After venturing to Costa Rica for a psychedelic trip of self-discovery, Jack Dawkins channeled the transformative power of his ayahuasca experience into his debut album, Integration. Released on November 2, this intricate musical odyssey takes listeners on a mind-bending journey full of glitch-hop beats, introspective lyrics and enigmatic guidance from a mysterious oracle voiced by Denver artist MZ.Mac.
From soul-searching in the depths of Costa Rican forests to the revelation of his true purpose as an artist and human, Dawkins delves deep into his psyche throughout fourteen tracks. The culmination, "I am love," leaves listeners with a powerful message of unity and self-expression. With prior success producing solo storytelling shows in Chicago, Dawkins is ready to take Integration to new heights with a multimedia experience at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder on December 11.
The show will combine storytelling, live performances, behind-the-scenes footage and the premiere of two music videos. In the following interview, Dawkins opens up about moving to Colorado during the pandemic, the realities of tripping and how the voices he heard while high led him to his debut project.
Jack Dawkins: I got to Colorado in March 2021, and I was very much part of the wave of people who said, post-COVID, I'm going to change my life. So I got divorced. I decided to change careers and switch to music, which I had no professional experience with before. I was in a brand-new place; I knew exactly one person who lived in Boulder...but it was really a total life reset. After being here for a year and a couple of months...I just felt like I wasn't building community. I wasn't connecting. So many of the feelings I had when I was back in Chicago in my old life, weren't changing. I realized I'd sort of changed everything else I can think of, in terms of my actual experience of life. So I need to go deeper inward. I had done coaching, therapy and blah blah blah — I've been trying to be a good student of the work. I’m putting in the effort to be a good human being who is trying to make the world a better place. And, you know, plant medicine was something I had no experience with, but a very close friend, who I trust deeply, was like, ‘I really think you should take a look at it; I think you might get a lot out of it.’ It was May 2022, and I signed up to go later in the year.
What was your experience like in Costa Rica?
I went to a retreat center that was well vetted, so I had some semblance of safety, but it's not lost on me that doing ayahuasca four nights in a row is a lot — especially when you have never done plant medicine before. Frankly, I don't smoke weed. I don't really drink or use substances much in my day-to-day life, so to go all the way on the other end of the spectrum, I knew I was getting into something that I was not quite prepared for, but I wanted to give it a shot.
It was really profound; everything from that experience felt like meeting some kind of god, spirit, Mother Nature or whatever you want to call a higher power, but an experience of being in dialogue with her — she was decidedly a woman versus a man. She brought up a lot of old fears and forced me to look at myself, which was very powerful and very uncomfortable. And then there's the other side of it — the reality — which is that you're in a room of eighty people who are all like shitting, vomiting and having these wild roller coaster experiences. I was just lying on my mattress, thinking, ‘Oh, my God! What have I signed up for?’ It was like the highest highs, the lowest lows and the weirdest weirds.
I came home, confronted with the idea that I just met God — or whatever you want to call that experience — and now I'm back. What do I do with that? I look back at all the work that I've tried to do, and I think creating Integration was when the rubber hit the road. It's cool to have the realization through the ceremony on the inside, but how do you change your behavior? How do you change the way you show up in the world? Probably two or three months after I got back, I started making new music. After looking at the music I had been making before, I could see such a clear split. In the old music, I saw so much insecurity; I saw so much striving and just trying so hard to be cool. And then, in my newer music, I felt so much more free to just say what I felt. Of course, I still want it to be good, but it felt so much more driven by this clear sense of purpose. I had hesitated on making an album because I'm a storyteller, so I was waiting to find an arc or a narrative that felt really meaningful to me; this arc was it.
The trip was December 8 to 15, 2022, so the very end of the year. I remember coming back, and it was like Christmas. I want to say that we started making the album in March; the ideas were kind of bubbling up through January and February, but March was when we booked sessions, got the beats made, started writing lyrics, recorded everything and made it all happen. There's another parallel here that will be part of the show [at the Dairy Arts Center]. During one of the ceremonies, I had this very clear vision that my dog was going to die. And it ended up being this kind of precursor to what was ultimately a crazy, beautiful night, but I clearly knew what was going to happen. When I got home, sure enough, my dog was really sick. I took her to the emergency room, and we brought her home like two days before Christmas, and they said she might have a month.
