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Krishna Das is the leading chant artist in the Western world. Armed with his trusty harmonium, he leads kirtans, where his chants create a rhythm that guides a group meditation. The chants, typically sung in Sanskrit, are based on mantras from the Hindu tradition - "Namah Shivaya" or "Hare Krishna" (as heard in the George Harrison song "My Sweet Lord") for example.

In 1970, KD's spiritual journey took him to India, where he studied under the guru Maharaj-ji (aka Neem Karoli Baba). In 1973, just six months after returning to the States, KD learned that his guru had died, and he went into a prolonged depression. It wasn't until the mid-'90s that he had an epiphany and was moved to chant with others. Turned out, he was really good at it, with a deep, resonant voice and a knack for making these ancient, Eastern traditions palatable to a Western audience.

His first album, One Track Heart, was released in 1996. It is a landmark, merging Hindu chants with modern production. Yoga teachers built routines around the songs; Sting practiced to it (and appeared on the next Krishna Das album). His following grew to include Rick Rubin, who produced two of KDs albums in the '00s. In 2013, he brought kirtan to the Grammy Awards for the first time, performing at the pre-show when he was nominated for Best New Age Album.

Humility keeps him from calling it a "Greatest Hits" album, but in 2015, Krishna Das released Laughing At The Moon, a collection of favorites. It's a great place to start if you're new to KD or Kirtan.

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): KD, can you tell me how you create a song?

Krishna Das (KD): I wish I could. You know, I don't really feel like I create the song. I don't like to sound too mystical or anything like that, but a lot of times I'll just find myself singing something. I'll go, "Oh! I never heard that before." Strange things like that happen a lot. One of the tunes from the last CD, I dreamed it. I woke up in the middle of the night and I went, "Oh!" and recorded it. Then when I woke up in the morning, I thought, Did that really happen? And then I saw the recorder and I played it, and there was the tune.

Songfacts: What song was that?

KD: That was the "4AM Hanuman Chalisa"

Songfacts: Is there any pattern to when the songs strike you?

KD: No. Not really. You know, I'm always trying to stay plugged in to something, so I'm trying to always stay open to being present with whatever's going on. And since there's a lot of singing going on in my head, things often happen that way.

Songfacts: Are the meanings of the songs clear to you when you write them?

KD: Well that's a really interesting question, because what I sing and chant, in India they call this "The names of God," and it's supposed to be a way of connecting to a deeper place within us, where this presence resides. But the presence itself is not understandable as a meaning with the intellect. It's an intuitive realization, or an intuitive feeling that arises through doing the practice, and it comes from within.

It's not any kind of a storyline or an intellectual understanding of the meaning of the words - and they do have certain meanings. I don't know them, but they do have certain meanings. At least I don't know all of them. So, I'm more concerned with the singing as a spiritual practice, in the terms that it will open up places inside of us and from where realization comes as opposed to intellectual understanding. Realization, intuition, feeling. So, the real meaning of these names is our own true nature, which of course is beyond the intellect.

Songfacts: There is a science to songwriting. How much do you pay attention to that?

KD: There's a science to songwriting?

Songfacts: Yes. In fact, many songwriters will reject lyrics because it doesn't fit the math. They consider the technical aspect.

KD: I see. Yeah. Well, I'm not in the entertainment business, you know. This is not songwriting like that. This is chanting. It's been going on for thousands of years. In India, most of these chants are in certain ragas.

In Indian music they have certain scales – many different scales for different times of day. There is a musical science of pairing the mantras with the proper melody that fits the rules of raga and Indian music, but this is just kind of garage band rock and roll, what I do. And there's no rules at all - anything that works and feels good to me is what I do.

Songfacts: But do you have a studied sense for how to make these sounds come together?

KD: No.

