You know that thing you do when you talk to someone whose level of spirituality is about ten steps ahead of your own?
Like a yoga teacher or the head of the Catholic Church. Your voice gets a little softer, you speak a little slower, and your whole demeanor just gets a little bit more … impressive?
Well, that thing happens around Ben Lee too.
Hearing that might make you start to question everything you think you know about Ben; the angry teen singing about pathetic friends and girls behaving like jerks in Noise Addict; the overly confident man declaring his own album, Breathing Tornadoes, to be the “greatest Australian album of all time”; or the damaged guy still dealing with an all too famous failed first love.
Yes, the guy we all think we know thanks to twenty years in the public eye.
Lee’s upcoming album, a crowd-funded project interpreting his experimentation with the South-American psychedelic drug Ayahuasca, is guaranteed to change all that; the nail in the coffin of our preconceived ideas about Ben.
Studying death midwifery, teaching his daughter about the importance of full moon pujas and opening the world to the idea of consciousness, this is a human rich in substance and devoted to spirituality and growth.
Welcome to his world.
Your upcoming album, Ayahuasca: Welcome to The Work, musically interprets your experience with the psychedelic drug, ayahuasca. Can you tell me a little bit about the drug and your experience with it?
It’s probably a 5-7 hour experience and it’s worked with ceremonially in a very safe setting, with a circle and a leader that’s very experienced and understands this kind of work. It’s just a very profound feeling. It’s therapeutic, exploratory work that’s been a really big inspiration for me over the last few years.
When and where have your ceremonies been taking place?
I’ve worked with ayahuasca fairly consistently over the past few years. It’s protected as sort of natural treasure in Peru and South America and it’s most accessible there, so that’s where I go.
Do you spend a lot of time in Peru and infiltrate yourself into the culture?
For me, the medicine really transcends any sense of space and time because it’s an inner journey. Like most of my spiritual explorations, it’s not really about the location. Sure, I have to go to India to spend time with my spiritual teacher, Narayani Amma, but really it could be anywhere because I’m trying to look inside and deal with my own flaws and weaknesses.
Can you explain the creative process you went through to get your experience with ayahuasca transformed into music?
Initially it was really just the feeling of … almost like when you fall in love with somebody and you want to make music for them just as a tribute, just out of devotion. That was really what inspired the project. T
hese experiences with the medicine and the circle that you’re sitting with are so profound that it was almost like, “what do I do? I’m a musician. What do I give back? Music”. It was really an offering. As I got a little deeper into it, it became interesting to musicalize some of the inner experiences; that can be sort of complicated.
Me and Jessie (Ben’s collaborator) would talk first each day and try to locate the emotional and atmospheric space that we were interested in portraying and then we would stay true to that. So there were no rules with what the music could or couldn’t be. It didn’t have to have words. Would it be noise? Would it have a tempo? There were no rules, except to stay true to the feeling we were trying to communicate.
What is your connection to the music when you listen to it now?
We were so subservient to the feeling of the music that we were making that, to use a sort of hippie phrase, it sort of felt like channeled music. We allowed it to come through without questioning it or second guessing it. So in that sense, we checked our self consciousness at the door when we walked into the studio.
Later, when you look back, you say “wow I really was quite vulnerable during that, in a way that I didn’t anticipate”. So now when I listen to the music, it does take me on a journey and that’s what I intended it to do.
Do you have any nervousness about how your mainstream fans will feel about the album?
I go through phases. As much as my music’s always been in the pop vernacular, it’s gone through a lot of transitions over the years and I’ve lost fans and made fans with each record.
The experience of people being displeased with my direction and new people thinking it’s the first thing I’ve done that they’ve liked, that’s not a new experience for me (laughing). I’m kind of anticipating that. But it’s a provocative and volatile subject matter. Psychedelics are a very taboo subject but even more than that, consciousness is a very taboo subject in that it’s not thought of as a real thing, it’s thought of as something that people who do yoga talk about.
The idea that possibly, at the core of all our issues in this world to do with the environment and to do with economic issues and foreign policy, there is an issue of a conflict of consciousness occurring, is not an idea that’s taken very seriously. So I’m interested in how that will translate within some of the people that might not have otherwise been exposed to this sort of dialogue.
It’s nice to see someone influential exploring such a big idea like this!
