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This interview originally appeared in a condensed form on The Huffington Post.
In the summer of 1997, I stumbled upon a scraggly 19-year-old Australian singer/songwriter in a thrift-store-looking blue suit deliver what I still consider one of the most formidable shows of my life. For the paltry 50 of us at Boulder, Colorado’s Fox Theater that evening, there was just something so vulnerable, so magically joyful in the youthful voice and simple guitar chords that we found ourselves hopelessly looking around for more elated witnesses.
Nearly two decades later, that musician — Ben Lee — has become a musical force in the international pop circuit, releasing 8 albums, landing himself in the top 10 charts in Spain, The Netherlands, Australia, and American college radio. He somewhat famously dated actress Claire Danes, only to later marry “Say Anything” romantic lead Ione Sky.
Recently, Lee’s career has floated into the mystic. He studied the Eastern energy practice of chi gong in NYC, learned from Indian master Sakthi Narayani Amma — an association that inspired Lee to develop the transcendental material on his hit album “Awake Is the New Sleep.” With his ambitious new release, “Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work,” Lee treks into more challenging terrain as he explores healing journeys with the psychedelically powerful South American shamanic drink ayahuasca, which is becoming increasing popular in the industrialized North. In this uncut interview, Lee candidly discusses the spirituality of Fugazi shows, how chi gong changed his live performances, why he decided to “come out of the ayahuasca closet,” and how this strange brew is “the perfect medicine for this time.”
Can you share how your spiritual journey began?
I suppose the word spiritual itself has a lot of baggage to it. It’s almost easier for me to frame my journey, as it’s brought me here in the context of seeking truth or having a kind of hunger for knowledge, an experiential knowledge, and from that perspective my interests and my passions throughout my career — even more than that, throughout my life — have been quite cohesive in that it has always been about trying to peel back veils and understand a little deeper what’s actually going on.
I was brought up Jewish and went to a Jewish day school. There was a very big mode of my questioning and my examination within that school, debating with the rabbis and asking questions about prayer. I was not a religious child, but it was what was in front of me and I always got engaged with it. It was when I was 18 and moved to New York and began to study with a chi gong master, Nan Lu at the American Taoist Healing Center, that this sort of profound odyssey of truly getting some hands on experience with consciousness began, and understanding what a slippery area it was to explore.
It’s taken me to a lot of different scenarios. I guess for me it’s intimately connected with creativity, because any reading of any spiritual or mystical text, we always see God or a governing force as a creator — like Freemasonry, it’s the great architect. We are essentially talking about the quest to understand the creative mind, the creative spirit, and how to be creative with integrity, and to be most effective within the world.
Often there's a separation between spiritual music (kirtan, icaros, Gregorian chanting) and pop music. You seem to be fusing the two.
never understood when a musician said they weren’t spiritual because to
me, regardless of what sort of theology you ascribe too, or none, there
is nothing more spiritual than making music, in the sense that you are
working with vibration and how it can affect people’s hearts. I mean
that is the nature of spirituality. Anyone that’s ever been to a Fugazi
show understands there is spirituality in rock. You know, I’ve never
been one to see these things as really separate and I had a massive
experience with pop music for 15 years of my life. I studied the pop
song and had some hits in Australia, and in America sort of quasi hits,
but I was a student of pop culture because I recognized there was
something spiritual that occurs when a song is constructed in the right
way, that it opens your mind and your heart to an experience that you
wouldn’t otherwise be open to in much the same way that mantra does.
That being said, it’s not always handled responsibly within pop culture,
but all of
How did your work with chi gong lead you to meet Sakthi Narayani Amma?
Master Lu was a really traditionally trained radical Taoist chi gong master. I don’t know if you’ve ever met a qigong master but they are out there because for them, for Taoists particularly, there is essentially no morality. There is only high and fast energy or low and slow energy. Moral questions are something that they leave to philosophers and priests. Qigong masters believe that the truth is transformative radical change. For me that really tapped into my feelings about art in that there sort of is no good and bad art. It either changes you or it doesn’t. So I just resonated with what this teacher taught me, and he really taught me to trust my intuition, and a visceral effect that different energy fields have on me, whether they’re a band, or a place, or a book, or a person. It’s almost like your cells vibrate differently in different fields of consciousness.
Have you incorporated your study of chi gong and energy work into your performances?
Beginning to understand energy really changed my relationship to performing because, firstly, I was aware of how much energy I was spending, and I was also aware of how much energy the audience was giving in their experience. Transcendent experience as a performer is kind of rare. They are a lot rarer than we’d like to believe and that we lead the audience to believe. The audience can be having a transcendent experience, even if the performer isn’t. You know, sometimes the performer can sort of be going through the motions, but the container mythologically is so profoundly constructed, that the audience can project all kinds of unconscious material on to it and can have a cathartic experience — like the guy playing Othello doesn’t really need to be racked with jealousy for the audience to be having an awakening in that psychological realm.
You can be a devotee to a lot of things. There are so many options out there. What was it about Sakthi Narayani Amma that you realized he’s the one for you to learn from?