Songfacts: So, you never had any formal training on this stuff?
When he left for India in 1970, Krisha Das was still Jeffrey Kagel - Maharaj-ji gave him his new name. Before leaving, he was offered the lead singer postion with a band called Soft White Underbelly. That job went to Eric Bloom, and the band soon changed its name to Blue Öyster Cult.

KD: Actually, back in 1967 or '68, I enrolled in a course in music theory out at Stony Brook College – the university I was at in Long Island. But I quit school before it was over and I never learned much.

Songfacts: Well, that brings up an interesting case here, because you worked with Rick Rubin. He produced two of your albums.

KD: Yeah.

Songfacts: So here you have a producer who knows everything about music working with a guy who dropped out of a music theory class. Tell me how that works.

KD: It was fantastic. All I had to do was sing, and I knew that Rick would capture everything perfectly. He had total control over the studio and the setup - all I had to do was sit down and sing, and do my best at presenting the music. I knew that it would be captured just the way it should be, and that's exactly what happened.

I had worked with a couple of producers before who were wonderful – really great guys, and very good producers. But as you said, Rick is at the top of the game. And one of the things about Rick is that he feels what an artist wants to sound like, and he knows how to help that artist get the sound that's in his head. That's an incredible gift. He's very intuitive. He's very deep, and it's a joy to work with him.

Songfacts: Tell me about an actual recording session with Rick Rubin.

KD: I'm not sure what you mean.

Songfacts: I'm just trying to figure out the logistics. Like, if you do everything track-by-track, line-by-line, or if you get a whole bunch of people in the studio and he mics you up.

KD: Well, the two CDs I did with Rick were both very different. The first one was a kirtan CD, a call and response CD. We rented a big studio - a big room in Los Angeles which used to be Ocean Way Studios where Frank Sinatra recorded a lot of his biggest records with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. I actually sat where Frank Sinatra stood. That was a trip. That was exciting.

And for that CD we brought in a choir of people, and we brought the musicians in. Rick placed them all around the room in the best areas for them, because we were playing live and the choir was going to sing live. So, it was all done that way.

The second CD I did with him was called Door of Faith [2003]. And that was all quiet prayers that I recorded mostly alone. There were no drums, just me and harmonium. We did some overdubs later with cello, violin and some keyboards, but that was just me.

We added some overdubs on the first CD too, but the beautiful thing about it was the way the room was arranged and the feeling in the room. David Nichtern has produced my last couple of CDs, and we also have a great time in the studio. David's a great songwriter, producer and guitar player – one of my best friends. The people who come to help us in the studio, the musicians who play and record with me, we've known each other for 20 years now, most of them, and so it's a real family feeling. It's a great feeling.

Songfacts: David Nichtern has written a hit song. He wrote "Midnight at the Oasis."

KD: Yeah. He certainly did.

Songfacts: So, what's stopping you from writing a traditional verse-chorus-verse hit song?

KD: Well, let me tell you a little story. David's a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche – this was many, many years ago when he had been with Trungpa for just a couple of years. He wrote that hit song and he was nominated for a Grammy and blah, blah, blah, right? The next thing was, Trungpa asked him to move out of Los Angeles and move to the woods in Vermont and run a small retreat center there that Trungpa was setting up. So, David packed up his family and moved from LA, and essentially left the music business behind for that period of time. [David told us the full story in this interview.]

So, I never entered the music business. I'm not aiming to create a hit song. I don't even know what a hit song would be in my case. I'm not singing for other people. I'm chanting to save my own heart, my own life, and to stay centered and to try to remember what this is all about. So, I could never sit around and try to come up with something that I think would appeal to a lot of people in that way. I just couldn't do it. I wouldn't know where to start. And also, you might've noticed, in America, English is the main language. Most of what I sing is not in English in the first place.

Songfacts: Let's talk about some of the hit songs that are out there that also have an influence in kirtan and Indian music. For instance, the Beatles, and George Harrison – "My Sweet Lord", "Across The Universe" – what are your thoughts on those types of songs?

