Jai Uttal, the world music star who has just released a transformational new album, "Thunder Love," was sitting on a plump couch the other day in a comfy corner of Open Secret, the San Rafael New Age bookstore, when strains of exotic music floated from the shop's sound system, causing him to bolt upright and his eyes to light up like an electric Buddha.
It was a song by the Bauls of Bengal, India's wandering street musicians, that shocked him into a reverie of recognition. When he was a young seeker entranced by Indian music and Eastern spirituality, he lived among them, traveled with them, communicating with them only through music.
"Do you hear that?" he asked me. "That music was very influential, very important to me. Those people
Audio: Jai Uttal - Bhavani Shankara
By then, though, he was already well known. In 1990, he broke through with his very first album, "Footprints," an innovative collaboration with the late jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and Indian singer Lakshmi Shankar that combined acoustic and sampled sounds from India, Turkey, Africa and the Middle East. It has since become a classic.
"With that album, I got famous," he said matter-of-factly.
He is quick to acknowledge another major musical debt, this one to Ali Akbar Khan, the famed North Indian maestro who founded San Rafael's Ali Akbar College of Music in 1967.
A New Yorker who retains a trace of an accent, Uttal came to Marin when he was 19 to study with Khan, taking lessons in voice and the sarod, the 25-stringed instrument of which Khan is the recognized master.
A multi-instrumentalist singer and songwriter, Uttal has produced a series of acclaimed albums over the past two decades, blending Indian music, Appalachian folk, psychedelic rock, hip-hop, jazz, you name it.
In 2002, his album "Mondo Rama" earned him his first New Age Grammy nomination.
At 57, Uttal, who lives with his family in San Anselmo, has short salt-and-pepper hair, speaks in a gentle voice and wears one gold earring and a necklace with a silver feather pendant. On the day of this interview, he had on a brown leather shirt jacket with western snaps and light green pants with a drawstring.
Until he was in his late 40s, his life and career looked pretty rose-colored from the outside. Then, as now, he earned a nice living traveling around the country leading workshops in kirtan yoga chanting and meditation, a practice that enthusiasts see as a way "to open the heart of infinite love."
Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, praised him as "one of the most extraordinary spiritual chanters and ecstatic singers of
But Uttal is the first to confess that he was living a lie. His heart was as slammed shut as a prison door. While his public image was one of an enlightened, spiritual musician who some fans even saw as a guru, the truth was that he was an alcoholic and drug user whose personal life was out of control.
"It was a dark period for me because my public persona and my internal experience were such a dichotomy," he admitted. "I never felt I was being phony or hypocritical, but I was so miserable inside that I didn't see my way out of it. Here I was performing chanting and devotional music that was about finding your way out of these dark holes. But somehow or other I had dug myself in so deep I couldn't get myself out.
"Part of it was the drugs and alcohol, but some part of me needed to take that tunnel as far down as it was going to go before I could come out and breathe again. I was very physically sick, but nobody knew it. I had no one to share how absolutely hopeless I felt inside of me. I felt really alone."
And then, when he was 49, he met his soul mate, Nubia Teixeira, a young Brazilian dancer and yoga teacher who is now his wife.
"Before I met her, I didn't believe in the concept of soul mates," he said. "I thought it was romantic wishful thinking. But when I met Nubia my whole internal landscape changed."
Not long after they were married, Nubia, now 36, gave birth to their son, Ezra Gopal, now 4, Uttal's first child.
"I didn't expect to have a child," he confided. "Ezra was born when I was 54 and totally out of that way of thinking. My wife thought she never wanted a child either. But we started feeling the energy of this being. At first we pushed it away, but then we stopped pushing away and everything changed - Ezra was born."
As a middle-aged husband who suddenly found himself a first-time father, Uttal realized that he had to make some major changes in his life.
"The primary one was getting sober," he said. "I was never a party animal or carouser, but I had consistently been taking drugs and drinking alcohol since I was a kid. Getting clean and sober was a big job. It didn't happen overnight."
But it happened. And the result of his transformation from the dark into the light is reflected in "Thunder Love."
"That goes right into what 'Thunder Love' is about - the opening to love and trust expressed through song," he explained. "It's why this album is different from all the others."
It's also different in that it focuses heavily on guitar and banjo and incorporates Brazilian instruments and rhythms for the first time in a significant way.
On this album, Uttal also sings more in English than he ever has, using Sanskrit only in the chants and choruses. Aside from the complex structure and length of several of the nine songs, it's a catchy, commercial record with lots of pop hooks and memorable melodies.
He says this album is about opening up to love and to life, at long last. That's patently evident on "Bolo Ram (Let the Spirits Sing)." As he sings in his fine clear voice, "Looking 'round my bedroom for some evidence that there's still reason to be alive / Not so long ago I lost my innocence simply trying to survive / Memories come and go but nothing stays / You know still I hold on tight / 'Cause without your love I could live a million days and never get it right."
At this mature point in Uttal's professional and personal life, he seems to have finally gotten it right.