Ben Lee Talks Psychoactive Tea, The Voice And Why He Doesn’t Watch Homeland

Ben Lee, now 34, once claimed to have written the greatest Australian album of all time. The former enfant terrible of the Australian music industry has mellowed significantly since then, becoming a husband, father and dedicating his life entirely to a journey of spiritual discovery. Sometimes that dovetails with his work, as is the case with his new studio album, ‘Ayahuasca’, named for a hallucinogenic drug tea through which the LA based musician gains regular inspiration from. Pedestrian caught up with the Sydney born singer-songwriter on the eve of his three-date east coast Australian tour to discuss kids, psychoactive tea, The Voice and why he probably won’t watch Homeland.

Where are you at the moment and what have you been up to today?
I’m in Sydney, Australia. The whole band, which we’ve affectionately titled ‘the work’, are staying in a house together rehearsing for the shows. I woke up and did a little meditation and chanting. Getting ready to do a day of promotion.  

Do you feel slightly removed from Australian culture having lived in America for so long now? I’ve always been interested in boundlessness when I’ve lived in places so I think I’ve always felt detached to Australia and to a certain extent from America. I’m much more interested in the nature of consciousness and the connection of the heart rather than identifying as a certain nationality.

The creative impetus of the new album was a psychoactive tea called Ayahuasca which is also the name of the record. Can you describe the first time you came across it? A friend of mine had been working with ayahuasca for a number of years and he invited me to a ceremony. The first experience was absolutely terrifying, absolutely overwhelming in the sense that I think I had an arrogance or a feeling that I knew myself to a much greater extent that I actually did. And what I experienced on the medicine was that all the contents of my own mind were absolutely foreign to me. Maybe I’d seen a glimpse of them before that. So it opened the doors for the idea that there was a whole lot more I had to learn about myself.

Can you remember your first experience with a psychoactive drug? Yeah. Like a lot of teenagers I took acid when I was 17 and took mushrooms a few times. But while they were transcendent experiences they were not ceremonial and there was no assistance in separating or mapping the various things I was shown. And I’m a firm believer that things this powerful should be worked within a ceremonial context with guides and people who understand the nature of these medicines otherwise it’s too easy for the ego to dominate the experience and make it what you want to make it as opposed to really listening to what it has to teach you.

Who played that role for you? There’s a shaman – a teacher – I work with. It’s sort of a legal grey area so I prefer not to mention his name in interviews. But I’ll say that there are circles all over the world with both profoundly intelligent and wise teachers and also con men. So people need exercise discretion. 

What did you discover? I’m still discovering it. It is an ongoing exploration. But I think both the infinite nature of what we’re all connected to. Transcendent understanding of what a human being is. But also the immense personal responsibility involved in shaping that consciousness within our lives. And the potential of the massiveness of what a human being could be and the attention to detail required to actually lead a life of full integrity. Both those aspects were quite revolutionary in my consciousness.

Consciousness seems to be a theme you’ve been enamoured with over the last decade, Awake Is The New Sleep obviously comes to mind, I wonder how much of that comes from a spiritual journey you’ve undertaken but also from your personal life. How has marriage and fatherhood changed the way you view the world? I think personally becoming a parent and being married has been a huge part of my spiritual journey. These kind of things really profoundly change us. Everyone will say it makes you less selfish. But also being a parent encourages you to step up your own willingness to be a better person. Like I’m trying to teach the girls to follow their own intuition and to look after themselves. And there’s no way to teach that without more deeply putting it into practice. In a way my music got more idiosyncratic and weirder and more personal as a result of becoming a parent because you really become aware of your mortality and how short life is.

Idiosyncratic is a pretty accurate word when describing this record. Do you feel this is a more accurate reflection of who you are as a musician and what you wanted to accomplish musically? That’s a tough question because I don’t think this me was ready to make this record ten or twenty years ago. But at the moment the reaction time between what I want to make and what I actually end up making is getting shorter. But you’re right, as I’ve gotten older, I am able to find the courage and generosity to work from the heart with less self-consciousness.

Having been on the music radar in Australia and overseas from such a young age, how do you think that affected the rest of your adulthood?
It put me through a lot of things early which in a way means I got a lot out of my system early and moved onto other themes and explorations after getting a lot of fame hunger out of my system. But on the other hand, when you’re young you don’t really have the emotionally equipment to deal with criticism and the pressure and that was very stressful. And I only let my guard down about how stressful that truly was a few years ago. It’s been my life. I really like where I am right now so I have a lot of gratitude for it but there are certain things I probably wish I had not experienced as early as I did.

I’m saying this as a huge fan of The Rage In Placid Lake but do you still get acting offers and do you ever consider exploring that medium again? It comes up every now and then. And I can only answer that by saying I have no prejudice about artistic mediums. I’m really open to anything. For me, it’s all about does this project resonate with me? Do I feel like I can grow? Do I feel like I can serve the greater good by doing the project? It hasn’t felt right since then and in the future it may, it may not. I don’t know.  

You’ll be appearing on Australian television more frequently and more visibly as part of The Voice. Can you tell us how they pitched that to you and what your expectations were? It was literally just an email to my management from the production company. It’s funny, my management thought they would have to convince me to do it like “it’s a really great opportunity” and I just thought “this sounds really fun” and I had made a record that could have so easily fallen into a niche market so I was interested in reaching out to people in a more mainstream capacity and this just seemed like the perfect avenue. Also, I’m friends with Joel Madden so it was a very organic entry point.

Do you watch television? Have you seen the show?
I’ve seen the American one, not the Australia one. Like everyone else my favourite part of it is when the chairs are turning around. I like that this show generally doesn’t have the mean judge. It’s generally supportive of the artists and the general principle is this exploration of how the human voice can move a crowd and move a room and that is something which is near and dear to me.

What do you watch normally? True Blood. The Real World, that MTV reality show. It’s really psychological in a weird way. What else? I love 30 Rock. I love Louis C.K.’s show. Mad Men. All the general stuff that your average intelligent white person in their 30’s probably watches.

That would probably include Homeland.  I haven’t seen it. And you know what? It’s been interesting. I think in general I’ve been less receptive to starting new shows because they’re such a massive commitment now. You know, you’re going to have to spend five years involved with this. And while me and Claire are on great terms and there’s no residual bitterness from our relationship, committing five or six years of my life to watching a show on television is probably going a little bit too far. You know what I mean? I’ve been really thrilled for her but it’s okay to have some boundaries too.

What do you have planned for the rest of the year? Well I’ve written a musical based on a Tom Robbins book called  ‘B is For Beer’ and I’m hoping we can workshop that this summer. I’m gonna do a bunch more shows and events and just try and support the experience of this record which I feel connected to and proud of and just see where the universe takes me. It’s a bit of an unknown.

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