Music Is Medicine: Ben Lee, Ayahuasca and the Gnostic Pop Movement


Rak Razam

Date of original publication

Jun 2, 2015


Ben Lee may seem like an unlikely prophet, but his finely crafted indy pop artifacts have been challenging the status quo since 1993, when he first exploded on the Australian music scene at the tender age of 14 with the band Noise Addict. After some defining releases on the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal Records label, Lee’s adult solo career took off with pop anthems like “Gamble Everything for Love,” and “Catch my Disease” from the 2005 album Awake is the New Sleep. And yet with the release of his ninth studio album on the topic of ayahuasca, here he is as a spokesperson for the mystic jungle hallucinogen ayahuasca and the movement of spiritual seekers that partake of it. Or is he? Ben Lee speaks with ayahuasca author and filmmaker of the acclaimed documentary Aya: Awakenings, Rak Razam…

“The shadow of my mind has been strong while doing this show,” Ben Lee confesses between songs, addressing a bewildered crowd of fans at his first concert in early April, 2013 in Byron Bay, the hippie motherlode of East Coast Australia. “It’s like I’m thinking… this is a wonderful experience… I’m ruining my career…”

He trails off into the tinkling repetition of the keyboard, building a slow, methodic tension before launching into an uplifting anthem: “Let the light in let the light in let the light in let the light in, let the light in let the light in let the light in let the light in, let the light in let the light in, let the light in let the light in…” he croons, his mystic mantra building to an ecstatic crescendo that washes over the audience like a spiritual revivalist’s meeting–you could call it a ‘prayerformance.’

Lee’s sitting cross-legged on Indian cushions at the front of the stage, surrounded by his spiritual peers and cohorts in his band: Appleonia, Avasa, Matty Love & Nadav Kahn and co., his bejewelled black guitar at the ready, awash in a tight spotlight of light like a traditional pop superstar. But at 34, with his bushy beard and a few tell-tale wrinkles around his inquisitive blue eyes, Lee’s youthful, boy-next-door-enthusiasm is layered with a subtle gravity that is more guru than rock star. After flirting with an experimental concept albums previously in his pop career (2011’s Deeper into Dream), Lee has finally bitten the bullet and come out of the spiritual closet.

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Ben Lee has found God–or maybe the Goddess

Yes, like so many others before him, Ben Lee has found God–or maybe the Goddess–and to the consternation of many cultural guardians, he’s found her at the bottom of a cup of ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive South American jungle brew renowned for its mental and bodily healing (often accompanied by vomiting), and the ecstatic visions it can bring. It’s made from a woody vine, Banisteriopsis Caapi, which contains both harmine and harmaline, and admixture plants that contain dimethytryptamine, or DMT, a neurotransmitter threaded throughout nature (and in the human brain) that some say is the key to the spiritual realms.

A legally protected medicine of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and beyond, ayahuasca has been booming in popularity as a whole generation of Western seekers journey down to South America to rediscover plant shamanism and the inner spaceways it can open up. Some say it helps face your shadow, or even experience a taste of the after death realms, which is why it’s also known as the “vine of souls” of the “vine of the dead.”

But back in the Byron Community Center, the crowd is quiet as Lee transitions to a sombre, keyboard-driven ballad that represents the intense inner work he’s endured with ayahuasca. The experience affected him so much that after five years of working with the jungle medicine, Lee has now devoted his ninth studio album–Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work–to not just documenting his journey, but to take his audience on it too, recreating the inexpressible through sound.

He’s following a long tradition of working with the medicine and sound in indigenous settings. In the jungles of Peru the native curanderos [shamans] of the Amazon do their healing not just through their work with psychoactive plant medicines, but through their songs, or icaros. It’s through the transmission of sound, through the vibration itself, that they sing worlds into being, and heal on an energetic level. Music is their medicine.

