Who is this guy and where did he acquire that stage presence and voice? That was the question I was looking to answer through speaking with 34-year-old Eli Schwebel, the product of an amazingly creative singing family that dates back generations. But who is this young man with that golden voice that takes listeners to higher places–to levels where you may have thought music can rarely go?
So with his debut solo album, Heart’s Mind, out in stores and online this week, I spent a little time listening to the songs and trying to probe beneath the surface of his creativity and understanding the message Eli is hopefully communicating with his unique brand of words and music.
I can say this: it was a pleasure discussing music with Mr. Schwebel, his influences from the outside as well as that which drives him internally. He is a fascinating, introspective young man who has a lot to say about life and in particular what it was like and still is like to grow up in and be a part of the frum community here in New York in this thoroughly modern times of ours.
For those who follow the industry, Eli Schwebel is recognized by the distinct sound that he brought to the Lev Tahor musical group that produced four melodic albums until Eli, the mainstay of the trio, decided that he wanted to move in a different musical direction from his cohorts. His collaborators in the group were Gadi Fuchs and Motty Jacobowitz, who was then replaced by Ari Cukier, who was then replaced by Yitzy Spinner until the group ceased performing, though reuniting always remains a possibility.
“I was growing musically,” Eli says, “and I felt that there were limitations to my ability to express myself within the confines of the group.” That is not an unusual experience with any form of music, Jewish or otherwise, so it was perhaps inevitable that Eli would make the move to go off on his own.
“I’m looking for meaning in my music,” he says, adding that in his estimation too much of Jewish music today combines nice words with interesting tunes but, he feels, with a lack of depth and meaning, or with nothing more than a catchy tune with no real passion or message being conveyed.
He says that the new album was a project that took six years to evolve to the finished product, with most of the last three years spent in the studio recording and rerecording tracks. If you take a little time to listen to the various songs on the album, you can immediately discern that there is a meticulous perfection that the ear captures on every track.
Eli Schwebel has a unique sound that is immediately identifiable. I saw him in concert a year or two ago, where he did one song with his father, Rivi Schwebel, who possesses quite a voice and performance style in his own right, and his younger brother performing an Abie Rotenberg tune that had the audience riveted.
When the conversation turns to artists whom Eli has grown up with and those who musically inspired him, the first name he mentions is that of the Toronto-based Rotenberg. To a younger and developing Eli, the Abie Rotenberg style and message was an inspiration. He mentions a few others like Mordechai Ben David, Yossi Green, and Avraham Fried, but the conversation always comes back to the thoughtful panache presented by Mr. Rotenberg. Eli seems to be enamored with the depth of the messages in his songs and the soulful way Mr. Rotenberg performs and records them.
I realized that we were talking about inspiring Jewish music over the last 30 or so years and we had not mentioned Shlomo Carlebach. It wasn’t like an “Oh, yeah, him,” moment exactly. Perhaps it is that despite the vast talent on the Jewish music landscape out there, Carlebach remains erudite and creative in a class of his own. “Shlomo wrote music from the depth of his neshamah,” says Eli, explaining that the way he got in touch with his internal self or maybe the fashion in which he communicated with his listeners was through more of a chant or meditation than through traditional song.
And then it’s back to Abie Rotenberg–Eli’s greatest and perhaps only real muse, aside from his father, as he tries to explain what it is about Rotenberg that touches him so deeply. “If you listen to Abie, you hear parts of John Denver, the Beatles, and Elton John,” all artists whom Eli apparently has listened closely to. Except for the John Denver reference, the others were not really surprising.
As a student and connoisseur of music myself, solely as a listener, I’ve always found John Denver to offer a brand of music that is refreshing as well as inspiring. We did not get into a deep analysis of the meaning of “Rocky Mountain High,” but needless to say that song was a hit long before Eli Schwebel was born.
Back to Heart’s Mind, and the catalyst and motivation for some of the songs and the messages contained therein. “We do not pay enough attention to what we are feeling inside,” Eli says. He explains that in his estimation we as people, and in particular from a Jewish perspective, are possibly not aware of or familiar with what is going on inside of us. He says that he thinks his songs on this first album are about getting in touch with things that gnaw at us and taking the time to become acquainted with those feelings.