So as January and February are happening, I am basically checked out of everything in my life. I'm just with my dog, hoping she gets better, and she miraculously does; through some combination of the drugs and whatever, she starts to improve. I'm having this wild journey with my dog while I'm thinking about the album and writing all these lyrics, and it's almost like it was the most tangible, visceral reminder of what I've done in Costa Rica in my life every single day, and so it made it so easy to kind of connect to that feeling. We finished the album but hadn’t released it before she died, which was in mid-April. They gave her a month at Christmas, and she made it four months, which was heartbreaking, beautiful, and all the other things.
You were confronted with the cycle of life; as your album was coming alive, your dog is dying. How did your ayahuasca experience help you through that?
I'll speak from my experience, but so much of what ayahuasca teaches you is that life is all of it. It is the beautiful and it is miserable. It is the dark and the light; you need both, because they feed each other. I felt like I was so deeply immersed in that balance – there was so much good happening in my life. I was creating at this new level, connecting with new people and building community, all while reconciling with the loss of my dog that I'd had for eight years. In many ways, my partner and I got divorced, but we moved here as a family. While Islay was alive, there was an ability to just suspend disbelief for moments; it would be my daughter, our two dogs, my co-parent and I, and there was a sense that we had made it. We went through all this shit, but we got here; time has passed, and we have changed, but when the dog was there, it was like I could just ignore it. I think all that being present while the album was being made really influenced the experience.
The voice is an artist in Denver named MZ.Mac. She has the most extraordinary energy, and it's just wonderful to be around her. She's meaningfully younger than I am, but it feels like she has the wisdom of generations in her lineage. The idea came from one of the ceremonies. The best way I can describe the experience is like I had an audiobook narrator in my head, and that narrator was God. We blew out her voice with a couple of effects because we liked the way it sounded sort of ethereal. The voice came to me clear as day; it was like someone was just having a conversation with me completely between the ears.
I think one of my perceptions about plant medicine was that you're high as shit and everything's technicolor, tie dye, very abstract and you have to make sense of it later. And this was like, ‘No, I'm just going to tell you, like, your dog is going to die; this is why she's going to die; this is what you need to do about it; and this is what is important in your life.’ Which was surprising, but cool. So when it came to the album, I loved the idea of having someone that kind of gives you a hint of what's happening. I don’t reference the trip in the lyrics, because I know that this voice is going to help guide the story. In some ways, the voice is playing a similar role for you, the listener, as it did for me when I was with the medicine.
What can audiences expect from your upcoming multimedia storytelling and hip-hop event at the Dairy Arts Center?
We wanted to give more depth to the experience of hearing the album, so we are adding visuals with a live performance, and, in this intimate theater, we just get to connect more deeply with the music itself. I've played and attended a lot of hip-hop shows in the last two years, and I just wanted to do something that felt different. Love it or hate it, I'm actually completely fine with either one — I just want you to recognize that I did something other people aren't doing. The other thing I love is that it's a weird amalgamation of all the things I've done in my life. I used to do spoken word back in high school and college, storytelling from my Chicago days, and while the music video stuff is newer, I worked with Christian [W. Hundley], who's my videographer and manager, to pull from all these different textures. What's cool is that because the prism is me, the lens you see is just me as a human being. I get to show you how I express myself through all of these different media and give you different ways again to just kind of hear the lyrics and the message and to feel the music in a different way.
On December 15, we're releasing a small EP called Integration Remix that I worked on with five local producers [Mz.Mac, Peanutz, Iyasu, Glich and SENZ]. We have five brand-new remixes that are all pulled from the album itself. That was a cool way to build community and give up-and-coming producers an opportunity to get some more visibility. Also, for me as an artist, it was an incredible opportunity to learn what other people are hearing in music. I have my own ideas about what it means, but once it goes out into the world, it's no longer yours. It was really special to see what they reflected back to me through that project.
Additionally, the Denver Legends are a group that has formed over the last couple of months. [Malcolm Whyz3, ego, ReSrface, Binta Zang, Ason Yugen and I] did a show together in September. It was really successful, but we did a concert together and a music video to go with it that is actually coming out on the same day as the show on December 11, so that will be a big day of celebration for me, the group and everyone who made the album possible.
And then, as for future plans, I'm due to go to the cabin. It's been a really cool year. I got to open for Hobo Johnson twice, we did the Denver Legends, and my album came out. My fucking cup runneth over, man. It's been an amazing year. As an artist, I'm feeling the call to go do my own work and start writing again. It’s time to get a little bit further away from how I market this and get a little more into what I am just feeling called to make in this moment.
Integration: A Multimedia Exhibition of Storytelling and Hip Hop, 6:30 p.m. Monday, December 11, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder. Get tickets at thedairy.org.