There are different roles and responsibilities to the traditional role of a shaman (a term originally used to describe Siberian practitioners) as understood in the West–whether that’s the journeyer between worlds, the psychopomp, healer, or performer. The word ‘shaman’ is a loaded term, but essentially it’s someone who’s changing people’s energy, whether for healing or harm. And in broad strokes Lee’s current work–transmitting the essence of altered states of grace and darkness he experienced on ayahuasca–fits that paradigm. So, one must ask: has Ben Lee become the iTunes shaman for the global village?

“No…” he replies later backstage, with a mischievous smile. “Do you know Ken Wilbur? He talked about PEGS–Peak Experience Generators. I really like that term, because as artists you expose people, you give them a little flesh of another reality. They probably get that from several places in their life, and they see it and slowly they begin to stabilize that other level of consciousness. We’re doing that for each other all the time, and I think that’s our job as artists: to give people that one moment where they understand that there’s a whole other possibility.”

The thing that Lee doesn’t touch on though is that for much of the history of rock’n’roll, there has been an archetypal shamanic quality to the ritual of the performer taking their audience on a journey into an altered state. Some allusions are more obvious than others–Jim Morrison and the Doors have oft been described as channelling a raw, shamanic energy, and both the Beatles and Pink Floyd, amongst a plethora of acid-inspired bands, rode the mind altering wave in the psychedelic Sixties and into the Seventies with loaded lyrics that tried to break open the head of their audiences.

But do altered states still have a place in modern pop music?

Rock 'n roll and sex and drugs used to be synonymous, but when the drugs wore off, what remained of the vision being communicated? Did Sixties psychedelic rock really change the world, or just the people caught up in their chemical hedonism? And isn’t this all the same thing again now with ayahuasca and its surge in pop culture?

In recent years we’ve seen many Hollywood stars wear their spiritual hearts on their sleeves for a number of modalities, from David Lynch and Richard Gere promoting Transcendental Meditation, to Madonna’s dabbling with the aforementioned Kabbala. So why is ayahuasca any different? Sting, one of the forerunners to try the brew in the late 1980s, wrote in his autobiography, Broken Music, that ”…every leaf, every blade of grass, every nodding flower is reaching out, every insect calling to me, every star in the clear sky sending a direct beam of light to the top of my head. This sensation of connectedness is overwhelming. It’s like floating in a buoyant limitless ocean of feeling that I can’t really begin to describe unless I evoke the word love.”

That’s some praise, and Sting’s not alone–the list of Hollywood celebrities that have drunk ayahuasca include Paul Simon, who wrote his album Spirit Voices based on his experiences in the Amazon, Olivia Newton-John, Carlos Santana, Oliver Stone, Owen Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Lindsay Lohan and a host of others who have all been reputed to have taken the brew, or proselyte about DMT, like comedian Joe Rogan.

Jame Cameron is said to have been inspired by the ‘vine of souls’ to communicate his experiences in his 3D blockbuster Avatar. Tori Amos called ayahuasca “an education experience. I learned a lot about myself … It’s not a social thing and it’s not something you should do on your own. It’s an internal experience… It’s very much a journey that a real medicine woman, medicine man has to take you on, where you go inside. I don’t do it recreationally. I do it to go do inner work.”

Ayahuasca peaked most noticeably in Jennifer Anniston’s 2011 Hollywood rom-com Wanderlust, where in an unlikely script development she ended up in a tree thinking she could fly, as the disinformation used to say about LSD back in the Sixties, and in every acid-cliché since then. Ayahuasca has popped up in other shows like Weeds, 30 Rock, and is featured in the new Ben Stiller film While We’re Young. And while adherents call it “the medicine,” and you may puke your guts up whilst receiving beatific visions, is ayahuasca really that different from the drugs of previous generations?

