Katie Wise is a conscious music artist from Boulder, Colorado. With her band, Bhakti Explosion, she fuses the sweetness of devotional mantra with swampy, roots Americana and chick power. Bhakti Explosion’s debut album, Lovolution, is produced by Grammy-nominee Ben Leinbach, features guest vocals by Jai Uttal, and was named “best chant album of the year” by American promoter Lloyde Barde. Want to see Katie Wise and Bhakti Explosion perform? You can check them out at this year’s Hanuman Festival!
How did you find bhakti yoga?
I had been listening to Kirtan music and even chanted and sung quite a bit in my Kundalini Teacher trainings and always ended my own yoga classes with a song or chant. Flash forward to Hanuman Festival 2014 when I had the opportunity to assist Govind Das and Radha. I had an incredible experience that weekend being steeped in the music, assisting their classes and being in the ‘bhav’ (the mood of bhakti) with Govind Das and Radha and their family.
Govind Das offered to sell me the harmonium he was traveling with. He made me make a deal with them though: “I’ll only sell you this harmonium if you promise me the next time I come back, you’ll be singing with your own band.” Last year at Hanuman our band opened for Govind Das and Radha, and we’re doing so again this year! So I kept my promise. I have also had the blessing of great teachers and many other Kirtan artists reaching out to help me along the way.
I have a background in classical piano and singing, as well as performance and yoga teaching. When I discovered Kirtan, I realized I could do all of it together: make music, pray, perform, and serve others at the same time.
Where do you find your inspiration and motivation to create Kirtan music?
As for inspiration, I was born with an insatiable hunger to create. I came from a very musical family, have a background in classical piano and singing, and spent some time as an actress and then a yoga teacher. When I discovered Kirtan, I realized I could do all of it together—make music, pray, perform, and serve others. It’s deeply satisfying on a soul level for me. When I go to my temple and chant, I find it deeply nourishing. When I then bring that chant to my band in rehearsal, the energy grows. When we share that chant on stage, the love is amplified even more. What I love the most is that every single step of the way, I’m in my spiritual practice, whether by myself with my harmonium in my temple or singing for 15,000 people.
“When I go to my temple and chant, I find it deeply nourishing. When I then bring that chant to my band in rehearsal, the energy grows. When we share that chant on stage, the love is amplified even more.”
My motivation comes from having a regular practice of being with my muse. Every week, I log my “muse time” hours, like clocking in at work. I go into my temple and usually start with a vocal warmup, like vocal toning, and then a chant; usually the Hanuman chalisa. I let the rest of the time be open from there; sometimes staying with the harmonium and sometimes moving to the guitar or piano. I spend some time working technically and also going deeply ecstatic and devotional. It’s non-negotiable for me to go to the well to create space for this deep dive each week.
Who have been the greatest influences on your music and your bhakti practice?
David Newman has been the greatest influence on my music and bhakti practice. David has been a profound mentor for me, and I’ve had the opportunity to sing with him at festivals and events. Most recently we did a tour together called the Love Heals All Wounds Tour.
David helped me find my niche, letting me know it was ok to sing in English sometimes. He has also influenced my musical style as we both embrace an Americana/roots tradition along with the more traditional Kirtan practice. David has given me some of the deepest darshans—spiritual transmission by being in the presence of a divine teacher—and I carry some of his phrases with me. One of my favorite ‘Davidisms’ which encompasses the Bhakti path: ‘‘You can kick someone out of your house, but never kick them out of your heart.”
David is also a hilarious trickster at times. Last summer, he coached me to do a solo Kirtan without my band and I was super nervous. Days before the event, I called him to have him remind me why I was doing this. And his reply was, “You’re doing a whole solo show? I only told you to do a few songs!” I panicked for a minute before he let me know he was kidding.
Jai Uttal is also a deep musical influence. When he sang on our first album, Lovolution, I got to watch him sing in the studio. I was blown away, he was so humble, so real. Then when his voice opened up it truly felt like the divine blasting through him into that little microphone.
What has been your biggest life lesson? What has helped get you through it? What hasn’t helped?
My biggest life lesson has been my anxiety. I was one of those kids who worried about absolutely everything; the sky was always falling. I would literally pull out my hair until I had bald spots. Yoga and chanting helped me immensely, but I still couldn’t live in my own skin. I knew something had to change.
Two years ago, I went on a very powerful journey with a Shaman and had a near death experience in my van on the way home. The whole experience was a deep personal breakdown and breakthrough. A part of me—the anxious, small, panicked version of me—had to die, and I had to emerge a more whole version of myself, especially if I was going to serve the world powerfully as a Bhakti singer. Soon after, I met Yashoda Devi Ma, who initiated me into Vedic Meditation which I’ve been doing twice a day for 20-30 minutes every since.
My anxiety is still a work in progress, of course, but I do feel I have come through to the other side. My monkey mind has become peaceful, which I truly did not know was possible. I am almost exactly six months “sober” from my last hair pull, which is the longest I have ever gone, and I am living joyously in my own skin for the first time. The support of my family has also been essential, especially that of my husband, who is also my bass player. He holds such a space for me, personally and musically. None of this healing would be happening without our partnership.
What doesn’t help with my anxiety is coming at the mind with more logic-based explanations, like, “There’s no reason to be anxious,” or “It will all be ok; why are you so worried?”
What do you feel is your greatest gift to the world of yoga?
These are such awesome questions. For many years I was a doula, helping women give birth. Now, as a voice coach and Kirtan musician, I feel I have a gift in helping those who might not otherwise sing to share their voice, to give birth to themselves through their voice. I feel I have become a voice doula. Through my coaching and classes, and my music events, I remind people that it is our birthright to sing—joyfully, publicly, and powerfully. Singing will always drop you out of your mind and into your body and your joy. Our band is not like traditional bands—with classic rock mash-ups, conscious English lyrics, and our mantra rock vibe, we invite those who might not be aware of Kirtan into the practice gently.
I want more people to know peace in their minds and hearts. We are in a shaky time on this planet. Many people are struggling with anxiety, depression, fear. The Bhakti path has a way of being a circle of motivation. The more I sing, the more I open up to joy and the more I want to sing. I want others to have this experience for themselves. I want to uplift the planet my kiddos are inheriting through the vibration of song.
What is your dharma and how do you follow it?
My dharma, I believe, is to share my own voice, to heal my own wounds with my song, and to help others to do the same. I follow this path by beginning each day with a deep bow to the divine, asking how I can serve, listening to the whispers and songs of my muse, and allowing myself to open more and more to being a channel for that muse.
I have been so blessed to be joined by some amazing musicians who are also deep healers and advocates. Together we can bring that message out in a wider scope. Hanuman—both the deity and the festival—are a symbol of devotion. I wear a picture of Hanuman around my neck, right by my voice, and always ask: “Let my love be bigger than my fear. Let me serve more powerfully, open my heart, and through doing so, open the heart of the world.”