone," Lee said.

"The others didn't know what was going on. If we were going to Melbourne or something, I had to set the alarms and wake everyone up to get the flight. I was totally running the show."

Lee's first solo album, at 16, Grandpaw Would was recorded in his school holidays in Chicago, produced by Brad Wood (Veruca Salt, Tortoise) and released through Beastie Boy Mike D and his then Fledging label Grand Royal.

His second folk-styled album, Something to Remember Me By, followed, featuring Melissa Auf de Maur (from Hole), Mike D and part time Beastie Boy Money Mark.

Lee takes his early success in his stride.

"I never asked permission for anything," he said.

"In terms of life, I have always just taken what I wanted, and in a way that's only something you can do when you are young. The older you get, the more disillusioned you become.

"I was always full of ambition and excitment for life and work, I just did what I had to - what I wanted.

"I lead a very vision-orientated life and I write about the quest for greatness in all its forms. It's always about the next project I'm working on. I'm not debauched. I always want more."

Defending his decision to live in the US, Lee is scathing in his criticism of the Australian art scene.

"No one has told me about an Australian arts scene. Is there one?" he said.

"For the most part, Australians are pretty much anti-art. Art is about standing out and asserting your individuality and that has never been a trait of this country."

Music aside, Lee's other interests are as vast as his ambitions are grand.

He is a qualified private investigator. The reason?

"If you look at a DNA cell, even if it is in your fingernail, it contains information for the entire body," he explained. "I figured life was probably like that, and if I learnt how to hunt on a very physical level it would probably help me hunt in my more existential searches."

Breathing Tornados is due for release by Christmas.

Originally transcribed by: Daniel Cochrane

© The Sunday Mail 1998