Ben Lee seems to think so, and he may be an unlikely messenger for such an exotic jungle avatar. But there he is, treading the fine line between art and activism that can be so off-putting for mainstream audiences. Is he unflinchingly brave–or incredibly naive–to even attempt to pull it off? Probably both. But his finely crafted indy pop artefacts have been challenging the status quo since he first exploded on the Australian music scene at the tender age of 14, in the indy pop band Noise Addict.

After some defining releases on the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal Records label, Lee’s adult solo career took off with pop anthems like ‘Gamble Everything for Love,’ and ‘Catch my Disease.’ His infectious pop melodies have been included in Hollywood TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs, in movies, in television commercials for Coca Cola and Dell computers, even in the closing ceremony of the 2008 Commonwealth Games.

Factor in his long-term relationship with award-winning Hollywood actress Clair Daines and his current marriage to ex-teen idol Ione Skye and you can see that Ben Lee is almost as wholesome a pop star as Australia has ever produced. He’s paid his dues to the musical and the cultural establishment–and yet now, here he is as a spokesperson for a mystic jungle hallucinogen and the movement of spiritual seekers that partake of it. How can this be? What is it about this mind-altering brew called ayahuasca that drew him in?

“It’s funny because everyone always said that I had a big ego, and I think they were right, but not necessarily in the way that they thought. It wasn’t particularly that I thought I was the best, it’s just that I was thinking about myself all the time…” Lee begins. “And yet I’ve had the same experiences that a lot of people have had [with ayahuasca]–which is moments of transcendence surrounded by this humbleness … The model with the ayahuasca experience, or ‘the work’ as we call it, really transcends any one modality and is really about becoming aware of the contents of our own minds and hearts, and our flaws and fantasies and errors–oh, our errors! …”

A long time in coming

Lee’s apparently sudden spiritual transformation has actually been a long time in coming. Nearly ten years ago in Tamil Nadu, India, he met Swami Narayani Amma, and first realized that he had to ‘let go, give in, give up, surrender,’ lyrics he sang to his guru and which then shaped his best-selling album Awake is the New Sleep. He’s always had a thirst for meaning that has lead him to experiment with yoga and meditation–those gateway modalities–to something even more powerful, like ayahuasca.

And even before the gurus, there was the mysticism of his youth: “I went to a Jewish school and there was no esoteric interpretations of the Torah. Which to me is almost blasphemous. There’s actually a Kabbalistic teaching that if you teach religion without spirituality then it’s better off that you were never born. It’s seen as such a severe sin. And so I think we see a world [now] that is basically dominated by these religious teachings and cultures with no understanding of the mystical–we see all this church and state stuff all over the world that is so crazy, because it’s turning the mystical guide, this inner road map, and making it a societal map, which is lunacy.”

Crazy or not, the question remains: is the world ready for celebrities that threaten to rip away the veils of illusion and tell it like it really is, man? Well, if Ben Lee is any indication, perhaps so. In fact there’s a whole generation of artists, scientists, academics and culture leaders who are coming around to the idea of both psychedelics as medicines, and shamanic plants and the rituals and lineage they provide, as valuable tools for Western seekers in search of healing and enlightenment.

Lee’s even putting his money where his mouth is– donating 50% of the proceeds from his album to MAPS (The Multi-Disciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies), and the other half to Amazon Watch, a jungle-NGO. And as this wave of plant gnosis continues to peak in the West, Lee won’t be the last mainstream star to be infatuated with ayahuasca.

But can Lee and other artists like him achieve success with a challenging ‘concept’ album about esoteric mystical experiences? Is that journey too much for an audience? “Well part of a great performance is that there’s space for you to project onto,” Lee confides, “that’s a great ritual. There has to be room for people to bring their personal mythology and open their psyches up … In a broader sense, I feel like all my albums are love songs and this album is another love song–to the medicine,” Lee explains.

“It’s no different than writing songs to a guru, or to a woman, etc. That being said, I think I have dropped into a state of being that allows me to transmit more authentically who I am. And that is a result of the work with the medicine.”

