Ayahuasca is a psychoactive drug derived from a South American vine, known locally as the 'death vine' or 'vine of souls'. It's also the subject of Ben Lee's transcendental new album, Ayahuasca: Welcome To The Work.
I had an interesting chat with the softly spoken Laurel Canyon resident about the drug, the album, his spirituality, and his unlikely mentoring role on the new season of The Voice.
Congratulations on the album; it's really strong. It's obviously early days, but you must be happy with how it's turned out?
Yeah. It's not an album I have particularly specific goals for. I have smaller goals for it, in the sense that I know it's not for everyone, but I'd like it to mean a lot to the people that actually get it. That seems to be the case. Some people are quite moved by it, and that's really satisfying.
Has there been any backlash from people who are surprised that you're promoting a psychoactive drug?
There has been, somewhat, but I wouldn't give it too much credit. I see it as... people get scared when there's something they don't recognise coming towards them. But I also feel that human beings have a remarkable ability to adapt to new information. It seems like any resistance is quite quickly assimilated, and seems to disappear.
How did you first come across the drug in the first place? Were you open to it from the beginning, or did you take a while to warm to it?
I first heard about it as a teenager, reading a book called The Yage Letters, by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. These are letters between them about Burroughs' search to South America to find ayahuasca, which is traditionally called 'yagé in the Amazon. From that perspective, I suppose I heard about it when I was 15. I had my first experience with it when I was 28 or 29, so there was a while of percolating on it [laughs].
But I think, in general, I probably had some of the prejudices that people might have; especially people who are interested in spirituality who say there are no shortcuts, and taking drugs is not a real experience. These are the things you hear, and they're very valid concerns. But there are things that I can now understand a little bit better, now that I've had my own experiences.
When you had your own experience with it, was that through your spiritual avatar [Sakthi Narayani Amma], or a different avenue?
No, no, no, no. No. The spiritual path in India with Amma, how do I put this... it's traditional. But I'm someone who has always believed that you can take the strongest parts of all paths. They all have power, and I'm interested in them all. So for me, it all becomes one path. It's something I experienced through a friend who was doing his own work with the medicine for a few years, and I saw a lot of profound changes in him.
Have you always been open to different types of spirituality?
I think I have. You know, I'm Jewish, and I went to a Jewish day school. I was always someone who was kind of rebellious in school; I wouldn't accept the party line. But at the same time, I was deeply passionate and wanted to debate and engage in dialogues with the Rabbis; I loved the spiritual journey of understanding these concepts more. So I think I already recognised when I was young that, as much as I couldn't totally get on board with a more conservative religious approach to issues of consciousness, there were things in it that I did resonate with and wanted to take with me.
You've said that you consider yourself spiritual but not religious. Where do you draw a distinction? When does spirituality become religion?
It becomes religious when you're not feeling it any more and you do it anyway. You do it out of fear that if you don't do it, something bad will happen to you. So, religions... they are good, in their heart, in that they want to create a structure, so that people can begin to navigate the spiritual path, even during the times when we are drifting away and questioning. You can just keep doing the practices. The problem is that there's a corruption when people end up following the religious path, completely divorced from the spiritual path and actual personal experience. You know this word 'gnosis', like the Gnostic Christians?
'Gnosis' means inner wisdom. The true spirituality is the path of gnosis, meaning that you discover more and more through direct experience with yourself. Whereas with religion, it perhaps is more about trusting what the books say is going to happen. So it's quite different.
Have you had moments where you've fallen off the path a little bit, and needed that structure?
Absolutely! I think part of the path is falling off the path! There's a fantastic book by someone called Jack Kornfield, called After The Ecstacy, The Laundry, and he really talks about how hard it is to integrate these realisations into our daily life. For me, that's equally been a challenge. I can view entire years of my life where I was distanced from myself. And then, within a day, I can look back and say, at that moment I was distanced from myself; at that moment I allowed my fear to make that decision or my ego to make that decision, rather than love. This is where the beauty of having a practice comes in, because you get to watch yourself in all these states in relationship to the practice. They're all important states to understand, I think.
You're obviously quite invested in your spiritual studies, but this new album also seems to be a new musical direction for you. Do you feel like you're still learning as a musician?
I feel like I'm learning as everything; as a human being. There's a phrase in the second song title, 'Welcome To The House Of Mystical Death'. Mystical death is a really important concept in esoteric studies. That's the ego death, where you let go of who you thought you were and you embrace something new, and a new sense of possibility. For me, that's something that... yeah, it even comes in the style of the record. It even comes in the way I'm doing these shows. I have to keep letting go of who I think Ben Lee is, otherwise I'll become imprisoned by something that is no longer relevant to me. I think that goes for every level, creatively and spiritually.
Do you feel like you've gone through the 'mystical death', or is it something you aspire to do, or something you're always in the process of doing?
Yeah, I think that's right. I think mystical death is actually a moment-to-moment experience. To really be in the now, you have to constantly be being born, which means you have to constantly be dying. So I don't think it's a one-off; I don't think it's a one-shot deal.
