What is it in the Jewish psyche that causes us to point and mention with pride that so and so is a member of the tribe? In a culture where doctors and lawyers are the norm, we hold up musicians and athletes as testament that anything is possible. This urge even manifested itself in a fairly slim book called “Jews who Rock” by Guy Oseary which enumerates pieces of modern music which are not in themselves Jewish but were created by those potentially influenced by the nasal pitch of prayer and Hebrew songs.
In our own midst of Montreal I was introduced to musician-songwriter DANIEL ISAIAH by my guitarist friend Chris Flower (guitar player on some tracks of Isaiah’s new album, visual artist and friend of the Jews). Last winter I saw them perform a great set at the Divan Orange in Montreal and made a point of picking up the new album High Twilight when it came out in June. Daniel Isaiah, all around nice guy and Jew, was kind enough to entertain my questions, trying to link a Jewish upbringing with his current art and tackling the age old mystery of why we feel pride about the Jewish musician (or any successful Jew, for that matter).
High Twilight, released by Secret City Records (the same label as noted Montreal musicians Patrick Watson, Barr Brothers and Plants and Animals) received heavy rotation on my stereo in part because of Isaiah’s keen ability to collaborate with some of Montreal’s finest musicians. The songwriting is vivid, with Isaiah placing images in the mind’s eye and then passing the theme off to a stellar band of Montreal musicians who ease into twangy guitar, pedal steel and organ. Highlights include first song, Anita on the Banks, a slow track that builds into rollicking intensity. Title track High Twilight, is beautiful and hypnotic with a fine pedal steel.
I met up with Isaiah to talk about his music, growing up in Montreal and performing under a name straight out of the Old Testament. We adjourned for a beer at the Arts Cafe on Fairmount, across the street from the school his mother attended in the 1950s.
When you hear Isaiah’s album and get taken away by lyrics of love and loss you want to compare the skinny Montreal singer-songwriter to Leonard Cohen and draw a line to Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. I bring this up with Isaiah and he treads carefully, trying not to get stuck with labels, though still admitting to being influenced by these songwriters; musicians who grew up Jewish and were also forced to confront their artistic and cultural identities. If any comparison with Cohen is to be made, it emerges through Isaiah sharing that his writing is influenced less by Judaism and more by Greek myth and literature by Ovid and Homer, with him “wanting to talk about mythic characters from his own kind of angle.” We recall that a lot of Cohen’s early success came out of songs cast on Greek Islands and carefree adventures. (A-ha!)
Isaiah offers the theory that the obsession to note who is Jewish has “something to do with affirming yourself by pointing at other successful people”. Our conversation drifts to talk about other musical influences, including French singer Serge Gainsbourg who Isaiah gleefully pegs as a Russian Jew. Before giving up on tethering Daniel Isaiah’s music to Jewish culture I asked him random Jewishy questions where we discover his current fixation with poppy-seed hamentachen. For his Bar-Mitzvah, Isaiah was given a choice between a party and an electric guitar and he fatefully chose a Fender Stratocaster (“today you are a man”).
Beyond music, Isaiah, a self-professed cinephile, has had some success with making movies. In 2008, his Three Mothers won best short fiction script for the “Cours Écrire Ton Court” (Sprint for your Script). The prize included funding to produce the movie and travel as it played on the international film festival circuit. He has just completed a script for a feature film comedy and is currently working on a script about life in Montreal’s Mile-End.
If so intrigued, or seeking affirmation that Hebrew school graduates can really do anything, you should check out Isaiah’s new record.
BJ Loomer is an educator with an eclectic taste in sounds . Loomer obeys the “three listens rule” before even considering a comment on a record.