Menashe David Israel
This interview with Menashe David Israel is one that I will be unpacking and digesting for awhile. I hope you read it, and then read it again, and then email me so we can unpack it together. This is a conversation worth having, and I believe it’ll spur on many more conversations. This is the kind of stuff that you pars through around a dinner table. It’s the kind of conversations and connections that I have hoped for for True Vine for so long. Here’s to many more of them.
Thank you Menashe.
Tell us about yourself.
I’m a musician. Currently living in Houston, Texas. I want to add a little more beauty to the world...
What has your journey been like as a musician?
It’s been interesting. I don’t think I would have been able to put it into words until recently. The vocabulary only came to me by spending significant time away from music, and burying myself in books for a few years. Something that I’ve tried to make a part of my every day. Anyway, it’s been interesting. I started with the guitar on my fifth birthday. And just this August I turned thirty. So I’ve been playing the guitar—making music—for twenty-five years, and a couple of weeks, now.
I think that when people usually talk about ‘journeys’ and skills—for us, music—it’s usually with respect to how having those skills have played out in one’s life in a professional capacity. For me, I think the short of it is something like: big fish makes beautiful music in small pond until eighteen years old; big fish goes to big college pond, finds himself to be normal sized fish, gets mixed up in explosion of noise and new music, cultural confusion, and technological change. Normal sized fish has to make sense of the world, and find his place in it.
It’s kind of funny to analogize myself and my story with music like that, fishes and ponds, but that’s probably the best way I can structure the story. You know, there is a narrative, especially for artists. That if you’re going to do this thing called art—make music, or paintings, or film, or whatever—then you need to do it professionally. Where that idea came from, or how it developed, is another story. But I think it’s safe to say that in the 21st century, we’ve pretty much erased the category of the amateur and turned the word into a pejorative. But it didn’t used to be. We used to have amateurs in all kinds of fields. Sports, music, literature, archeology. Most of the early archeology of the 20th century was conducted by amateur gentleman scholars. But that doesn’t seem to exist for us anymore, and I’m not exactly sure why. In any case, as a kid who happened to be pretty good at music, I think the story that I found myself living out was that I was going to play music and write songs, and send demos to record labels one day, and hopefully get discovered by a record scout, and then get a record deal, and then be famous and rich and make music and put it out on the radio for the rest of my life. And if I did that then I would be happy. I’ve thought a lot about where that story came from and why I thought it was a good model for my life, as something to pursue...I don’t think I have all of the answers for it. But somewhere along the way I realized a few things. I realized by observing others, and by inspecting myself, that fame was a sad thing to try to live for, and that it didn’t seem to make most people very happy or satisfied. I realized that the music industry did not function anymore in the way that I had imagined growing up. And I realized that the music I wanted to make was going to take some time to come by. I would have to ripen as a person to be ready for it.
I actually know the year that I changed my mind about music. It was 2015 and I had just finished reading this book called “On Beauty” by an English philosopher by the name of Roger Scruton. I highly recommend him to everyone who cares about art or culture. A truly amazing man. Accomplished much in his lifetime. Anyway, he was talking about what beautiful things actually are. And he was differentiating between things that exist firstly, as utilities, meaning, things that exist to achieve some end—and things that exist for their own sakes. An example would be a knife. It is an object that exists for a reason beyond itself, that is, to cut things. Contrast this with a piece of art. Well the first purpose of the art is simply to exist as a thing of beauty. The purpose of the art is the art itself, and its purpose doesn’t move beyond that—unless you are creating it with a specific end in mind, like fame, or riches, or anything else. Then you are turning the art into a utility. Now, there are caveats and layers to this, but this is the basic distinction between things that are means, and things that are ends unto themselves, which is what art is.
So what I realized in the Spring of 2015 when I read this book on beauty by Roger Scruton was that the journey I had initially embarked on as a young boy, and musician, to make beautiful music, had been derailed by the stories I had adopted along the way, that achieving fame and riches was the way to attain ultimate happiness in my life. And these things made me turn beautiful music into a utility, which is really a distortion of what music ought to be in its first mode of existence. And this is not to say that people shouldn’t make money from their art. Or that if you make money from your art, then your art isn’t art anymore. I don’t believe that. I think that money for art as a side-effect and measure of appreciation is a fine thing, and necessary, so that artists can survive and make more of it. But I think that good art exists in a hierarchy of value where beauty is at the top, and making money and gaining prestige from it, and whatever else, are secondary and tertiary things.
