Nefesh Mountain on Combining Bluegrass With Jewish Identity: 'Our Truth Was This'
It’s a safe bet that the musical journey of Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff is a little bit different than most of what you’re going to read about today. Born in New York, the two grew up enamored with the sounds of yesterday – particularly bluegrass and old-time mountain music. Those influences are all over the sound of their band, Nefesh Mountain, and their current album Beneath The Open Sky. The musical sound is a fusion of many different styles and genres. That itself isn’t that earth-shattering -- these days, it’s nothing new to put disparate sounds together. But their bluegrass music is also a celebration of their Jewish heritage – with many of the album’s lyrics in Hebrew. An odd combination? Yes, says Lindberg. But it's real.
“It works because it’s who we are,” he stresses. “I realize that might sound a bit trite or obvious. But we’re Americans who are Jewish in our background and in our heritage. At the same time, we’re also huge lovers of bluegrass music, and the music that came from this country – and music from the Western Hemisphere. I think that people associate Jews per se with klezmer music and sounds from Eastern Europe like Poland and Russia. But the music that inspired so much of the western sound is what I feel in my blood as an American. I’m referring to the Scotch-Irish tradition, as well as the Canadian old-time forms that made their way to this country – as well as the African influence. The western sound is so much a part of me,” he states.
His growing up years in Brooklyn were full of musical wonders, thanks to the sounds that were mesmerizing him. “As a kid, I was so eager for every record that I could get. I started playing guitar when I was about ten years old and living in Brooklyn. I was so eager to hear all the blues sounds, like Clapton and Hendrix. I tried to eat up everything that I could find musically that was associated with the guitar. Eventually, I got to bluegrass by the way of a few different genres. Eventually, I studied jazz music while I was in college. When I was in high school, I would say my biggest influence was Pat Metheny. From him, I got to Bela Fleck. When I heard him, everything opened up. My parents were also playing the Grisman-Garcia Shady Grove record. That hit me so hard that I took it as the spark to check out the vast world of bluegrass and old-time music. I hate talking of genres, but that always felt like love to me – so honest and genuine. All the players in it, and all of my heroes all felt connected to something real. It was something that I wanted to be a part of too.”
For Zasloff, that musical pull was just as strong. “I’ve just always been drawn to music – In Hebrew there’s a word called 'ruah' which is ‘spirit.’ I think the spirit and the truth, as well as the energy that is in this style of music is so honest and authentic that it felt like home, and just like the truth. When we started to write music together, this is what happened between us. It wasn’t like we planned it. Our truth was this,” she says, admitting that their personal story runs parallel to their artistic one.
“Actually, we fell in love as we were writing this music together," Zasloff says of the now-married couple. "Our whole story is just something that we felt was meant to be, stemming from the music being in our hearts. I always felt like a cowgirl – like a wild-spirited thing, ever since I was little. I’ve always been attracted to this kind of music. I love the southern soul.”
Lindberg says the uniting of different cultures while recording the album in Nashville was a great experience. “The love, the openness, the acceptance we felt, the support was like we were with family,” he says of the sessions with veteran players such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tony Trischka, and David Grier. “Whatever you hope that these guys are, they are – exactly what we wanted them to be. They are wonderful people. That was the most beautiful experience that we could have had – to feel such a part of the Nashville musical community.”
One track from the album that rings timely is the wistful “Narrow Bridge,” for which the band recently shot a video. “We filmed a video for that in Woodstock in the Catskills. It was freezing,” says Lindberg with a laugh. “We were on a frozen lake. My blood is still coming back to my body thinking about it.” He says that the writing of the song was inspired by America’s bitter rapport with itself during the 2016 Presidential campaign. “There was this radical Rabbi in the 1800s, I think, and he was kind of a hipster of his day. He was very much in touch with nature, and he had this poetic idea of a narrow bridge – the whole world is a narrow bridge. The important thing is to not be afraid. We took that, which is a Jewish testament and teaching, and built a song around it that could go either way. It could be part of a prayer from a Jewish person or it could be a song for a bluegrass album. We wanted to expound upon that – especially in the wake of things that are going on in this country with deaths and the news headlines. The phrase ‘troubled times’ came into our heads, so we wrote the song in December of 2016 – just after the election. It wasn’t meant to be a political song, but the country felt so angry with each other and divided. We were responding to that, which is teaching that the bridges aren’t so narrow after all, the world isn’t so bad. If you turn off the news, you realize there are beautiful people. ‘I have a beautiful family, wife, doggie, kids, and friends, so it can’t be that bad.’ I wanted that to be the underlying message, though there is such an anxiety in this country.”
And, getting along isn’t quite as far-fetched as one might think, says Zasloff, who says she was moved by a recent performance in Virginia that brought people of many beliefs together. “We were playing at this Brewery with a really big stage,” she says of one of their recent shows, which also includes Alan Grubner on violin and Tim Kiah on bass. “As we were performing, I looked around and noticed that a very interesting crowd had accumulated during the show. After the concert, we were speaking to everybody, and we realized that there were Jews. There were Christians. There were Mennonites. There were people from the Messianic Church – the whole room was an entire collection of people. It was such a crazy mix of people who were drinking beer, dancing, and enjoying themselves. The fact that these all people came together, and were just enjoying the music was beyond our wildest dreams. It felt like music is magic. This is our love story. We were just speaking our truth, but if that could happen, that was amazing.”