Nimai Larson finds growth and beauty in sobriety’s Second Surrender

Nimai Larson

When Nimai Larson first came to the rooms of recovery, surrendering to the process the first time around was relatively simple.

The Ties That Bind UsIt wasn’t necessarily easy — giving up the security blanket of drugs and alcohol that have become a panacea for the slings and arrows of life lived on its own terms is often a terrifying transformation to go through. But the pain of staying the same had become greater than the fear of change, and so Larson — one half of the sister duo known as Prince Rama — stepped through the doorway and into a new way of life that soon began to pay dividends, she told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

It's that Second Surrender, however, that’s been the most profound part of her sobriety journey over the past seven years.

“Since moving (from New York) to Texas, they talk a lot in the rooms (of self-help and 12 Step meetings) about this thing called the Second Surrender, and I didn’t know what a Second Surrender was,” Larson says. “Now, I do. We talk a lot about it happening around five to seven years (clean and sober), when the excitement of a new way of life has kind of worn off, and it’s really about trudging the road of happy destiny at this point.

“I realized that I just want to control the way I feel, because I’m so afraid of the way I feel when I’m disconnected with God. And in this time, a lot of problems have come up that I thought I would never have to deal with. I think that happens to a lot of us, because in the beginning, we deal with the alcohol problem, and ask God to deal with these defects of character, but what caused all of that? There are a hundred forms of fear that cause these defects of character.”

For Nimai — pronounced NEE-my — the Second Surrender, the one informed by her recovery journey to date more so than a freshly fought battle against drugs and alcohol — has allowed her to recalibrate her expectations. No longer are her dreams dependent on the “cash and prizes” that informed her music career, or even the material desires that so many newly recovering addicts and alcoholics have when they decide to get clean and sober.

“I don’t think we should come into recovery and leave a millionaire,” she says with a laugh. “People talk about how, ‘I’ve gotten a life beyond my wildest dreams,’ and when I think about that, the life of my wildest dreams before recovery was that I wanted Prince Rama to be as big as Kesha. Today, I’m not bigger than Kesha — but I have a wonderful boyfriend, and we have a great relationship. We own a wonderful home. I have a wonderful family. And what I’ve come to realize is that this actually is the life beyond my wildest dreams.”

Nimai Larson and the search for identity

Prince Rama — Taraka (left) and Nimai Larson. (Courtesy of Shawn LaChapelle)

The origin story of the Larson sisters — Nimai and Taraka — is as fascinating and exotic as the music made by Prince Rama. They grew up in Texas, where Nimai lives today, the daughters of peaceniks who put their beliefs into action. After 9/11, they uprooted the girls and moved to Florida to be closer to the Hare Krishna community of like-minded individuals. For Nimai, who had long struggled to find her lane as an individual person, it was a difficult adjustment.

“I feel like I was addicted to acceptance before I was addicted to alcohol, because I was already behaving in weird ways as a child — just wanting to be accepted and doing whatever it took,” she says. “I would go to any lengths to be accepted by a friend group, by boys, by my sister, by my parents. I first discovered drugs and alcohol in Texas, but then, when I started high school in Florida in the Hare Krishna community, it was very jarring, and I just fell in with the wrong crowd. I was so sick of trying to get accepted into the popular group, so I just thought, ‘Where are the most gothy weirdo troublemakers? I’ll fit in with them.’”

During those formative years, Nimai began cultivating a reputation of living on the edge that would later on inform Prince Rama’s ethos. She was arrested for stealing and ditching school. She drank. She smoked. And she and Taraka launched a band that gained traction in the local scene for its visceral energy and bombastic live show. After Taraka left for college, things got even more intense, she adds.

“For that year, I was alone in the house with my parents, so I decided to do what Nimai wanted to do, and I wanted to be hot and drink and sneak out and go to clubs with the cool kids,” she says. “I drove drunk all the time and fell asleep at the wheel. I got in so much trouble, and my parents were so sad at this life I was choosing. I didn’t get good scores on the SAT, but even then, I moved out because I thought, ‘If I don’t have Mom and Dad breathing down my neck, I can do whatever I want.’”

Reconnecting with Taraka, the two put together Prince Rama, a band that didn’t just turn heads: It grabbed potential fans by the chin and demanded they look into the eyes of artistic madness, and once they did, it was impossible to turn away. After three independent releases, the band was “discovered” in a Texas bar by Avery Tare of the band Animal Collective, who brokered a deal with Paw Tracks, Animal Collective’s own imprint. The first official Prince Rama release for the label was “Shadow Temple,” which sounds like the music Michael Gira’s Swans might have made had that band collaborated with Neko Case at a Lakota Sun Dance.