So I realized that I had distorted my music and my efforts by trying to make utilities instead art pieces. And that is when I put myself on my personal mission to “get beauty back.”
After you make the distinction between art and utilities, then you need to figure out how to think of Art, and beauty. Beauty, of course, is a whole other conversation. Because the culture tells us that it is purely subjective. But I don’t believe that. And I would like to know where everyone thinks they got that idea from—that beauty is subjective. Then again I don’t want to occupy all of this interview with that subject. Suffice it to say that on my mission it occurred to me that the best way to get beauty back would be to attach myself to a musical tradition indigenous to my country. And as a guitar player living in the USA that tradition that I’ve gravitated toward is Blues music. So I’ve been studying Blues, and writing it and playing it, and having the best time I’ve had with music in a long time. And that’s been my journey with music so far.
And that is when I put myself on my personal mission to “get beauty back.”
You’re an incredible guitar player. What advice would you give to other guitar players--new and old?
Well, I would say to go to the library. And also to get a Goodreads account. And pick up Mortimer J. Adler’s “How To Read A Book.” I say this because music is the easy part. Anybody can sit down and strum some chords and learn some scales. But it’s the storytelling and the form that are really the places where the crafts of songwriting and musicianship come into play. And the only way to get acquainted with stories is to read them, watch them, or live them. Books, I know, are a great way to live a thousand lives without dying. I saw a C.S. Lewis quote about that the other day on Twitter. It’s true. You have to read, and then you have to play a lot—so that you actually have something to say, a point of view. You have to consider that your musical skill is like a big clump of clay on a wheel. And you are the potter. And the clay is spinning slowly. And the only way to make that clump round and smooth and beautiful, is to put in the time at the wheel. If you do eventually the things you are putting your time into will become finished and formed. But mostly, I think it’s what happens off the stage and away from the guitar that is most important. You have to learn the world because that is where you’re taking your music. So yeah. That’s my advice. Also—Flamenco is the king of the guitar styles. The most technically and beautifully sound. Mix in some flamenco into your studies and who knows what flavors will show up in the music you decide to make.
How do you stay inspired?
Well, lately, it’s been with travel books. I read Michael Crichton’s “Travels” this summer and it really rocked my world, reading about how he traveled to stay inspired, his interactions and observations of other cultures.
Right now I’m exploring the idea of being rooted. So reading travel literature is a happy middleground. But I’ve done movies in the past. Film scores are very inspiring. One can find many a sweet melodic line in a film score. And then coffee in public places. And dinners with friends. I suppose just living. I find that when I am most engaged with my surroundings, and viewpoints that display engagement, then I am most inspired...Also, people. Certain people, especially those who really put in the effort behind the scenes, inspire me.
Who are your biggest influences?
John Mayer, John Locke, Ernest Hemingway, Aristotle.
You have a band called Jungle Fires--tell us about it.
Oh, my beloved band Jungle Fires. We’re on a break right now. For two years, it’s been. Jungle Fires has a lot to do with the things I said about my musical journey...The album we released in 2015 (Bliss Point EP) really didn’t land with all too many people. We were grateful for the few that resonated with it...I still think that it is one of the most beautiful records put out in the last decade. And that’s not just because it’s mine,—and Keren, Brian, Dave, and I made it. I think it’s just an objectively beautiful record, and it pains me that the world hasn’t heard it. I often hope that some kind of Herman Melville thing will happen to it. Maybe ‘Bliss Point’ will be discovered 50 years after we die, and people will relish the treasure that it is.
Jungle Fires could make another one though. Another record. Keren and I have talked about it. But we’re currently living in different places and working on different things, so it may be a little while. The way we’ve thought about it is kind of like a ‘She and Him’ thing. When we make music together, we have a name for that, Jungle Fires. And if we pick it back up, that’s how we’ll present it to the world.
Many artists practice different mediums--what other forms of art are you interested in?