KD: I think they're really nice. "Across The Universe" is a very complicated song, if you really want to figure out what John Lennon was saying. It's not straight ahead and clear.

"My Sweet Lord" is very clear and very beautiful, but the problem is that English has been appropriated by Western religion and it's very hard to talk about spiritual things in a song that doesn't get too "organized religion-y," you know? And then you get a lot of people who have a negative reaction to that as well. You can get a lot of negativity from the organized religion people. Like, "This isn't our Jesus. This isn't the way it is." So, English is very difficult to work with. I do work with English a little bit. I feel it, and I'd like to do it more. These kinds of songs are useful in planting certain concepts in the mind, which could be helpful in the best circumstances.

Songfacts: Give me your analysis of "Across the Universe."

KD: Well, I can look up the words while you're sitting here...

"Nothing's Gonna Change My World" - You know, that's an interesting thing. We don't really know what John is saying there. But otherwise, it's a very beautiful song.

"Words are falling out like endless rain into a paper cup, they slither wildly as they slip away" - This is after, obviously, some kind of acid trip.

"Pools of sorrow, waves of joy, are drifting through my opened mind, possessing and caressing me. Jai Guru Deva. Nothing's gonna change my world" - I take back what I said - It's much more beautiful than I thought. I never really looked at all the words before. Jai Guru Deva means, "Victory to my guru." Jai means, like, "Hail, hallelujah!" So, it's very beautiful.

Songfacts: You just spoke about organized religion and how that can be a problem. How do your songs compare to worship songs in the Christian faith?

KD: Well, worship songs in the Christian faith are very much like what they call bhajans in India, which are holy songs. And just like gospel, those songs tell a story about the deities. In the gospel song it's all, "Jesus met the woman at the well," this happened, this happened – those kind of songs, right? And in India, bhajan's are very similar. They talk about the Leelas or the play of the incarnations of God, Krishna, Ram and all the others.

Those are very inspiring and they can be very emotional and very moving. But, they don't necessarily clean the heart of the obstructions and the dust on the mirror of the heart. They're very useful in creating a longing for God, or a longing for love, but they don't necessarily get you that love. Many of us misunderstand emotional love as real love. And so when you get one of these songs that opens your heart and you're weeping, you think that's real love. But it's not. It's just glorified emotion and it doesn't really change you.

There are many people who have "found" God who are not good people, who don't treat other people well, who don't do good things with their life, who stay selfish and self-centered and greedy, and who are full of guilt and shame and fear. These are the things that prevent us from finding out who we really are underneath who we think we are.

My point is that chanting is a yogi's practice. It's a meditational practice, which puts you in touch with a deeper part of yourself that's beyond emotion. I'm not saying that gospel music - which I love - and Indian bhajans - which I love - are not useful. They are useful. But they're not like where you get that card in Monopoly, "Go directly to the bank and collect $200."

Songfacts: Free Parking.

KD: Yeah. It's not exactly like that. They're good that way and people are emotional animals and so we do respond to that, but with those kind of emotions, if you look carefully you'll always find it goes from positive to negative. There's always a backlash with those kinds of things. So, you need a yogi practice, you need a meditational practice to bring you deeper, and to save us from the tyranny of our thoughts. And that is what chanting is.

Songfacts: You did a song with Sting where you brought a gospel song into the chant. Can you tell me about creating "Mountain Hare Krishna"?

KD: Well, I'd like to take credit for that but I really can't. We were in the studio and we had started working on that song, and the assistant engineer who was a guy from South Africa, Roger, he said, "You know what? 'Amazing Grace' would sound great with this." So we tried it and it sounded good. It was really his idea.

And what I'm singing is not the real melody to the gospel song "Amazing Grace," it's a different melody, but some of the same words.

Songfacts: Why is the song called "Mountain Hare Krishna"?