“The band doesn't use a ton of instruments (tribal drumming, chugging synths, and crunching guitars are the main components) but its tracks are sonically dense and propulsive,” wrote Joe Colly in a review for the cachet publication Pitchfork. “The album has a nice element of surprise. ‘Om Namo Shivaya’ is sort of fluid and droning, but once you give into its haze, a buzzing electric guitar line pops out of nowhere to jerk you back into reality. The band also does well with mood: Even though most of the lyrics aren't discernable, you still get a clear sense of foreboding from these songs.”

In the indie music scene, Prince Rama seemed primed for an explosive career … but Nimai found herself still trying to find her place in it all, she says.

Nimai Larson: The end is the beginning

Nimai Larson

Nimai Larson drums for Prince Rama at Comet Ping Pong in 2016. (Courtesy of Tony Hitchcock)

“I was drinking, drinking, drinking; clubbing, clubbing, clubbing, and hating myself but thinking everyone was doing it,” she says. “In the band, there was a lot of power struggles and that need to be accepted. Taraka was the leader of the band, and I was just her sister. That was how I saw it, and I think I always tried to overcompensate for the fact I was Taraka’s little sister: ‘But I’m the little sister whose down to party! I’m the little sister who’s down to drink! I’m sluttier than my sister!’ I was down for whatever, because whatever would separate me from her.

“I just wanted to separate from her in any way possible, so I became the party sister and put that out there, and I tried to live up to that expectation I perceived everyone had of me, this thing I had built for myself. And on tour, it started getting embarrassing. I would, in a blackout, be inappropriate with other bands, with the promoter, or I would embarrass our band.”

And it was always followed by the “incomprehensible demoralization of the next morning,” she adds: Taraka and guitarist Michael Collins (later replaced by Ryan Sciaino) would unleash on her during the van drive to the next gig, all while she vomited into an empty Subway bag in the backseat and felt the crushing weight of shame drive her further into the abyss. Prince Rama built an incredible body of work over the next several years, putting both “Shadow Temple” and 2011’s “Trust Now” on the Billboard New Age Albums chart. In 2012, the band released the mind-bending concept album “Top 10 Hits of the End of the World,” which fans still consider the group’s high-water mark.

Despite the music, and despite the world tours, Nimai still found herself adrift, seeking solace in whatever chemical outlet offered oblivion, she says.

“I started writing in my journal about how I thought I had a problem and how I wanted to stop drinking, but it was always a social and professional excuse, because what kind of musician doesn’t drink?” she says. “Cocaine? Sure. Some random pill in some random club in Moscow at 9 a.m.? Sure. MDMA? Sure. I started accepting whatever was offered.”

Those respites, however, were inevitably followed by the oppressiveness of reality once she sobered up, a vicious cycle that came to a head during a drive to a gig in Upstate New York. Taraka drove separately with her boyfriend at the time; Nimai was behind the wheel with the duo’s mother, who had tagged along for a visit. Traffic was congested, and Nimai’s simmering baseline of self-loathing gave way to anger.

“I was always kind of angry when I was using, but my mom said something like, ‘Why do you think you’re so angry?’” she says. “I immediately snapped, ‘I don’t know, mom!’ But then she says, ‘Nimai, I think the reason you’re so angry is because I think you’re not being honest with yourself. What do you honestly want?’ And I immediately said, ‘I honestly don’t want to drink anymore.’

“That was a God moment, because once I said it, I couldn’t unsay it. I think in that moment, I recognized that alcohol wasn’t the problem; it was the solution to my other problems. I tried to get drunk at our show that night, and I could not get drunk. Nothing was working.”

Up from the bottom: Clawing her way back to sanity

Nimai Larson and her boyfriend, Andy Vietti.

She had attempted to stop several times in the past to no avail, she adds. And to the rest of the world, she had turned her partying into a boutique reputation as a hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll chef, with her own column in Impose Magazine called “Healthy or Hungover,” in which her recipes were intertwined with personal snippets like “teeth stained from drinking red wine out of a plaStiC cup at 1pm” after being offered a glass while getting her nails done. She sought similar external validation by posting to social media an intent to break from drinking for 30 days, and she held fast. More than that, she transformed in a relatively short amount of time, losing weight and embracing hot yoga and sucking down juice cleanses … but there was little spiritual transformation, and at the end of those 30 days, she picked up again. This time, her freshly detoxed body reacted violently, and she suffered for the next 10 days.

Determined to stay sober this time, she again put pen to paper, this time for a breakup letter to alcohol in the same magazine. (She would go on to write one more piece for Impose, marking her one year of sobriety.)

