And that's the way he likes it

Ben Lee doesn't care about No.1s - now it's all about learning, Fleta Page writes

Ben Lee admits his latest album, Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work, isn't likely to be played on commercial radio, but that's not a benchmark he's courting for his ninth solo album.

The 34-year-old is no stranger to commercial success, quite literally - his song We're All in This Together was used in advertisements selling everything from the Red Shield Appeal to Coca-Cola.

He has even sung about his joy of hearing his songs on the radio alongside the likes of Beyonce.

But it has been eight years since his album Awake is the New Sleep went double platinum, a success Lee said merely ''bought him time'' which, along with persistence, has kept him in the industry 20 years after the release of his first album, as a 14-year-old Sydney-sider with the band Noise Addict.

''I've been on a different journey, it hasn't been about how many number one records can I make, it's about what can I learn about myself, like how can I use this music gig to become conscious of who I am and the potential of my role.''

Although such enlightenment hasn't always been part of Lee's persona.


''I've had a tendency to be seduced by glamour a little bit - I've been, 'Oh I'm going to work with a glamorous producer' or 'I'm going to try and get on this tour'. It's sort of like we're all waiting for Prince Charming on a white horse to come and save us, and I think people in the show business industry are particularly susceptible to that.''

Lee attracted plenty of criticism when he famously declared he was the ''saviour of Australian music'' following his first mass success with Cigarettes will Kill You, the single that topped Triple J's Hottest 100 in 1998.

At the time he was also dating Claire Danes, who had risen to international fame in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.

The reception of his next album Hey You. Yes You indicated he may have overstated himself, but he looks at his not-so-well-received albums as part of his journey.

''You can look back and feel a bit more conflicted, like, 'Oh, what went wrong?' But at the end of the day I'm sitting here in my life and I really like where it's at,'' he says from Los Angeles, his home of seven years, where he lives with his wife, actress Ione Skye, and their daughters.

''I mean failure is one of the greatest teachers there is, there's nothing as boring as talking to someone who's never failed.''

Lee came face to face with his successes and failures in 2008 with the help of a guru and the South American psychedelic drug ayahuasca - the namesake of his current album - which he refers to as ''the medicine''.

''It opens the unconscious, so all of these things that are hidden, that we hide from ourselves like our real fears, our regrets our sorrows our desires our hopes … they'd be almost too terrifying to admit to on a daily basis, they kind of come flooding back to us.

''So the ayahuasca is like looking in the mirror, and some of what we see we like and some of what we see we don't like.''

It's been part of ''the work'', the journey to living life ''in the most awake and aware and respectful and grateful manner possible'', he says.

''On a deeper level, to become aware of things is to become aware of problems and to want to be a part of the solution, so whether it's things like the environment … with climate change, or anything - are you going to recycle - they're all choices of how aware do you want to be of the effects of your actions.

''It's sort of a double-edged sword. An attempt to be conscious is on one side to live a happier life, but also to be willing to see that we're in an interdependent ecosystem, and that our choices have real effects on the world around us.''

Lee's upcoming collaboration fits into this ''attempt to be conscious''. He will be touring with a movement known as the Conscious Club and will be headlining its inaugural event in Canberra on July 18. The Conscious Club was founded in 2011 by two friends, Gary Gorrow and Tim Brown, who wanted to create challenging, interesting nights out rather than going to the pub and drinking to excess. Club events are billed as ''anti-nightclub'' events in which people gather to hear live music, watch a short film, hear from guest speakers and do group meditation.

It's about creating conscious community through ''enlighter-tainment'' with previous speakers including Jamie Durie and Sarah Wilson. The Conscious Club movement is coming to Canberra next week and Lee will perform and discuss his own process of awakening. There'll be film, meditation and a ''do good challenge''.

''I'm a firm believer that hearing people's stories can be really helpful, even if they're just to show you what not to do,'' Lee says.

He draws parallels with the music industry, which he says can ''dump'' hatred, materialism and consumerism on society.

''Music made unconsciously, it can still be entertaining, but perhaps there's a way of thinking what are the conscious effects of my music?

''My daughters, when they put on the radio … it's telling them about getting objects and partying and nightclubs - do I want to consciously be part of that cycle or do I want to put something out there that maybe takes that responsibility more seriously?''

That mind frame seems at odds with his recent decision to act as a mentor on The Voice, but that was clearly a decision Lee had weighed up.

''I'm very realistic about the fringe nature of my interests,'' he says. ''It's not like the music I'm making at the moment is going to get played on commercial radio - I'm pretty realistic about that, and I'm looking for opportunities to be present within the media, without compromising my music.''

He admits the aim of his mentoring was not necessarily to help someone win the talent show, but to warn against the ''anaesthetising and gentrifying influence'' of such a show.

''My goal going into The Voice was to try and encourage people to be authentic and to not necessary bend to preconceptions of the way they should be doing the competition and just encourage them to be who they are, so in that sense I tried to do it consciously,'' he says.

He says he got through to some more than others, nominating the quirky Kiyomi Vella as his success story.

As for what's next, he says ''you never know what's around the corner''. He's not discounting moves back towards the commercial mainstream. He'd even consider a return to acting.

''I don't feel particularly married to any medium,'' he says. ''It's just about whether I feel that something good can come out of it?''

All royalties from his album Ayahuasca will be donated to the Amazon Conservation Team and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

''I don't expect [sales] to be super high, but I do know that people hearing it, they seem to be understanding it, and that means a lot to me,'' he says.

■ Ben Lee will perform at the Conscious Club's Welcome to the Work event at Canberra's Albert Hall on Thursday July 18. Tickets $55/$65. See consciousclub.com for more.