April 13th, 2007 by Menachem Wecker
Mordechai Shinefield has written about music for the Village Voice, the Forward and the NY Press. He recently won a writing gig for Rolling Stone Magazine. His unconservative taste in Jewish music (Dylan over Avraham Fried) used to get him in trouble at Yeshiva, but he still maintains Highway 61 Revisted is the greatest Jewish album ever. He maintains a music blog at mcatzilut.livejournal.com.
Here is what he told Iconia over Instant Messenger.
Socrates0148 (MW): What motivated you to submit to the RS contest?
Stickytuesday (MS): My friend Lilit Marcus, a writer at Beliefnet, sent me the link and told me to enter. I figured I had half an hour before my next class - and the assignment only called for 300 words. It wasn’t hard to put something together and hit the submit button.
Socrates0148: To what extent did religious music influence your submission?
Stickytuesday: Well, though it sounds cliche at this point, a lot of my musical listening feels very spiritual to me. My iPod includes a lot of singers that draw on religious traditions and motifs - Jewish and otherwise. Today I was just listening to Leonard Cohen, who uses a lot of Old and New Testament imagery in his music. So though it wasn’t conscious at the time, my music writing for the contest talked about music as though it had a soul - the personification of these bands as though they could actually interact with each other and have an effect on us.
In terms of religious Jewish music, it didn’t have an immediate influence on the first submission, but the third prompt called for a concert review and I reviewed Ayelet Rose Gottlieb’s show in Cornelia Street Cafe. She’s currently my favorite overtly Jewish singer.
Socrates0148: Do you find it easy to talk about spiritual aspects of music in your writing, or is that something that people respond negatively to and that you need to bury?
Stickytuesday: Well, the spiritual stuff just influences the way I write. I’d never describe a band by citing God, but I might be attracted to writing about them because of the spiritual stuff. The band Thursday is a good example of that (I wrote an interview for them for the second Rolling Stone prompt). So I don’t feel I need to hide it, but I also don’t feel compelled to lay it out there.
Socrates0148: How do you find the religious community responds to the sort of music you write about?
Stickytuesday: Ha. Well, sometimes favorably. But not often. After I wrote a piece for the NY Press about Soce - the homosexual, Jewish rap artist - someone actually looked up and emailed my father. He said profiling someone like Soce was a shonde. In general, the religious community I come from originally (I studied in a Yeshiva for highschool) doesn’t approve of listening to secular music at all. Or even to paying a lot of attention to Jewish music. Writing about music would be totally out of their frame of reference. At best, I’d imagine them asking “who cares?” At worst, I’d get a similar response to the one the Soce article inspired.
Socrates0148: Are there many people out there who really care about religious music per se?
Stickytuesday: Again, I think you need to distinguish between “observant” religious music, and religiously inspired music. The latter is probably more subtle - I don’t know how many people hunt down music that’s particularly influenced by religion (though maybe people like Sufjan Stevens would prove me wrong). The former, of course, is a burgeoning market. In the Jewish market, there are less overtly Jewish albums, but Christian rock frequently places albums at the top of the Billboard charts. So yes, I’d say lots of people care deeply about religious music.
Socrates0148: Do you make music yourself?
Stickytuesday: Like, besides on Guitar Hero? Heh. I’m a terrible musician, though I’ve taken guitar lessons in the past. Most of my artistic expression happens when I write fiction - though that’s taken a backseat to music journalism lately. I used to write songs, but they were all too humiliating to show anyone.
Socrates0148: Who is your favorite musician who uses religious content in her/his work?
Stickytuesday: At the moment, or ever? It’s a tricky question. I love artists like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and S&G. Among current artists, I think Sufjan Stevens is great. As is Neko Case. Thursday is probably my favorite contemporary band. There are others, but those are at the top of my list.
Socrates0148: Matisyahu: good for the Jews or bad for the Jews? Good for music or bad?
Stickytuesday: If you had asked me a year ago, I would’ve been very opinionated on the matter. I felt that he wasn’t being faithful to the Jewish community. When most bands from small scenes blow up, they drag fellow bands into the mainstream with them. Matisyahu didn’t help break any other Jewish bands. — Now though, it’s hard to be passionate about the topic one way or the other. I think that he’s been accepted, for better or for worse, as a novelty act. Or among some critics, as a minstrel show (Jodi Rosen at Slate said that, I believe). If anything, at this point he’s an oddity - but I don’t think he’s made a huge impact on music one way or the other. Maybe he’s made people more receptive to very ethnic Jewish music - but I suspect that his choice of genre (reggae as opposed to, say, klezmer) wouldn’t support that.