KD: It's just "Hare Krishna." It's just like all the different Hanuman Chalisas that I sing. They're all "Hanuman Chalisa," but when you make a CD, you have to give a song a name, otherwise you can't collect the royalties every time somebody buys it or it's played. So, I had to start coming up with names for all these things.

Songfacts: That's interesting.

KD: Yeah. I had no intention of doing that, but the music business, or the business of actually making CDs, forced me to do that.

Songfacts: How did you determine the best use of Sting?

KD: Well, personally I would have rather had him sing lead, but he couldn't because his record company would only let him be on two songs.

So, I sent him the CD. I had visited him at his home in Italy with David and Sharon from Jivamukti [Sharon Gannon and David Life, founders of Jivamukti yoga]. We did a weeklong retreat there at his home - he had a beautiful new home there. We were hanging out and I asked him if he would sing on the CD, and he said, "Sure," because he had been listening to the first CD for about a year at that point. He said he always did his yoga practice to One Track Heart which was the first CD.

But by the time I was ready for it he had already left for England, so I just sent him the tracks and I said, "Pick the tunes you'd like to sing on." And that's what he chose.

Songfacts: So, you weren't in the same room together when you did that?

KD: No, we couldn't be. He had gone to England. But we've met many times since then.

KD's 2004 album All One features Walter Becker of Steely Dan on bass and a choir with 70 voices. The album is a 50-minute suite broken up into four sections, each representing a different musical style:

"Calling from Afar" - Indian

"Refuge in the Name" - Classical

"Rock in a Heart Space" - Rock

"Township Krishna" - South African

Songfacts: Another guy I find really interesting who performed with you is Walter Becker.

KD: Ah! Walter. He's so great!

Songfacts: Well, he is a notorious taskmaster. I've talked to people whose fingers have bled with Walter Becker trying to get the right guitar solo from them. And here he is, a session man for you, essentially.

KD: I think that's why he liked it: He didn't have to do anything but sit back and play. And he's such a great player. I don't think people really know, or appreciate that. They know him more as a producer and a songwriter, but what a player the guy is. If you hear that bass line on the All One CD, when we come into the third part, which is called "Rock in a Heart Space," when he comes in with the bass, you could die, really. It's so deep and so perfect.

And then on the last section which is like a South African township kind of vibe, he said that for the last year, all he'd been listening to was Township music. So, he just killed that part. It was amazing, really.

Songfacts: I'm trying to figure out how that whole thing was recorded, because it's essentially a 50-minute track broken up into sections. Was there a lot of editing going on?

KD: No. We did it live in the studio.

Songfacts: The whole 50-minutes?

KD: The whole 50 minutes, but it was broken up in sections. It's four different sections and we recorded each section separately. So yes, the editing was in putting them together. They were edited together later, but it was all done within two days, all live in the studio, everybody hanging out – the choir and all the musicians – and everybody playing at the same time. We didn't know where it was going really, or how long each track was going to be.

And between you and me, it didn't quite come together as a full CD the way I had envisioned it. It had been meant to build. The first section was supposed to be Indian musical, the second section was supposed to be more Western musical – symphonic. The third section was supposed to be rock and roll, and the fourth section was supposed to be Township.

But that second section, my friend who was orchestrating that had ripped his shoulder up or had Lyme disease or something like that, and we couldn't really put that section together as well as we wanted to. But still, it's one of my favorite CDs. I just love it. Nobody wanted to leave the studio. The drummer was Rick Allen from Def Leppard, along with Ty Burhoe on Tabla, and then there was a guitar section with David Nichtern and Joe Veillette who's a guitar-maker from Woodstock, and Steve Ross – an incredible guitar player and yoga teacher in LA. Walter on bass and Benjy Wertmeimer was there, everybody. Steve Gorn, it was amazing.

Songfacts: Is it necessary for these guys to have some background in your spirituality? I know Walter Becker, for instance, had the song, "Bodhisattva" with Steely Dan, and Rick Rubin has done a lot of meditation.