“I talked about how it was the most abusive relationship I had ever been in, and that time, I ended up connecting with another musician who said, ‘I’ll bring you to a (recovery) meeting,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh, I don’t need that,’ but then I realized, ‘What do I do on a Friday night in Brooklyn if I’m not drinking?’ So I called them back and said, ‘I’m having a panic attack, because it’s 10 p.m. and I’m not drunk!’ And they said, ‘I’ll take you to a meeting tomorrow.’”

Walking in, she thought her life might be over, but what she found was a collective of similar artistic types around the same age who combatted the grim reality of alcoholism and addiction with humor, pathos, empathy and solidarity. She found a sobriety mentor, a sponsor, who helped her reframe her narrative as well, she adds.

“She was like, ‘Nimai, if you think about it, life is pretty boring as a drinker. You drink a lot, but you’re always at a bar, and there are bars everywhere in the world. But think what you can do if you’re not drinking,’” Larson remembers. “She helped me realize I could go to museums, to fashion shows, to art openings, to restaurants — all of these things that create culture and memories and color and vibrancy in the world instead of being at any bar in Anywhere, USA, and getting the same vodka tonic that you can get in Brooklyn or France.”

Today, she looks back on the young rock ‘n’ roll socialite who penned those boozy musings in “Healthy or Hungover,” and she feels a little cringy, but more than anything else, she feels an overwhelming sense of empathy for her former self. She wants to crawl into the magazine, using those words as a portal back in time, to hug her younger, lost self and offer love.

“I look back at how I was portraying myself to the world and think, ‘Oh, God, you poor thing,’” she says. “I was so desperate for acceptance and attention and validation, and I needed it, even though more was never enough. Now, I just feel like, I am through being cool. I don’t care who knows I listen to Kid Rock sometimes. I don’t care who knows I love pop music. I don’t have to impress you with my obscure music knowledge anymore, and I don’t have to be anything I don’t want to be.

“I just want to be me, and that’s something I did not allow myself when I was drinking, because I so desperately wanted you to accept me, and I would go to any lengths. I would say yes to drugs, to shots, to drinks, to dudes, to friends. I would say yes when I wanted to say no — yes to another late night, another hangover; yes to whatever it took for someone to like me or to accept me.”

Nimai Larson and the constant quest for surrender

Nimai Larson

Courtesy of Andy Vietti

Her transformation, like those of so many of her sober brothers and sisters, hasn’t been without its travails and pitfalls. In the beginning, she says, she knew she wanted to quit drinking, but what that meant … what it would look like to her circle of friends, to the fans of Prince Rama ... terrified her. The first couple of years of her sobriety, she adds, were about learning to navigate a world without alcohol, and what that looked like.

“Looking back with the time I have now, it’s not so much about the pain or how do I feel better. My main struggles now are, how do I trust God’s plan?” she says. “How do I make my will align with God’s will for me and can I let go of that delusional obsession that I can control my life in the way I want it in my time?”

The surrender of self-will is a difficult recovery concept, but in taking stock of hers, Larson began to see how big of a driver it had been in her own spiritual restlessness. Step Two of all 12 Step programs talks about the restoration to sanity through a Higher Power, and it’s not an unfamiliar concept to Larson — she’d been chasing it her whole life, albeit in a way that was paradoxically opposed to its spiritual nature.

“I was under the delusion that if Prince Rama got bigger, I would be restored to sanity. If I had a boyfriend … if we made more money … if we had a bigger apartment … if this, if that,” she says. “That really calmed down when I got into sobriety and realized that I have a God-sized hole inside of me, not a house-sized hole, or a bigger-closet-sized hole, or a ring-on-your-finger-sized hole.”

At the same time, she embarked on a spiritual journey to separate herself from both the Hare Krishna teachings of her childhood, and the inflated sense of importance it had taken on in media coverage about the uniqueness of the Prince Rama origin story. She still holds those original tenets in a special place in her heart, she says, but in unraveling it from her actual beliefs, it led her to another important emotional landscape that needed to be explored: her own identity.

“I was very much in a relationship with Taraka and our band, and when I broke up with the band (the dissolution was officially announced in 2019), and Taraka and I went our separate ways, it was like I had been cut out of this set of Siamese triplets of something,” she says. “One, myself. Two, Taraka. Three, Prince Rama. And we were fused into one being. I didn’t know how to use my spirituality limb, how to use my identity limb, or my honesty limb, or my acceptance limb individually. There were a lot of things I had to reteach myself because I was so dependent on what our fans thought of us and what our friends thought of me as a member of Prince Rama.

