Pop & Hiss

The L.A. Times music blog

« Previous Post | Pop & Hiss Home | Next Post »

Five Questions for Neshama Carlebach

December 12, 2009 | 12:12 pm


It's been a bull market recently for the integration of ethnic and world-music sounds into the pop consciousness. With some exceptions, this hasn't really been true of overtly Jewish music, however, and that's a problem Neshama Carlebach wants to fix. The singer -- whose simmering jazz-folk sidles up nicely with the neo-soul of Adele -- came to music through her father Shlomo Carlebach, a Rabbi and composer whose dozens-strong catalog of pop albums is among the lengthiest compendiums of religious pop music in the world. He ran in the Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury folk scenes in the '60s, one of many songwriters who found parallels between the hippie ethos of love and musical ecstasy within their own religious ideas. Her career has been largely centered around covering his music in modern contexts --though her latest album "One and One" consists of original music -- and she plays the Writers' Guild Theatre this Sunday.

Jewish music has had a harder time reaching crossover audiences than many other strains of ethnic pop. What are people missing out on?

It's really time for people to see the depth of this music. Like all music, some it is better and some is worse. But we're living in crazy times, the world is falling apart and there's so much healing and hope in this music. But there's also something so mournful in the minor keys and simple melody lines.

What do the experiences of playing music and serious prayer have in common?

My father would go to prisons and perform, and by the end the prisoners would be dancing with the guards. That's the possibility inherent in music, that people can come together like that.  It's a hard thing to articulate, but I know that when I play it feels like I'm levitating; that's a similar experience.

What are some of the challenges in performing songs so specific to one faith for a more general audience? 

Religion gets a bad rap. I'm fundamentally Jewish, and this is the music of Jews from all walks of life. But so much of this music is universal. So many people are afraid to be themselves, and when people see that you're being yourself they respond to it.

You're touring with a Baptist choir in your backing band on this tour. How have they influenced both your singing and your outlook on faith and society?

There are so many similarities in our musical styles, but they sing more fully and make me want to let loose more. My father always told me to surround yourself with people who are better artists than you, and these are some of the best singers I know. I'm in awe of how they take care of each other.

So much of your career has been purposefully rooted in your father's songwriting and legacy. How have you ever made any choices in your career to more consciously diverge from his accomplishments?

I saw this amazing video of him at synagogue where he took the stage with just a guitar and asked, "Now, who's going to play with me?" Someone came up and played this out-of-tune piano, someone else brought a triangle, of all things, and he was like "now, D minor!" and they played! My father never had a band, he was a healer and there were other important things than who he played with. Me, I get to be surrounded by these wonderful musicians every night and present the best show we can. My band makes me feel so safe. My father did it by himself, and it wasn't a performance for him.

-August Brown

Neshama Carlebach plays the Writers' Guild Theatre, 135 S. Doheny Dr., Beverly Hills. on Sunday at 7:45 p.m. $50. www.makom.org.

Photo via neshamacarlebach.com