KD: Yes and no. Really, it only helps in that it would give the musician a sense of direction. It's not something that I require of somebody to play with me. I'm very lucky that a lot of people seem to enjoy playing with me, and like a lot of great musicians who play music for a living, they have to think a lot, you know? They're musicians. They have to know the music and the tune and they have to think of what's been played before and what they're going to play. When they play with me, they can use their chops in a different way, because the repetition deepens everything, and they can use their musical chops, as we move deeper into the space, in different ways. So I think they really enjoy it.

Songfacts: It's almost getting their natural talent and ability out of them by putting them into a position of repetition and comfort.

KD: Yeah. It's like bypassing the musical intellect. I never thought of it that way myself, but that's what it is.

Songfacts: When you had these four tracks for your All One album, how did you decide what to name them?

KD: That was a good question: How do you keep coming up with names? It's crazy. That's the most creative thing I do is naming these stupid tunes. Coming up with stupid names for these non-stupid tunes, let's put it that way. Yeah. It's crazy.

"Calling the Buddha From Afar" is a Tibetan prayer. It's actually calling a Lama from afar, but Lama and Guru mean the same thing. And it's just a beautiful evocative phrase. When we think the Guru's far away, and when we think we're cut off from God and cut off from love, we're calling from afar. And then, we just got stupider as we went along.

Songfacts: Well I love "Rock in a Heart Space."

KD: Yeah. That was pretty cool, wasn't it? I got to admit that was pretty creative. If you say it fast enough it almost sounds like "Rock in a Hard Place."

Songfacts: Well it's funny. Because it's like a little wink, you know?

KD: Thank you, because I wink a lot and a lot of people don't notice. Like the first CD, One Track Heart, nobody smiled.

Songfacts: They didn't get it?

KD: It was as if nobody had ever heard the phrase "one track mind." It was like, "uh huh, One Track Heart, uh huh." Give me a break, you know? That was funny.

Songfacts: One of your more popular songs is one you did in '98 called "Namah Shivaya."

KD: So there, that's my hit! You were asking about my hit, that's it.

Songfacts: So, tell me about your hit.

KD: Well, in '97, the closest person to me in the world died. He was an old devotee of Maharaj-ji - my guru Neem Karoli Baba - and he was like my teacher and my friend. He was my best friend in the world, and he died. And one day I was sitting, and the whole song just came to me while I was fooling around with the harmonium.

My experience was - and I can't prove this to you - but my experience was that he just dropped that whole thing on me. It was like an impetus from him after he had died. Like a gift, because he was a devotee of Shiva, and had done a lot of very, very deep practices and meditations over his life. He was an incredible being and that was like a gift to me. That's all.

Songfacts: Is that his voice we hear at the beginning and the end of the song?

KD: It is. Yeah.

Songfacts: And what is he chanting in that?

KD: He's chanting some mantras to Shiva, which I had recorded many years before in India, up in the mountains at an old, ancient Shiva temple, high up in the Himalayas on just a little Walkman or something.

Songfacts: Another song that I think is really interesting, and I think this is one Rick Rubin produced, "Baba Hanuman."

KD: "Baba Hanuman." Yeah. That was on a CD that Rick produced. I was just sitting around with the harmonium one day and it just came out. It came through. I didn't sit down to write a song. I almost never do that.

I remember where I was. We were at the Yoga Journal conference in Estes Park, Colorado, way up in the mountains. It was in the morning and I was in my room. I was just kind of fooling around with the harmonium, singing a little bit. And you know, because I don't play harmonium very well, a lot of times my fingers don't go where I want them to. So, my finger went somewhere and I went, "Oh! That sounds good. What is that?" And then there was the song. It just came through.

KD incorporated part of the Yardbirds song "For Your Love" into "Narayana," a track on his 2010 album Heart as Wide as the World. He performed it at the Grammy pre-show in 2013, when Live Ananda was nominated for Best New Age Album. That's David Nichtern on guitar in the video below.