One of your goals with the album was to explain your experiences with ayahuasca to other people, but it's not a very lyrical album. There's a surprising amount of instrumental stuff on there... isn't that counter-intuitive, in a sense?
I'm not sure. Maybe this is the part where I'm explaining, maybe it's more about these conversations. I've always seen records as the destination that you punch in on your GPS. They take you somewhere, and along the way a lot of stuff happens. This is that stuff that's happening. So when we're talking about transcendental states, non-ordinary states of consciousness... these are very hard to talk about. You know, in Taoism, they say he who speaks of the Tao does not know the Tao. It's contradictory. Somewhere in that embrace of it being contradictory, there's something we can understand about each other, I think.
At the same time you're doing this, at the same time you're talking about transcendental states and releasing the least commercial stuff of your career, you're also a mentor on The Voice now. That's kind of crazy, isn't it?
[Laughs] It's beautiful! It's such a paradox. Look, I'm someone who loves pop culture. I've always had a fascination with pop culture, in that it's the language of our generation. I'm interested in what is going on with the world, and what's going on with us, and why we are the way we are. At the same time, I also believe that to subvert institutionalised ways of thinking, which is really what we're talking about... we're talking about, not with The Voice, but with the record, we're talking about being a voluntary part of a process of destabilising a form of hypnotism that our society's under, you know? You have to be part of the mainstream to draw attention to these subjects.
There have been many thousands of years of people writing about these subjects, and we're still not awake. I'm not, you know? I've read all these books, I'm still not awake. So I'm willing to take the risk of being in the chaos of this glorious pop culture machine, and at the same time, hold true to my intention that this is about awakening consciousness. Let's see where it takes us.
Do the producers of the show know much about the new record? Do you think they realise what a subversive record they're helping to promote?
My experience with the producers of the show has been that they're pretty cool. The producers of the show are not political, in a sense. They're interested in what makes the best television. Who knows? Maybe the network might be in a different boat. But honestly, what's been really important to me from the beginning of my pledge campaign has been to present these, as much as they are radical ideas, in a new way. This isn't about the '60s. This isn't about 'tune in, turn on, drop out'. This isn't about your kids taking acid and jumping off a roof, all these scare tactics that went on. This is about the inclination to be a responsible member of the world that actually cares about humanity and the environment.
We have to explore some taboo things, but look at our world! It's not in a good state. So chances are, what we've considered taboo might not be the worst things in the world! And the kinds of things that we've supported are not that great. So my goal is really to present all this as loving, because it is loving. This is radical, but it's not radical in the sense that it's not about destroying anything. It's about building a better relationship with our consciousness.
Do you think that's one of the things you can bring to The Voice? I wondered last season what the mentors had to offer. I don't know if you saw any of the last season, but Keith Urban was on there... obviously he's very successful, but it's not like he has a classically trained voice. What do you think you can bring to the table?
Well, however little Keith Urban's voice is classically trained, it's more trained than mine. [Laughs] But I would say that you're absolutely right, in that... it's very complicated, what makes somebody compelling as a singer and as a performer. It's not just technique, obviously. My approach going into this whole thing, and I talked about it with Joel [Madden] from the beginning, would not be to try to coach these people to be the best singers of all time, or deliver the flashiest performances, but to be the most authentic they could be in their two and a half minutes of television. And the most interesting they could be! And the only way to be interesting is to be your own unique self.
So my feeling was... it's very much in tune with the rest of what I'm interested in. I'm fostering an atmosphere where there's more authenticity and more reality, a real experience of who we each are, on television. There are a few people in our team that I think I was able to do that with, that I felt really good about.
This'll have to be the last question. It seems like you're in the concept album business now. Why is that? Does it just come from having less time, and needing to be more focussed with your work, or is it something else?
I'm sure that's part of it. I think there's also an element that... I'm interested in concepts. I'm interested in ayahuasca, I'm interested in dream work, I'm interested in the feminine. How I ensure that I get to explore it in interviews and in videos is by creating a piece of work that's cohesive. And the concept, often, is what initially gets me excited. It's something I hold onto. I think as a band, if you're a band, you don't need a concept as much, because you always come down to the chemistry with your own band. But as a solo artist, what is it that's holding the project together? Often, it's the concept.
Yeah. Well, we're out of time, but thanks for taking the time to talk.
Thanks so much, Rohan, I really appreciate it.
Ayahusasca: Welcome To The Work will be released on April 23. 50% of the album's artist royalties will go to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a non-profit research organisation; the other 50% will go towards the Amazon conservation team.
Ben Lee will play the following dates in Australia:
Fri Apr 5 — Byron Bay Community Centre (w/ Darpan And Friends, Appleonia, Avasa & Matty Love, Nadav)
Sat Apr 6 — Byron Bay Community Centre (w/ Darpan And Friends, Appleonia, Avasa & Matty Love, Nadav)
Thu Apr 11 — Paddington United Church (w/ Darpan And Friends, Appleonia, Avasa & Matty Love, Nadav)