Portrait of a Buddhist Artist: JEREMY WINTER

Jeremy Winter - Back to You Cover sized.jpg

New single by Jeremy Winter featuring Bridget Kludt. Directed by Eric Ambrosino. Brought to you by Hit Single Records.

Jeremy McMahan is the Coordinator of Interpretation and Engagement at the Rubin Museum of Art. He’s also a musician, who records as Jeremy Winter, and an artist of visual forms.

I got to know Jeremy during the The Consciousness Hacking Film Festival that I directed at the Rubin in 2016. He had a bespoke gallery tour called "Altered States" that we incorporated into our screening of the LSD documentary film, The Sunshine Makers.

I spoke with Jeremy about his music making process, Buddhism and the role psychedelics have played in his life and art. You can follow Jeremy on Instagram and listen along via Spotify.

What inspired you to start making music?

It's funny because I remember that as a young child I actually lamented to my mother once that I didn't "get" music. However, my Mom wanted me to play an instrument so when I was 11 I chose drums because I didn't have to read music or play notes in a particular scale. I could just bang away and get a pretty immediate sense of satisfaction. Fast forward a year and I'm completely hooked on music. I pick up the bass because I knew that ultimately I wanted to sing as well. I play in a bunch of bands all throughout high school and learn pretty quickly that what I really love about making music is writing songs. During college,  I became so fully entrenched in my Religious Studies, focusing on Buddhism and traveling to India and Nepal, that music was put on the back burner a bit. However, living in Nepal after I graduated college taught me that making music is something I really need in my life, so once I got back from Nepal I slowly began building the skills that I needed to be able to produce my own music by myself.

Has Buddhism influenced your music?

Totally. My overall artistic goal is to incorporate what I've learned from Buddhism into my music as a means of sharing it with other people. However, I found that to be incredible challenging without being too obvious about it to the point where it feels too cheesy and "new agey." Though I've shifted to more electronic sounds over the years, my song and lyric structures are very much based on classic pop/folk songwriting which of course have been filled with allusions, allegories, and metaphors pulled from the Western religious canon. One of my favorite songwriters, J. Spaceman of Spiritualized, talks about how using words like "Jesus" and "Lord" have become  a shorthand for adding a certain weight to his songs. Because Buddhism is so new in the Western consciousness, its hard to drop in a word like "buddha" or "samsara" without it feeling a bit foreign. Luckily, Tantric Buddhism has been an inspiration for me since most the writings deal extensively in symbols and metaphors. Also, I feel honored to help translate these Buddhist concepts into a Western cultural context, however small my contribution may be.


Tell us about your latest video?

First a little about the song. "Back to You" was inspired directly from a talk Robert Thurman gave the staff at the Rubin Museum of Art (where I work). He was asked to talk about power in Buddhism and basically, he explained his belief that the expression of power in the Buddhist context is ultimately unconditional love. That's where the line in the chorus "You think I make love for fun? No, I do it for you" comes from. The title "Back to You" implies something cyclical as well. 

My friend Eric Ambrosino directed the video. He had this concept for awhile of filming me meditating, but we never found the right time do it.  While I was finishing up this song, I asked him if he had any ideas for a quick shoot we could do and he brought up that idea again. I thought it was perfect considering the origins of the song. We shot it in one evening in my room and it just came together very easily.  

The other inspiration for the song was having Bridget Kludt come back into my life. She appears on the song and in the video so it was great to incorporate her into the project.

Do you think there is a connection between making art and practicing Buddhism?

For sure. Though people don't think of Buddhism as being a religion of material,  there is a long history of Buddhist art. I should know, I work at a Himalayan art museum after all. The spread of Buddhism throughout Asia can be attributed to art in a lot of ways. But besides fine arts (painting, sculpture, etc), there’s plenty of examples of music and particularly dance in the history of Tantra. No Tibetan ritual is without some form of sound , whether that be a mantra or liturgical music. In the West it feels like we’ve separated Buddhism from these more sensual practices, but I feel that if we can introduce these ideas into familiar mediums, it will lay the groundwork for us to develop a Buddhism that speaks specifically to our cultural needs and desires. 

Is there a psychedelic element to your music?

Most definitely. I always joke that my favorite music is “drug music.” See J. Spaceman and his old band Spacemen 3 for example (they have an album called Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to). But it might be more accurate to say that my favorite music seeks a level of transcendence from the mundane that we often look for in psychedelic experiences. And like most psychedelic musicians, I’ve attempted to interpret my psychedelic experiences into sounds and words.

Do you think spirituality and psychedelics share a common ground?

As a Buddhist, I believe that anything applied with the proper skill and intention could help progress someone along the past. With that being said, as I get deeper into my meditation practice, I’ve actually pulled farther away from using psychedelics because my psychedelic experiences have become increasingly more intense. I don’t know if meditating has made me more sensitive or what, but at this point I’m not sure if I’ll ever do psychedelics again. Spirituality and psychedelics of course do share a common ground as many traditions have used them for spiritual purposes. However, I’m of the mind that while psychedelics may give you a taste of that transcendence, if you want to make lasting changes in your mind and being, you need a serious practice.