Songfacts: How did you end up working that Yardbirds song into "Heart as Wide as the World"? Is that then for your Guru that that comes to you?

KD: You know, it happened just like everything else. I was fooling around with some chords. I had this little riff that I came up with one day on the harmonium, and that chant, Narayana. Then while we were practicing it, warming up in a soundcheck, I was singing and all of a sudden those words came out of my mouth with no thought, because those chords turned out to be the same chords from that song. And because I have a very good musical intuitive memory for stuff that I've heard, it just popped out of my mouth and that was it.

And it applies because emotional love and unconditional love are both called love. Everybody wants love, and the problem is that most people don't understand that love is our own true nature, and it comes from within. So, we keep looking outside of ourselves all the time. This was a way of finding the razor's edge between both sides of that.

Songfacts: I know you're downplaying your abilities, but you can do this better than just about anybody else, at least in the Western world. Can you put a finger on what it is that you can do that sets you apart from everybody else who's doing it?

KD: You want me to just tell you the absolute, blunt, unadorned truth?

Songfacts: I do.

KD: It's all the blessings of my Guru. Period. There's nothing more to say, but I will. I sing through that presence that I experience with him, through that love that I experienced when I was with him.

It brings it into this moment, by his grace, not by my ability. I have one qualification and that's longing: unrequited longing to be in that love all the time. So when I sing, I'm singing to him, and I don't know what anybody else is doing. That's not my job.

This whole thing started because I had to start singing. I was sinking. It was 20 years after he had died and I was depressed, upset, and nothing was happening in my life that was any good. I was in a very despairing place. And all of a sudden, one day I was struck and I absolutely knew that if I did not start singing with people I would never be able to clean out the dark corners of my own heart. That was the only way I had to do that.

And so I had to start singing, otherwise nothing was going to happen for me, and it was either live or die, really. Very simply. I don't mean to be dramatic, but unfortunately that's the way it was. It was live or die. And I chose to live. Or at least to try to live, and that's when I started singing with people.

I did the first CD simply as a calling card so people would invite me to sing with them, because I needed to sing with people to save my ass. And nobody was doing it. There was no structure for it, so I just had to create it out of my own need to do it to save myself.

Songfacts: You said early on, "I'm not an entertainer." What are you then?

KD: I'm a kirtan wallah. I chant. That's what I do. An entertainer is concerned with what the audience is feeling and wants to give them a good experience so they'll come see him again and buy his CDs. That's not what I do. I chant. And when I'm with people, I'm doing my spiritual practice. This practice involves people. It generates a kind of energy between the call and the response. It's fun, and it feels good, but it isn't about entertainment.

It's a meditative practice, even though most people think meditation means sitting in an uncomfortable position, fighting with your mind and then getting depressed. That's not what this is, but it is meditation nonetheless and it works because you don't think you're meditating. These chants, these names, carry shakti, carry power from thousands of years of transmission, of people doing this as a spiritual practice. That's why it's helpful and that's why it feels good. But it's not about entertainment. Entertainment is a business. And although sometimes I wish I did more business so I could pay my bills, that's not what this is about.

March 27, 2015. Get tour dates and more info at krishnadas.com.

    About the Author:

    Carl WiserCarl was a disc jockey in Hartford, Connecticut when he founded Songfacts as a way to tell the stories behind the songs. You can also find him on Rock's Backpages.More from Carl Wiser
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Comments: 4

Wonderful interview. I love it. I love KD. Thank YouSue from Harpswell, Maine
Thank you for the interview.Jeanne from Nyc
This interview was enlightening to me. It helped me see where Ram Dass came from. The darkness, the spiritual longing. Thank you.Judy from New Jersey
Wow. This is an amazing interview! Thanks for all the background about the experience of KD playing with other musicians!Eileen from Portland, Or
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