“Okay,” I say to him, “so explain to me what the top three things are that most of us feel but that we do not recognize or come to grips with.” The first answer is existential loneliness. So now we are discussing existentialism which essentially deals directly with the questions that Eli Schwebel is hoping he is able to answer in part through his extraordinary talent to write and perform music. And frankly, I think he is onto something.
Existentialism is really about the search to find what it is that life is all about. Secondarily, it is a matter of figuring out or exploring how to use your freedom to define yourself. And then it all crystallizes and I begin to understand what he is talking about when he sings about loneliness. Many a philosopher has defined loneliness as an avenue of heightened self-awareness, and that last one there is exactly where this album is trying to take us.
This is a thinking man’s or woman’s album. It’s not the type of CD that you listen to while riding in your car and eating a sandwich or chomping on a slice of pizza. The messages are sublime but at the same time focused on things that we think of not often enough or, for some, perhaps not at all.
So where does this man come up with this kind of voice and vocals that in and of themselves harbor sounds that are as melodic as a musical instrument? Though he works hard to perfect his craft, he concedes that some of the talent is natural or shall we say hereditary and stems from both his mother’s and father’s families. On one side, his zeide, Rabbi Aaron Schwebel, was the chazzan for decades at the famed 14th Avenue Agudah in Boro Park, where the legendary Rabbi Moshe Sherer was a congregant.
On his mom’s side, he says, his grandmother Mrs. Florence Wasner was in her earlier years somewhat of an opera performer who appeared on stage with some of the leading operatic personalities of her time. So the best of both those worlds found their way into Eli’s DNA and the result is not just obvious but also quite a pleasure to listen to.
Some of you are going to conclude that since Eli Schwebel is 34 years old and single, what else would he sing about besides loneliness? But you would be far off the mark–though he did assure me as we fleetingly broached the subject that when he meets the woman that he wants to spend his life with, he will. And then he added as an aside that it is difficult if not impossible to produce and create an artistic and quality musical product as he has in the new album while dating. I guess either one or the other is a distraction of sorts.
And now for the album itself. You can easily tell that a lot of detail went into this production. As with all albums that I try to listen to with a critical ear, I have my favorites, though the things that Eli does to his voice and the levels he takes it to make every one of the songs an exciting adventure.
It is not an easy selection and I might even change my mind after this story goes to press, but the tune I am most drawn to is “Ani Yosef.” This is a musical account of the biblical Yosef at the moment when he reveals himself to his brothers as their sibling after he was thought to be long gone. This story from the Chumash has to be one of the great dramatic and emotional high points in all of the written Torah.
Discussing the song briefly the other night, Eli said that it is a tribute to his grandfather, Joseph Wassner, a’h, with whom he said he shared many traits and characteristics. Both his grandfathers, Mr. Wassner and Mr. Schwebel, he said, passed away during the past year.
Another favorite is We Are One, where Eli takes us on one of those four-minute musical journeys through his psyche where he asks some of those questions he referred to earlier. Here are some of those lyrics: “Do you ever feel lonely / Did you ever feel lonely with people all around you / No one’s found you / Do you remember / Where you are and where you are coming from and who you’re gonna be? / Just look behind your eyes and see your soul inside.”
My other favorite is “Abishter,” where you can sense, even feel, the struggle of a young man trying to find peace and comfort with Hashem. In the song, Eli says things like, “I can’t face the emptiness inside / You’ve given me everything I need / Because of you I believe.”
And then there is his single, Yagga, which I think might be his favorite (that’s why it was released as his single), a song that I refer to as Eli Schwebel’s declaration of independence. In it he emphatically declares, “You’ve got the power / To choose your life / You’ve got a fire / Burning through the night / Once you know what you are living for you come alive / So yagga, find out who you really are.”
Eli didn’t mention it, but aside from Abie Rotenberg and Elton John influences in this album, there is also a fairly good use of Phil Spector’s spectacular wall-of-sound approach. It’s a terrific album that is a breakthrough of sorts. After Pesach, Eli Schwebel is planning a series of concerts that will feature him singing solo with his band. Those shows will be, like the new album itself, unlike anything you’ve ever heard or seen. This is quite an album and Eli Schwebel is quite a young man. v
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