First published on 8 Mar 2013. Updated on 11 Mar 2013.
For fans that fell in love with ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ or ‘Catch my Disease’, Ben Lee’s new album is going to come as a shock. Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work is an experimental, meditative album inspired by the titular South American vine and its psychotropic qualities.
It’s the latest step in an ongoing journey that Lee has been on since he was 19, but really ramped up after meeting his spiritual avatar, Sakthi Narayani Amma, in India in 2003. “After having all these experiences I just went ‘this is what I’m passionate about, this is what I want to my work to be about, and this is what I want my life to be about.’”
That’s a big philosophical shift for a boy raised in a middle-class Jewish household in the affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney. Were the Lees a very spiritual family?
“On the one hand I’d say that my family were culturally Jewish and definitely not overtly concerned with the mystical content of the religion,” he replies, after a thoughtful pause, “but on the other hand charity and service was a huge part of their lives. And what is spiritual, if not that?”
In that ethos, the album is an attempt to quantify his experiences of ayahuasca.
“I always felt that until you can explain something to someone else, you haven’t really understood it, and I felt that once I got this intuitive feeling about something, it was my job then to investigate it. Having said that, it has to be held in the context that we can never really know anything – but with that humility intact we can then understand some things inside that not-understanding,” he laughs.
So this album is essentially attempting to explain the unexplainable?
“…Yes…” he says, hesitantly. “Well, it’s music so it’s communicative, but it’s the least lyrical album I’ve ever made.”
Well, it’s mainly mantras. “Yeah, and instrumentals. And that’s part of it: that abstraction can speak louder than literalism when trying to get into some of these more slippery ideas. And I was well aware of the failure implicit in making music about elevated states of consciousness – but at the same time, you gotta do what you gotta do.”