Socrates0148: If you could tell the world about one other Jewish musician who might better represent what’s going on in innovative Jewish music, who would it be?
Stickytuesday: Can I pick two?
Stickytuesday: Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, who is this incredible, sexy, gorgeous voiced Israeli Jazz musician. She recently did a series of compositions based on Shir haShirim and she’s simply incredible. It’s really an experience to see her live. The other would be Jewlia Eisenberg, the composer for Charming Hostess. Jewlia represents, to me, what Jewish music should ideally be - it’s eclectic, drawn from dozens of different sources, and as textually layered as a tract of Talmud. She’s also incredible live. As far as frumrock goes - I think Y Love is really something special. Oops, that’s three.
Socrates0148: Three is fine. So tell me more about the RS deal. How long are you there?
Stickytuesday: The gig is for three months. So I guess that’s the minimum. Obviouslly I’m hoping they really like me and keep me around.
Socrates0148: How often do you get to write? What are you working on now?
Stickytuesday: Well, I’ve started doing a Consumer Guide, ala Cristgau, for American Jewish Life magazine. I also blog about all kinds of music at mcatzilut.livejournal.com. And every couple weeks I do an album review in the Village Voice. That all takes up a lot of my time. So, I’m pretty much always writing. And when I’m not writing, I’m listening to music.
Socrates0148: What are you working on for RS?
Stickytuesday: Well, I’ll be working on their blog. But I haven’t started yet, so I’m not sure what they’ll have me doing yet.
Socrates0148: When do you start?
Stickytuesday: Hopefully June, but I haven’t confirmed the times yet.
Socrates0148: Is writing about music something you hope to do full time?
Stickytuesday: At this point, it’s definitely my dream job.
Socrates0148: Final thoughts?
Stickytuesday: On music, Jewish music, or Rolling Stone?
Socrates0148: Yes. Or anything else?
Stickytuesday: Nope. Nothing I can think of at the moment. Though, since I’m generally sitting on the other end of these interviews, I’d like to say it’s a very different experience being interviewed than interviewing.
Socrates0148: Do you like the loss of control? Do you feel exploited? As a reporter, what would you have asked you that I didn’t get around to?
Stickytuesday: I do like the loss of control. It’s exciting. And I don’t feel exploited. Which either means that you’re a good interviewer, or that I can stop worrying about my own interview subjects.
Now you’re asking me to interview myself? Heh. I think you hit the major bases. I can’t really think of anything else off-hand that would interest readers. Though I’m not really thinking in that context at the moment.
Socrates0148: Alright I got another. Why do Jews support Jewish music so much more than Jewish art?
Stickytuesday: Do they? If they do, and I’ll take your word for it, it might have to do with the place of music in pop culture in general. I think music, especially pop music, has become a day to day thing, comparable to television and film. So listening to music has a lot to do with personal identity and personal politics. Even listening to the Dixie Chicks has become a referendum on your politics. I assume Jewish music fulfills a similar role. Golem’s audience is vastly different than Blue Fringe’s audience - and fans can define themselves by whose audience they fall into. Of course, it could have to do with pop culture versus high culture in general. I notice classical Jewish music isn’t particularly popular at the moment. Or Cantorial music, for that matter.
Socrates0148: One last question, and it will be the last this time. I promise. Deal?
Stickytuesday: Ask away.
Socrates0148: If you bring together any musicians alive now and put them on the task of making a CD of Jewish music on an area that you think is being most grossly neglected what would it be?
Stickytuesday: Wow. Like, make a fantasy band and describe a fantasy album by them?
Socrates0148: Yes. But something you think has never been done or underdone. That’s not too much of a hypothetical, is it? Grin.
Stickytuesday: Leonard Cohen would write the lyrics but not perform them. Rhythm section from Golem, Horns from the Klezmatics + Avishai Cohen with his trumpet. Charming Hostess as backup vocals, and Regina Spektor would sing lead. Have Socalled remix it. And so it doesn’t sound like the cacophony of sound this mix suggests, have them practice - a lot. Make half the album a soulful treatise on the Biblical history of Israel that’s neither trite nor political - and get Say Anything to play with the group on the B Side: a ska inflected series of punk songs about being a Jewish anarchist.
I’m sure that could’ve been double as long, but fantasy Jewish bands aren’t half as fun as fantasy anything-goes bands.
Socrates0148: Well let’s save that for next time, shall we?
Stickytuesday: Sounds like a plan.