Well yeah, I’ve always thought that if there’s any good that truly comes out of getting any level of commercial success, it’s the attention you can draw to marginalized issues. For me, this idea of the expansion of consciousness through various means has been one that I’m very passionate about and one that I think warrants more discussion than it gets.
Do you have anything specific planned out for the live shows you will follow the release of the album?
There’s going to be different things occurring in each show. The Sydney show will open with my friend doing a cabalistic chanting, and another of my friends’ giving a short lecture. And then as far as our set goes, it’s going to be the whole album in order, as an inner journey, not as a performance.
You can’t stop people, but they don’t need to clap or anything. If they want, they can close their eyes or lie down or do anything to see where the music takes them.
At the end I might play a few hits (laughs), but really the idea would be that it’s an experience where the music could be some sort of substitute for the medicine in that context.
I hear that you got married in India a few years ago. How did that come about and what was the experience like?
I’ve been going to India for the last 10 years and studying with a teacher called Narayani Amma. Ione came there when we were dating and fell in love with Amma and fell in love with the place.
She was actually the first one to say “I wish we could get married here”, so after she left I asked Amma if we could and he said yes. It was about 3 hours south of Chennai and it was just an incredible opportunity for us to share our spiritual practice and our home with our family and our friends. It wasn’t like we were trying to get them all into it; just to give them a window into what was important to us which I think is partially what’s so beautiful about a wedding.
Have your family and friends and been receptive of your lifestyle choices?
I think it’s a real mixture. When you’re as passionate about consciousness and growth as I’ve been in my life, on one hand you fall prey to wanting to take everyone with you as you’re experiencing it (laughs), which is inevitably disappointing because everyone’s got their own journey. But for sure there has been people that I’m close to and that I love, and then acquaintances too, that I’ve shared experiences with that I might not have expected. That’s been a really incredible and expansive thing for me.
How are you passing your spirituality on to your daughter, Goldie?
I think a lot of it is just in our life; it’s not heavy handed.
I do my meditation and my prayers every morning and she comes in and sits with me for the last five minutes. Whenever the moon is full she says “oh Dadda, we’re going to do pujas (ritual prayer ceremonies) tonight” because we always do full moon pujas for our community.
She knows once a month people come over and we make food for the homeless. And when we know that someone’s sick I say to her “let’s close our eyes and send them love and send them good thoughts”. It’s just little things like that which are connecting her to nature and to ritual, and these things are very natural for children.
For me, with parenting, I’ve tried to emphasise the connection between spirituality and creativity. When we do our pujus we put kunkoo on the third eye and Goldie asks what it’s for, I tell her it’s to make our imaginations big, because I really do feel that spirituality is just imagination plus integrity. So we’re just trying to raise the kids with all this as normal, not that you have to go to India or be involved in psychedelic medicine circle (laughs). Just to be raised with an open heart and a sense of compassion and connection to the world around you.
Prior to Ayahuasca: Welcome to The Work, you released Deeper Into Dream which was a musical interpretation of your work with a dream therapist. Do you have any idea what your next big influence will be?
There is something that I’m exploring and that I’m interested in, though I’m not too sure how it will translate into music.
For the past 6 months I’ve been doing a course on death midwifery, which is helping people transition at their time of death.
It actually stemmed out of my work with ayahuasca because ayahuasca is a sort of ego death experience. In a way, it’s like every valuable spiritual experience because we’re asked to release our understanding as we knew it and birth a new understanding within us; that sort of feels like dying because the ego doesn’t know the difference. I became really interested in this subject of how we, as a society, as a community, as a world, could actually support each others transition from one framework of understanding to another in a more graceful manner.
There’s enough resistance from the inside without also having external resistance. So I’ve been studying this quite intensely. I think ultimately, that’s what most performers are trying to do with their fan base. They’re actually trying to bring an audience in and say “you’re walking in with this understanding, here’s my music which comes from an alternate understanding, let’s see if we can open your mind and your heart to this other way of looking at things”. So it’s not that radical, bit it is sort of nice to look at it in a broader sense as something we all have to deal with.
To find out more about the release of Ayahuasca: Welcome to The Work, follow Ben on Twitter @benleemusic.
(Article written for Top Shelf Magazine. Photo found here.)