Yes, it’s crucial, I think. Like cross-training in sports. Ernest Hemingway used to spend a lot of time with painters. Took notes from them to apply to his books. I really enjoy writing. Essays, poems, letters. I’ve been trading letters with a good friend of mine for almost a year now and it’s been very rewarding. It’s also nice in a world of sound bites and 280 character tweets to have a dedicated space to just let it all out, whatever is in my mind. Longform mental exchanges. Really thinking about things. Yeah, writing, alongside music, has really joined the centerstage of my artistic thoughts. It’s beautiful what words can be when you labor over them.
How has writing influenced your music?
I think that the most obvious way that writing has influenced my music is in the way that I see the music I’m making. You know, in the old days—Haha—of Bach and Beethoven, musical pieces were a lot longer. Books were a lot longer. The texts that we share today, those used to be letters, and long ones. So we live in a culture where our art is usually very small in size. And how we think about that size, I think, can affect how we view the things that we’re making. What we should be expecting from them. The three minute song, to me, is like a short story. You know, you’re in and out. Depending on the form, you develop a character, or you just show who they are. You tell a story, or you show a moment. You describe the sky, or you describe the impression of the sky, the feeling. And for that last one, I suppose painting creeps in. But yes, if you work at it, you can eventually see pretty clearly the approaches that people are taking to their art and you can appropriate those approaches—co-opt them—into your own. This puts a different sort of spin on the jewel that is the art you’re making. So observing writers has been big in cross-training my mind as a musician and songwriter.
Because you can’t change what you haven’t identified.
What are you reading and listening to right now?
I’ve been reading a book, “Mani: Travels In The Southern Peloponnese” by Patrick Leigh Fermor. It’s about Fermor’s travel exploration in Greece in the 1950s. Beautiful writing and moments. My favorite scene so far comes from a hot afternoon where Fermor and his travel party end up having lunch on a beach, and it’s so muggy and humid that they decide to take their table into the water just a few feet off the shore. And the waiter discovers them and goes right along with it. And they stay there being joined by many others with mandolins and singing into the night. It’s really magical, another time, really.
I haven’t been listening to anything very specific lately. Actually there is an app on the App Store called ‘Radiooooo’ and it plays old radio music from around the world at different points in time. I’ve been dipping into that every so often. Kind of as a musical expatriate. A lot of American music either sounds the same or contains the same small set of emotional expressions. Cuban and Egyptian music, though. Very good, exotic, stuff.
What are you currently working on?
Well, I’m working on a few projects right now. On the music side of things, I’m writing songs for an album called “Get Down, Moses.” It’s going to be a blues album with some hints of spanish and jazz music in the cracks. I’m also filming a series on YouTube where I’m teaching people how to play twenty-one basic guitar chords that I think will apply to about 80% of songs. And if they learn these chords they should be able to play about anything. I’m doing this chord thing because I think that after having played the guitar for twenty-five years, I have some unique and valuable insights that I think could really help people who play the guitar, and send them in a good musical direction. And I’d like to pass those insights on to anyone who will listen.
On the writing side, I’ve been working on a biography about my dad. It’s called “Medicine Man: The Story of An American Son.” I’m publishing it in serial on Mailchimp, and it’s been a very meaningful experience so far—to be able to research and write about my dad, and examine American history in the last century. How things have played out up to our present time...Next to that, I’ve also been writing essays on various things: some theological, poetic, politic. One of my most exciting new endeavors, though—and this is probably the biggest change for me in a long time,—I’m starting a podcast called, “The Beautiful Way.” I can’t say too much about it right now other than that it’s going to be a sort of vlog-but-a-podcast type of situation; an outlet for all of the things in my head that won’t fit into music and writing.
What work are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of “Bliss Point EP” by Jungle Fires. The album we made. I think that it is the most beautiful record produced in the last ten years, and I wish that more people would hear it.
How would you encourage other artists?
Ask yourself if you know what stories you’re telling. Everyone is living out a narrative. It’s important to set aside time for self-examination. Because you can’t change what you haven’t identified. And the reason that it’s important to know what narrative you’ve adopted is because it might not be a good one, or it might not be the right, or the best, one for you. “Know thyself...” Also, you can do it. Whatever it is, you can do it. Set yourself a course with goals along the way, that you know are achievable. Everything one step ahead of the next. This way you won’t be overwhelmed by the vast distance between you and the destination of your dream. Because everyone can take the next step, it just takes a little preparation.
You can find Menashe here.