Well, you know, there are two levels to that question. At an emotional level, I really don’t have an answer. It’s like saying, why did you fall in love with one person over another? I can tell my wife, “Well, you’re smart, your beautiful, your creative, and your charming,” but that doesn’t really do service to the process of falling in love. When you meet a teacher who you feel like that with, you’ve arrived home to. There are not a lot of words for it. With a little distance, I can say that Amma fits very well for me into my interest in radical consciousness in that Amma is seen as a manifestation of the goddess, the divine mother in a man’s body. This is a fantastic paradox, and it’s completely aligned with all of these other tensions and paradoxes that we’re discussing about — how things look verses what theyir reality is and our ability to transcend the material world and understand the mythological reality. So, Amma fits very well into what I perceive to be an unfolding of secret knowledge and spirit in my life.
Does Amma teach certain exercises or practices?
I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I have people, even just regular people in my life who, because of the nature of their consciousness, I get around them. They don’t even need to say anything. My vibration, my awareness, and my perspective on my own life shifts accordingly, and then it disappears again when I move away from them. Some of the experience of being with these types of beings, that, for lack of a better word, we can say "enlightened," is that, in the periods you’re with them, it’s like lightning in a dark night, where suddenly you can see the landscape clearly. Then, when you leave again, you can begin to navigate with muscle memory of what the truth is. So, it’s called back to yoga, the yoga of devotion. It’s not like, "Oh, you have to do this mantra and you have to do this bendover-backwards, or put your foot on your head, or whatever." It’s the yoga of love and learning to love.
How did you come upon ayahuasca and what were some of your first experiences like?
Well, I had heard of ayahuasca when I was younger by reading [William S.] Burrough’s “The Yage Letters,” written to [Allen] Ginsberg, but I didn’t come across ayahuasca until 2008. A friend who’d been working with it had gone through a lot of really big changes. He’d stopped drinking and stopped womanizing. Things either change you or they don’t, and when something clearly changes people, that’s when I get interested in it.
I’m cautious of putting the medicine on a pedestal, because I think the medicine is used in a lot of different ways. I don’t think the answer is that everybody is to take ayahuasca. I don’t think drinking ayahuasca is going to immediately solve all your problems, but within the context I was exposed to it — with a teacher/shaman who I’ve continued to work with — it’s taking me into a study of the systematic hunting down of our egos and our fantasies and almost like a samurai practice of trying to maintain awareness under incredibly adverse situations and noticing when we are asleep — in those moments, sensing the urgency and attempting to wake ourselves up again.
In my early experiences of spirituality there was a lot of romanticism. There was a lot of inflation and feeling like I’m being guided and an everything-is-great kind of fantasy. The ayahuasca really allowed me to understand this concept of the work – that the experience of doing the work of awareness, of waking up, is what gives life true meaning.
In one way or another — whether it’s with ayahuasca or meditation or with service, working with the homeless, working with the disadvantaged, and supporting each other in our communities, the hard work — that’s where we actually find our value. All of this really has been a tremendously inspiring experience and as always, with my music, what you saw at my show in 1997, it was somebody who was being honest on a stage about what they were going through. This is just the next chapter of that — me having no other option than to be transparent in my process.
What made you decide to “come out of the ayahuasca closet,” as you’ve put it?
Something that has been clear to me is that we live in an isolated world where we’re not in communities. We are not in tribes. We are sitting with our iPhones and through our computers and we are on our own in our houses and apartments. In a way, if we don’t come out and say what our values are, we only have ourselves to blame for our isolation. Look what happened with Occupy. You basically saw all these people who felt disenfranchised, who came out and said, “Oh, my God, I’m not the only one.” What an experience that was for people — the courage it gives you. Even if you don’t win the battle at that moment, you know that you are not alone.
I felt that I couldn’t go down without a fight. If I don’t wave a flag and say, “I’m here to wake up,” how can I expect to be supported, surrounded by people that will support me in my awakening? So that’s my motivation — to meet your people, you have to radiate your truth. Now, I’m in a lucky position as a rock and roll musician in that there is nothing that is seen as too weird, and you can still be a successful or a semi-successful musician. For actors, doctors, and lawyers, this is a controversial subject matter and I understand why the world is not necessarily friendly to it. But I wouldn’t even frame this as ayahuasca. I would say that we live in a society that is afraid of expanding consciousness. We live in a world that’s afraid of poetry. You know what I mean? It’s like ayahuasca doesn’t have a chance. We live in a world where men are afraid to cry, so I’m not surprised that people feel, quite rightfully, that they could jeopardize their security.
A genre of ayahuasca literature and electronic music has been gaining in popularity, especially in recent counter-culture scenes. I’m curious what your album offers that’s new to this growing movement?
I think there is a gulf for people like me and you who don’t have an inherently new age aesthetic to find expression for our spirituality, and I consider my 20 years of training in kind of underground music to be good stock to come from in terms of interpreting these experiences without it being all synth pads and sounding like you’re in a spa. I think we should be able to express spiritual truths in any aesthetic because that’s just our choice. It’s what we are in to. I found that some people have been grateful to have a record like this that speaks to them on an aesthetic level that essentially comes from indie rock, but is about these more transcendent truths. So that’s one thing that I think is kind of important in broadening the scope of whether there is an ayahuasca sound, or if it is just the sound of you at your most authentic.
