When in Rome, as the old saying goes ... or in this case, when in Vellore, India, paraphrases Aussie tunesmith Ben Lee, who wound up there last Dec. 29 for his truly unusual wedding to actress Ione Skye. The Hindu ceremony was conducted by Narayani Amma, the singer's spiritual guru, who also chose the date.
"And it was very early in the morning, at 7:30, and there were all these really cool symbolic rituals," recalls the groom. "At a certain point, I was instructed to leave and pick up a suitcase, put on slippers and take an umbrella, to act out changing my mind. And Ione's brother Donovan had to come and 'convince' me to come back and marry his sister — it was pretty amazing."
But the nuptials weren't over yet, continues the Hollywood-based Lee. He and his bride, he says, "had to wash her mother and my mother's feet together, to pay tribute to where we came from."
Still, Skye was up for it. During their year-long engagement, Lee adds, he never once tried to convert her to Amma's humanitarian cause. "Because it was just an experience that I've had, and not a prerequisite for a happy relationship. But once she met Amma, she just fell in love and was so into it, until she kept saying, 'When can we go back to India? When?'"
Now, Los Angeles-area Amma devotees regularly meet at the Lee/Skye house for full-moon pujas, or Hindu reverential rites.
"They're about nature, the moon, like what my album's about," Lee explains, referencing his new seventh solo set for New West, The Rebirth of Venus. "As a society, we've completely fallen out of touch with nature, with the feminine, with feeling. So the full-moon puja is the same principle as my song 'Boy with a Barbie.' They're both saying it's OK to be in touch with that side of ourselves that we're told we should leave alone."
In fact, the artist did get teased as a Sydney kid for playing with girls' dolls. But Venus aims to set the record straight, from its Botticelli-inspired cover art (featuring an angel-robed Skye and his stepdaughter Kate, with booklet illustrations by Skye) to its uplifting rhetorical janglers like "Surrender," "I Love Pop Music," "I'm a Woman Too" and "What's So Bad (About Feeling Good)?"
But his questions are nothing new, Lee swears: "The issues of creative people, sexuality and gender roles? They're always gonna come up. As soon as you start doing something creative, you start wondering whether the person you're told to be by society is who you actually are."
One track even offers tribute to an original trailblazer — "Yoko Ono," who Lee believes brought out John Lennon's softer side.
"And she's stayed true this whole time to her original message," Lee says. "The real '60s message: compassion and expansion of imagination and consciousness."
Hence the album's tie-in with FINCA, a grassroots loan-offering organization helping impoverished individuals around the world get back on their financial feet.
Why such a surreal thematic leap, music-wise? Lee credits his new family.
"I was used to things just being about me, like going off on tour for six weeks with no advance notice," he explains. "So it's different, being part of a team. But with them supporting you and in your corner? You can get a lot braver!"Purchase The Rebirth of Venus: