Just what the hell is up with Ben Lee?

From curly haired pop Hobbit to New Age esoterist – just what the hell is going on with Ben Lee? JODY MACGREGOR reports.

Once somebody’s on television we get this idea they’ll be the same forever, like a character in a sitcom who returns to the status quo by the next episode no matter what. So seeing Ben Lee transition in the public eye from the earnest alternative kid in Noise Addict’s music videos, to the curly haired pop Hobbit responsible for naggingly catchy hit songs, to the bearded esoterist working on concept albums in California has been fascinating. Those are pretty drastic shifts. Even people who aren’t fans have been asking me in the week leading up to this interview just what the hell is going on with Ben Lee?

That’s because his latest project seems like the strangest yet. It’s an album about his experience with ayahuasca, a concoction containing the naturally occurring psychedelic compound DMT, which is used by tribal shamans in South America as well as modern psychonauts and hippies as a consciousness-expanding tool. Lee, like all proponents of ayahuasca, is careful to call it a “medicine” rather than a drug and skirts around specifics regarding where and how he took it.

Authors like Terrence McKenna helped to popularise ayahuasca and DMT beyond South America by writing about their experiences – McKenna’s involved meeting beings he described as looking like “jewelled self-dribbling basketballs”. If that sounds like a load of burnout nonsense to you, you’re not alone. But the album Lee has recorded inspired by his experiences isn’t all New Age noodling and cosmic rambles. It’s balanced by moments where the acoustic guitar comes out and suddenly years of pop song craftsmanship take over, turning it into something you can easily sing along to.

Lee balances hooks and mysticism like George Harrison, who likewise went from writing youthful love songs to spiritual journeys while hanging out with a guru and growing a beard. But it sure seems like a long way from ‘Pop Queen’ to ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ to a hallucinogenic vision quest.

I’ve been listening to the album and if I didn’t know it was a concept album about your experience with ayahuasca I don’t think I would’ve realised. With lyrics like, “If I open my heart where does all of this pain go?” that could be about a lot of things. Was that your aim?

That’s an interesting question. I wouldn’t say that was particularly my aim but I do think that love and the process of growing up and opening up is probably quite universal regardless of which chosen path you go down. I’ve been calling this a love record, [a] devotional record, because it’s sort of love songs written for this process, for the medicine, but it’s not unlike falling in love with a woman or having a child or having a new way of seeing things.

When did you first hear about ayahuasca?

I first heard about it as a teenager from a book called The Yage Letters by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs went off into the Amazon in search of it and wrote back and forth with Ginsberg about his experiences.

I’ve read some of Terrance McKenna’s accounts of trying DMT and one of the things he describes is encountering these beings that he calls “self-transforming machine elves”. Were your experiences anything like those?

I’ve encountered different types of beings for sure. My background, or the way I come into the work with ayahuasca, has been a primarily psychological and spiritual inquiry rather than a psychedelic psychonaut inquiry, you know? So I tend to view all of these encounters as symbolic encounters rather than taking them at face value as being actual beings [laughs]. But I’ve read a lot of the literature you’re talking about and it is amazing that these things seem to exist within the collective unconscious of all people going into the unconscious realm. It is totally fascinating.

Ben Lee talks really fast:

The similarities between very different people’s experiences is interesting.

Yeah, exactly. But because of Carl Jung and our understanding of the collective unconscious that, to me, doesn’t necessarily imply that these things are literally realities, because they might be shared mythologies or shared allegories that we are experiencing as a species.

When did you first try ayahuasca, and did you actually go to South America?

I didn’t go to South America. I tend to be deliberately vague about this. Nothing personal, just that obviously in South America that’s where it’s legally protected as a religious thing – also in America with the Santo Daime Church – but there are circles all over the world. Um, yeah. It’s just one of those things that in this context is not totally appropriate [laughs].

“The angel of death read from a psychological/esoteric perspective is the angel of ego-death.”

How did that experience influence the sound of the album then?

This is the first record that I’ve had absolutely no idea what it would sound like as I went in. I had no sound palette. What I did have was me and Jessie [Chapnik Kahn], who I was making the record with, had this shared experience with the medicine and with the ceremonial work. We would begin each recording session by talking about and kind of conjuring an emotional atmosphere and then working out how to translate that into music. I guess it’s my first music that was not at all inspired by music, if that makes any sense? It was about saying, “How do we make this part nightmarish? How do we make this part the feeling of making contact with the child inside you?” All these different emotional things.

Your last album you produced entirely by yourself; did you learn a lot of things that you brought with you on this album?

Yeah, I think when I was younger I was very much brought up musically in the school of “you have a producer and you trust them” and that I learnt a tonne by, but I also bought into the idea that there were these gatekeepers that you had to go through in order to make your work. It’s only something I’ve broken out of the last few years in terms of feeling that my own opinions were really enough in terms of the music I was making, so it’s been a really growing confidence in me to be able to produce my own stuff.

Who did you work with this time?

Just my friend Jessica Chapnik Khan who I’ve made a few records with. I did the Square soundtrack to Nash Edgerton’s movie with her and produced her record – she plays under the name Appleonia – and that’s coming out this year and this record we worked on together.

Is she an official part of Team Ben Lee now?

I don’t know. We’ve got an idea for another record together. I feel very deeply about our collaboration but I also have to follow my own rhythm and I don’t know where that will take me in the future.

The whole album feels very joyous, the sound of it, especially the song ‘Samael’. But isn’t Samael the angel of death?

Yeah. Well, that’s what’s so interesting about this inner work. You know, the angel of death read from a psychological/esoteric perspective is the angel of ego-death. One side of us cowers in terror when we encounter those archetypes – like a break-up or losing a loved one or a radical change in our life setup, that’s a death experience – but on the other hand, I don’t know if you’ve felt this but I certainly have, there’s something very liberating about realising how out of control the universe is. You can sort of give up and surrender and you say, “Wow, I have no idea what’s around the corner. How arrogant of me to assume I was in control.” The relationship to the angel of ego-death as an archetype can be a joyous one once you let go.

I guess once you hit rock bottom you have that feeling nothing can get worse. Things can only get better from here.

Yeah, and also you’ve only hit rock bottom from the perspective of the part of you that was trying to control everything. There’s a whole other side of you that’s natural that wants to exist, that wants to be, and that side might be feeling peaceful.

One last thing I wanted to ask you about was the news that you’re teaming up with Joel Madden and taking a job on The Voice, which is quite surprising. How does that mesh with your spiritual side?

There’s a couple of factors. One is that what I’m trying to bring to the show – what I’ve said to every single contestant – is essentially a non-competitive mindframe. Saying that, “Look, you probably won’t win this thing. Even if you do win it that’s probably not gonna build you a career in this industry.” That’s the great lie that’s sold to us about reality television.

However, to get to sing as a human being in front of two million Australians is an opportunity. You can do something with that, but only if you can find a way to stand there as your authentic self and not pander and not play into what’s expected of you, but actually be interesting as a unique human being, because we are all unique human beings. For me by staying firm to that I feel that it’s a bit of a through-line with everything else I’m interested in. The other side of it is that, to be completely frank, I’m well aware that the interest and the agenda I have as an artist sits quite far outside of the mainstream and am really grateful for any opportunity to get my foot in the door to a place where people might be exposed to what I say that wouldn’t otherwise and so I have a lot of gratitude for the opportunity.

Ayahuasca: Welcome To The Work will be released on April 23 via One World Music.

Ben Lee Australian tour 2013:

Friday, April 5 – Byron Bay Community Centre

Saturday, April 6 – Byron Bay Community Centre

Thursday, April 11 – Paddington United Church, Sydney