In this installment of the “One Song” interview series I talk to Ben Sollee about his song “Letting Go.” Ben is a songwriter, cellist and vocalist who draws from a deep well of musical influences, combining them with innovative cello techniques to produce a sound that is genre-less, accessible and compelling. As I write this piece, in April, 2014, he’s currently on tour, presenting a unique show that weaves music, dance and storytelling together to explore a particular theme. See if this tour is coming your way.
“Letting Go” appears in the 2013 film “Killing Season,” directed by Mark Steven Johnson, starring Robert De Niro and John Travolta. In the film, two veterans of the Bosnian War clash, as a Serbian veteran (Travolta) seeks revenge on an American veteran (De Niro.)
I ask Ben how his song came to be a part of this film.
“The song ‘Letting Go’ was written specifically for the end credits for the movie ‘Killing Season,’” he tells me. “The director asked me originally to come in and play some cello parts on the score and they enjoyed that process enough, I guess, to invite me to write a song for the ending. It was kind of tricky because the movie is a pretty gruesome, violent movie in a lot of ways, but at the end of the day it’s a kind of anti-war statement and so I felt like there was something to work with there, especially on the idea of redemption.”
The song is essentially a solo piece with vocals and cello. In the studio recording, however, there’s some other subtle instrumentation, but it’s difficult to identify.
Ben says, “There’s a couple little things. There’s actually an octave mandolin in the back that’s kind of holding down the rhythm a little bit. An octave mandolin is a large mandolin. It’s in the range of a violin, an octave down. So it’s just a touch above a cello, more in a guitar range. And there’s also a very distant electric guitar that’s doing nothing more than activating the brain.”
“It’s almost like a drone, what I hear,” I say.
“Yes. It’s super-far back there.”
Almost as important as the instrumentation, though, is the space between the notes. Ben makes use of silence throughout the song, but especially toward the end. His use of space leads to heightened drama, but also a sense of calmness and patience.
He says, “I find that in songwriting these days, any place to breathe is a really good place to extend the narrative where maybe it wasn’t there before. So there’s a lot of space in particular in the bridge section in the end. ‘Forgiveness is a falling leaf.’ You have peaceful motions. It’s kind of hard to imply peaceful motion unless you create peace with the amount of rhythmic intensity (throughout the song.) That’s why the silence and space.”
In that same part of the song, the cello seems to paint a picture of falling leaves. A few notes, then silence, then a few more, bring to mind the way a leaf flutters: a little to the left, and then a pause, and then a little to the right, as a breeze slows its fall to the ground. I ask Ben if he had this image in mind when he wrote the cello part.
“You know, since at this point I’ve been playing cello for about 21 years and I’ve been writing songs for a while now, I didn’t necessarily think about the image of how a leaf might fall. However, I’ve watched a lot of leaves fall, and I’ve played a lot of cello, so I think that those two things kind of go hand in hand. When it’s just me soloing with my cello and voice, it’s a little bit easier to, you know, paint like Bob Ross.”
“A happy little tree?”
“Exactly. I can just put those moments in there. With the band it takes more time to compose that sort of thing. “
Lyrically the song explores the themes of forgiveness and redemption.
It’s a long, hard road
Through a rough edged land
To the softest part of a man
And it’s lined with stones
Tangled with regrets
That are just too hard to forget
There’s rusty signs
Overlooked on the way
To the heart of a troubled man
And you can lose yourself
In the deep, muddy ruts
Worn through by the pride of a man
But, letting go…?
In a lonesome field
There’s a wild-eyed mare
Tied to the weight of a man
And she once ran free
With the wind in her hair
Breathing hard for the love of a man
He won’t let her be
She won’t let him rest
‘Till he learns how to forgive
Let her go.
Forgiveness is a falling leaf
In the changing of the years
As it settles down to the cooling ground
Let it go.
I ask Ben about imagery of the mare in the second verse. Is that something related to the movie?
Ben says, “There was a little bit of debate. There are no mares in the film. And the director said ‘I really like that verse. However can you make it more relevant to the film?’ And it’s like, I…could. But then I don’t think that analogy would necessarily work. I liked the idea of husbandry. I liked the idea of taking any kind of sensual relationship out of it and making it some type of, I don’t know, ‘we needed each other for a time. And we still need each other but we can’t be with each other.’”
After some debate they ended up keeping the verse in the song. I point out that the song will live longer on its own than will its relationship with the movie.
“That’s very true. I wanted it to stand on its own. The song is full, it’s rich with rural images. The movie’s based in rural areas but for me it was like driving further and further out a road and then seeing, you know, if you drive far out enough in Eastern Kentucky you’ll find a yard that is not particularly well-maintained. A small fenced-in area with a horse that’s tied up. That’s not a particularly happy horse. However, it’s there. And it still has a master. And it still feels a need of some sort.”
An interesting thing to me about the lyrics is the slight change in the words in the three choruses. “Letting go,” “Let her go,” and “Let it go.” I tell Ben, “The first time you say ‘letting go’ it sounds like a question.”
“Yeah, it is,” he answers. “’There’s rusty signs overlooked on the way to the heart of a troubled man. The deep muddy ruts worn through by the pride of a man.’ And then it says ‘But letting go?’ And then it follows up with the verse on the mare, which is ‘Let her go.’ And then it follows up at the end ‘Let it go.’ Which is the passing of time in life.”
I say, “Yeah, one thing struck me as I listened to it is that it’s sort of coming to terms throughout the song with the idea of letting go. At first it’s ‘Do I really have to let go? Is that something I really can do?’” By the end of the song it’s a statement rather than a question.
“Isn’t that like the process?” Ben asks. “When someone really, really wounds you, truly wounds you, not just makes you upset but truly, deeply wounds you, how do you let go? What’s that process? The process is first ‘Can I?’ and the second is ‘Will I?’ and the last is ‘I must.’”