“Our band was very concept heavy, and we were very much in character a lot of the time. We had different outfits, different stage makeup, and we were very heavily involved in the artistry behind our music videos and our albums. And so to not have that identity to hide behind anymore, to not have this ‘sister psychedelic duo from this swampy Hare Krishna commune in Florida’ to lean on — and to not have my sister, when we were basically glued to one another for 29 years — I’ve had to search inside myself since breaking away from all of that and learn to accept who Nimai is, without Taraka and the band and without fans.”

That was one of the reasons she left Brooklyn, she adds: The city played as big of a role in the Prince Rama aesthetic as their Hare Krishna roots did, and even leaving the band, she would always be known there as “Nimai Larson of Prince Rama.”

In Austin, where she now lives, “no one knows who I am here, and no one cares,” she says with a laugh.

“In Brooklyn and in our circles, when we were touring and traveling the world, I had gotten so used to people waiting for us, being there when we arrived, doing whatever we needed, and this was a rude awakening!” she adds. “No one here gives a shit, at least outside of our fanbase, and my spirituality here has had to grow, because my dependency on it has grown as I have broken away from my dependency on the band for validation.”

Just Nimai: No more, no less

Nimai (right) and Andy.

Today, she’s just Nimai. She works in real estate, but more importantly, her passion, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, has been community. For a while, she maintained a recipe website that focused on vegan options and her love of cooking; today, she still cooks, but her social media posts (on the Instagram account FunCityAustin) are designed to celebrate the places and destinations in her new hometown that offer respite from a troublesome world.

“I’m so obsessed with this city that my boyfriend and I started a whole Instagram account dedicated to the fun you can have here that do not have to do with drugs and alcohol — artistic and creative things, matcha, coffee, donuts, cakes, fitness, food, adventures, architecture, lakes, sports,” she says. “It covers a lot of ground, but what it doesn’t cover is the really, really touristy Sixth Street area with all the bars. I’m kind of like a fish out of water, a vegetarian who doesn’t drink, but I still love Austin, and I don’t think Austin is limited to just people who love barbecue and booze.”

Part of her new life is exploring that city and sharing her discoveries, especially those that are ideal for a sober community. And while Prince Rama and making music are in her rearview, she’s still in touch with and a very vocal cheerleader for her sister, who embarked on a solo career after Prince Rama broke up.

“I think the most I have to do with music right now besides listening to it is that I support her, and I support other musicians who are somehow making it happen,” she says. “I still commend musicians who are still trying and holding out hope.”

For Nimai Larson, hope looks a little differently than it once did, especially as she navigates that Second Surrender. She began seeing a therapist to navigate some “intense, dark shit that alcoholics always want to avoid,” she says, and she’s recently come through a dark and tumultuous period of recovery that was frightening to navigate. As she feels the sun warm her face again, she gives profuse thanks to the foundation laid in sobriety back in New York, and the miracles that have followed in its wake.

“If I didn’t have that strong foundation, I don’t know if I would have been carried through, and I don’t know if I would have had my Second Surrender to God and stayed sober,” she says. “With the Second Surrender, I’m dealing with my past and learning that there’s not anything external big enough to help me through that. Money won’t help me through my past, Taraka won’t help me through my past, kind fan emails — which I still get all the time — won’t help me through my past.

“They’re not big enough to restore me to sanity, but what is, is that my concept of a Higher Power has had to grow and evolve to fit Nimai and my needs and my life beyond my wildest dreams here in Austin as just another person making it in the world. And that’s very humbling. I’ve struggled a lot with not being in the band and finding purpose.”

Leaving Prince Rama, she adds, was a leap of faith, but by grabbing hands with her Higher Power, she found the courage to step off the cliff, knowing that something wonderful was waiting to catch her below, even if she couldn’t see it.

“There have been a lot of times where I ask, ‘What is the plan for me?,’ but then when I get past that panic, and God does his amazing thing, I get to breathe in this kind of awesome, peaceful feeling,” she says. “I’m kind of placed in a position of neutrality, and I feel that way more often since getting sober. If good things happen, it’s awesome. If bad things happen, it’s OK. And looking back, it’s crazy that I sought a solution through drinking and addiction.

“That offers no position of neutrality or peace, because I was so tethered to what other people thought about me. I was tethered to whether I was accepted or not, or looked good or not. I was tethered to so many things, that I felt like a marionette with a puppeteer pulling me in so many directions, and I really don’t feel that anymore. I don’t care if people know I’m sober. I don’t feel like I owe anyone anything as far as an explanation of why I am the way I am, and that was something I struggled with for so long.”