Yet back on stage that first night in Byron Bay, the crowd was muted, uncertain. As the music lowered into a brooding instrumental soundscape that stretched across the dark spaces ayahuasca reveals, the audience was unsettled. Without lyrics to hold their mind, and the challenging sound-vibrations coming at them, some people coughed, or fidgeted to shift the energy–and a few actually got up and left.

Lee’s vulnerability about presenting his work was tangible, but his songs did have a haunting quality that suggested something deeper was going on. It reminds me, in fact, of medicine songs in an ayahuasca ceremony, and how when the curandero pauses between icaros [healing songs] people let go of what they’ve been holding onto, and purge.

“The thing I’m trying to do is strike a balance between honoring the medicine experience, which is obviously the material with which we are having this discussion, but also allow it to be accessible, because it’s also about something other than the medicine: it’s about consciousness,”

“And the medicine is one path into that. There are people that have had experiences through meditation, or psychoanalysis, or yoga, etc., that have had these transcendental moments… “When you look at gnosticism and you take it away from Christianity and how it has been associated, you could say that Shakespeare, Einstein, they were all gnostics. They looked internally and they wanted to get as close as they could to this mysterious faceted being. We’re all gnostics. Everyone that looks inside is a gnostic. Anyone that believes that the truth is to be found inside is a gnostic. This is about the inner work.”

Which is all good and well–but will people trip out listening to his ayahuasca album? Was that his intention? To lead people to the experience, to turn them on, or just to represent it? And has there been any blowback? “Well there is resistance,” Lee admits. “But the beautiful thing about being an artist is I’m not an activist. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to convince anyone of anything. The artist has to represent their own truth authentically, and it’s not my job to answer for the whole movement of people that are interested in ayahuasca, or to represent it. I have to add my thread to the tapestry by speaking my truth from my heart.”

The next night 

With his second concert in Byron Bay, Lee shifts gears and comes into his own. His bandmate and fellow seeker, the gnostic pop high priestess, Appleonia, sings: “In this silence, hear what can’t be heard. In this silence, hear what can’t be heard…” and Lee responds: “I open my heart, I open my heart, where does all my pain go?” the yang ego melting, opening to the feminine, the Great Mother, letting her in. “Where do I start, where do I start, I’m so afraid to… If I open my heart, open my heart, wider than the ocean… I’ve got to let love in…”

And the creative alchemy is palpable. You can hear it in his voice, in the gentle intimacy of the lyrics, this is his truth, the heart-speak of someone who’s felt an inner connection to themselves and to spirit and transmitted it on.

There’s a vulnerability, a rawness to Lee that second night on stage that makes him all the more endearing. He’s still apologetic, nervous, insecure about presenting his spiritual experiences, almost embarrassed to be putting his audience through what he calls his “experiment.” Which is unfortunate, because in the best songs, he shines. Lee reaches for the light and grabs it to bring it back, to communicate something we all know, and yet we all need to feel, and to remember.

And as he sings up there in the celebrity spotlight, a lifetime of ego and striving slouches off him as his music seeps into us, deep into our cellular memory. And despite the challenges of this gnostic pop-ritual, and the dangers of taking his audience on a journey of the soul, Lee manages something authentic that is rarely communicated in commercial music.

“You’ve got to make the effort to breach these worlds…” Lee says in parting to his audience. “Because this is not the only reality. The only reality cannot be making records for the sake of it, and trying to sell them to you and doing it over and over again. There must be something else … I’m not like, an alarmist about the environment. I’m generally optimistic about our ability to change and adapt, but what is becoming apparent to me is that we have to do it now. And [this album] is my attempt to invoke radical change.

“There’s an urgency in my life and I think that there’s an urgency in all our lives,” he continues. “We’ve been asleep for so long … it’s crazy. I really believe we can do this–we can wake up. I think we are waking up. And I’m glad you’re participating in that awakening with us.”