Music and (Yiddish) Lyrics
A Q; with the multi-talented Mitch Smolkin.
Singer, producer and actor Mitch Smolkin has been in the music business for many years. He has performed on various stages, including concerts in Canada, the U.S., South America and Israel. But the road to releasing a full album was more winding than he anticipated.
After years of working on different projects such as the Ashkenaz Festival and currently at the Harbourfront Centre, Smolkin finally finished his first album. And, he did not have to look any further for inspiration than his own Yiddish background. A Song is Born comprises 13 tracks that salute Yiddish history as well as Smolkin’s own journey in music. He recently spoke to Shalom Life to discuss his debut album.
Can you talk about your thought process in terms of what you wanted to achieve with this album?
I think that I primarily wanted to do something that I would like. I know it may sound somewhat simplistic I think making one’s first album is challenging because there are so many routes that one can take. It was a bit of a surprise in a sense that in the past I had false starts. I was actually in the studio thinking that I was going to begin and realizing that it wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t the right way to move forward. So it wasn’t until I was leaving the Ashkenaz Festival as artistic director in 2006. It was basically the second-to-last day when I performed with some friends that I knew that those were the individuals I wanted to work with. From there, it just flowed.
Speaking of the Ashkenaz Festival, you were the artistic director there for six years. What was the transition like between working there and then recording your own album?
I kind of did things in reverse. A lot of people come to those jobs with albums or with artwork, depending on one’s artistic practice. It made things in many ways a lot easier for me because I had the experience of working with so many artists and watching their process. Had I started to make an album before having been there, I wouldn’t have the same contacts and the same skills for being able to know how to launch an album, how to go on tour or how to get grants. I think it was beneficial.
You chose the inspiration of Yiddish history for all of your tracks. Why did you choose that theme?
I kind of looked at a metaphor of building a house, in terms of building my body of work. It dawned on me at some point that it was really important to go with my heart and not necessarily what is commercially viable. Ultimately, I wanted to love what I did. So I see this album as sort of having a foundation of the work that I want to do: a start of the beginning. And the beginning very much for me is Yiddish music. I feel like I paid tribute to where I come from, so that I know better where I can go.
How has your background, whether it’s your faith or culture, affected your music?
It’s given me a sense of place. A few months I had the opportunity to tour to South America. The best example was Uruguay. I was able to perform for 600 people in Uruguay that I’ve never met before and I don’t speak Spanish. But I could go to all these countries, whether it’s across the United States, Canada, South American or Europe and sing in Yiddish. I think it’s affected my approach for this work. It allowed me to connect to the audience.
Why did you decide to title the album A Song is Born?
The Yiddish title is perhaps more telling. “A Nign” is the title track of the album. It basically talks about a poor man who only connects to his God or the divine when he sings a certain melody. I titled it that because in some ways it’s a concept album in terms of the tracks rolling into one another and creating a song. That’s how I felt. I feel like it’s allowed me to connect to something bigger than myself. The title represents that journey.
You once said that “music conveys a very thoughtful perspective on the human condition.” How have you applied that belief in A Song is Born?
I think that on the surface people feel compelled to show each other, whether in public or private situations, that we know what we’re doing. That we’ve got it figured out. I don’t think that’s such an easy task. I think that music is very often a shortcut for us as human beings to communicate with each other about what it’s like to be alive and what it means to get through life. Often we don’t have the words to communicate in a profound way to strangers or people we love. But when you enter a concert hall or sing together at Passover, there’s an immediate connection about hope, loss and love. It’s much more profound and vital than any other ways that we communicate.
Presently, you work at the Harbourfront Centre. How has the daily experience of being around other artists influenced your music?
It makes me more decisive. I saw Bobby McFerrin, who’s in town this week. He said that for five years he didn’t listen to any artists because he wanted to find his own voice. On one hand being around other artists shows me what’s possible and I’m always being inspired by a whole range of traditions. On the other hand, as Bobby McFerrin said, it can often pollute or keep you from hearing you own voice. I’m of two minds about it, but I definitely think it’s for the better…. This album was definitely a result of seeing other artists.
So you’ve officially released your debut album. What’s next for you? What are your future plans?
I’m touring this year with a show that I’ve been working on for a number of years. It’s based on the American Songbook, but it’s also in Yiddish. I’d like to record a tribute album to the late Seymour Rechtzeit, who is a great Yiddish actor and tenor. He sang for the president of the United States when he was a teenager, in Yiddish. I don’t that’s happened before or since. But like I said, I’m building a house. So it’s time for me to think about making an album in English. I’d like to put out an album that’s in the tradition of The American Songbook and jazz.
For learn more about Mitch Smolkin, please visit www.MitchSmolkin.com