Then I think in terms of what I have to offer. I don’t know. I’m still exploring that. I do think my hunger for the mystery and my essential lack of compromise in my life seems to be for people drawn to my music. I go a hundred percent into what I’m interested in. I don’t hide who I am. This isn’t necessarily why people are interested in the medicine, but I think the roll of the artist has always been to be as real as possible. In that way, the world can never have too many artists. You can’t have too many albums and too many books because we each have our book to write. We each have an album to make about (whether it’s literally or symbolically) our deepest and most profound truth.
Over the years, I’ve heard a number of people relate participating in an ayahuasca ceremony to taking the red pill in “The Matrix.” What do you think it is about this medicine that makes it so life-changing for so many?
You know what’s complicated with ayahuasca is when you go into the inner realms, you meet just as many lies and fantasies as you do in your regular life. For me, it’s been about the process of discernment. I can honestly say I could count on one hand the experiences of what I perceive to be truth in my ayahuasca experiences, but what I have seen is many confrontations with my own lies. That’s what I’ve tried to focus on in this music — that it’s about confrontation with self and taking responsibility for that. I think part of the reason that ayahuasca is experiencing the resurgence and the cultural significance that it has today is we are living in a time where it’s perilous. It’s 50/50 right now whether we as a planet are going to be able to make it through these self-destructive archetypal experiences. I think any climate change specialist will tell you that.
This is not a time for hedonism. It’s not a time for getting lost in our journeys, sort of the beauty of our own minds. It’s a time for radical responsibility taking. In that, I think the ayahuasca is an incredible tool. What you see with most people who work with the medicine, what begins to be awakened in them, is a desire to give back. Whereas with a lot of psychedelics and a lot of different people’s drug experiences, you can see them sort of disappearing into fairy world, but with ayahuasca, what you see is people, like you, wanting to start a community, a website [Reality Sandwich]. You see people wanting to support each other’s awakening, and wanting to ask difficult questions about the way we relate to the world, the planet, and our communities. So, it’s got a proactiveness to it. It asks you to be proactive. It asks you to be part of the solution, and I think that’s why it is the perfect medicine for this time.
You had an interesting model with the PledgeMusic, where one-hundred percent of the royalties go to MAPS and the Amazon Conservation Team. How does this model work for you when the money goes to the betterment of the world, but it doesn’t necessarily pay the rent?
The music industry has already moved on from us surviving through selling copies of our albums. It isn’t a reality for anybody anymore and as noble as this might seem, it is equally a gesture — we’re not talking about massive sums of money. Any attempt I was going to have to market the album needed to be very specialized. I wasn’t going to be able to just go to a label, go to Sony, and say, “Hey, put this out. You know, put it through the same channel you put out Mariah Carry’s record.” It doesn’t make sense. I would need to discover some way that would take money, whether it’s putting up a banner ad on Reality Sandwich, or hiring a publicist, or flying myself somewhere to talk on a panel. This all needs to be paid for, and so, I need it to make money, raise money, for the promotion of it, even if the album itself wasn’t making me money.
More exciting than any of that to me is that the new model that we’re in has actually more to do with an experience than an object. For me, running this Pledge campaign was an opportunity to create an experience for the people that were giving money towards it. There were six or seven hundred people, and I feel profoundly connected to those six or seven hundred people. I answered their questions. I made videos. I did interviews with people that inspired me. I did links. You weren’t just buying the record. You were actually becoming part of me processing this whole subject matter. I think that, if you’re a fan of someone, it’s kind of a worthwhile thing to be part of.
I see your next project after "Ayahuasca" is "B is for Beer." Isn’t that a little counterintuitive to the dieta?
Oh yeah, that’s a really good project. We’re just going into development for it. It’s not a very well known book by Tom Robbins. We’re calling it a psychedelic children’s story about alcohol. The book and the musical are not really like evangelically supporting of beer or alcohol. What it’s really about is a child’s perspective on what grown-ups are looking for when they drink. The answer to that is in everything that we’re talking about. They are trying to expand their consciousness, and they’re using an imperfect tool. But for me to get to explore the use of beer, even comedically in our culture is quite a profound subject matter. When people go into AA, they often say that what they were looking for when they were drinking and using drugs was God. They were just using something that was not going to really get them there, but it’s a spiritual yearning. It’s a different take on it, but it’s connected to the same subject.
Perhaps Dionysus successfully did that, but most don’t.
That’s absolutely right. It’s an imperfect tool and that’s really what the shows about.
I have to admit; I love your pop song, “Catch my Disease,” which got so much traction on international radio. It’s very positive, and I purposely did not Google this because I wanted to hear it directly from the source. Ben, what’s your disease?
Talat Jonathan Phillips is the author of The Electric Jesus: The Healing Journey of a Contemporary Gnostic, co-founder of the web magazine Reality Sandwich and Talat Healing.