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Interview: Mikey Pauker on 'Extraordinary Love', future of Jewish music

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Spiritual musician Mikey Pauker has been breathing new life into Jewish music for years. His music spans multiple genres, including folk, pop, hip-hop, electronica, and reggae, blending them into a beautiful, uplifting, and unique sound.

Pauker was named by ‘Time Magazine’ as one of this year’s top 10 Jewish musicians, putting him in the company of well-known artists such as Craig Taubman and The Maccabeats.

On October 1, Pauker released his debut full-length, ‘Extraordinary Love,’ through Shemspeed Records. He released a video for the album’s first official single, “Top of the World,” on December 19. A video for bonus track “Hiney Mah Tov (Eeoohh)” was released in February.

I had the opportunity to correspond via email with Pauker to discuss his sound, finding Judaism, ‘Extraordinary Love’, the “Top of the World” video, the impact of being mentioned by ‘Time Magazine’, and where Jewish music is heading.

You have a very varied sound. How did you develop it over the years? Who/what are some of your influences?

I have always been into diverse genres of music, and as I grow older I am becoming more open to styles of music that I didn’t like so much in the past. For instance, even though now I create music based off spiritual Jewish text, I used to dislike Jewish music. Now being an innovator in the genre I have recently started enjoying it, also knowing that right now there is a renaissance going on and the genre is expanding. I grew up listening to Christian rock music, and attending gigs at local churches. I was always drawn in the community and deep songwriting, even though back when I was in grade school I was considered an atheist. I would cover folk and reggae music by bands from Southern California. As both of those genres are at my roots, it was much later when I got into hip hop music. A good college friend of mine introduced me to Nas, Wu-tang Clan, Living Legends, Hieroglyphics, and A Tribe Called Quest. From the moment I started listening to hip hop, I really connected with the syncopation and groove. I started finding new ways to write my music by free-styling, finding a hook and building from there.

How did you come to start playing “spiritual” music? What is your background?

I grew up very secular. I had a bar mitzvah, confirmation, did local youth group but was never too involved. In college I joined AEPi (The Jewish Fraternity) and worked at SF States Hillel leading services but with little idea about what everything meant. After attending Birthright and going to Israel again on a spiritual trip with my fraternity I felt something new, but couldn’t express it. I then went to Burning Man a few years later, and felt something deeper. I was being witness to really special “coincidences” taking place on a daily basis. After working a brief Yelp and being laid off, I then went on tour with a band I was tour managing. More of these “coincidences” started showing up. When I returned home after the tour, someone recommended I go work at a Jewish summer camp teaching music in Northern California. I booked an interview and was hired on the spot. I then attended “Hava Nashira” a Jewish music conference started by Debbie Friedman, who is an iconic figure, really generating equality through contemporary compositions of Jewish folk music. Post Hava at camp that summer it all clicked. I was in front of over 900 people in the amphitheater leading Kabbalat Shabbat when the light bulb went off and I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I took as many jobs as I could teaching Jewish music to the youth, found a new love in yoga, and started writing music based off spiritual Jewish text. After finding a rabbi who was also a yoga instructor she informed me of Jews who prayed with “Bhakti” (devotion) and who lived in Jerusalem. They were followers of Shlomo Carlebach, who just like Debbie Friedman was one of the innovators of Jewish folk music. I then went on a journey and studied at Yeshiva Simchat Shlomo (Shlomo Carlebach Yeshivah), and also spent time touring around Israel on spiritual retreats. I also spent much time in Tzfat and this is where I started writing music for my new album “Extraordinary Love.” These “coincidences” kept showing up and they still do, and now I see them as miracles. They guide me on my way and reassure that I am on the right path.

You released your new album, ‘Extraordinary Love,’ in October. Could you tell me a little about the songwriting for it?

I wrote most of “Extraordinary Love” while I was having my spiritual transformation between my experiences at Jewish summer camps, Burning Man, and while I was studying at Yeshivah. The songs on the album are based off Chumash (Torah), liturgy, Chassidis (Kabbalah grounded in Torah and law), and mystical experiences. I was just starting to get into Tanya, which is the main work of the Chabad approach to Chassidic mysticism and is written by Shneur Zalman. “The Light” is based on Tanya chapter 47, where it talks about leaving Egypt (slavery), and how to elevate your existence and free yourself from your personal tribulations.

I like your mix for “Shalom Aleichem.” What goes into choosing which Jewish melodies you use?

Choosing a melody for any song is still the same process. Every melody comes to me in the moment that I write. It’s like I am not even choosing. I am channeling my creations from the divine. Something is handing them to me. I don’t know what an average songwriter would do. I just channel the melody and message based off a spiritual text or experience that inspired me. “Shalom Alecheim” came to me as I was sitting on top of a hostel on Tzfat (one of the four holy cities of Israel, and artist community where Kabbalah gains its roots.) I was looking towards Mount Hermon where Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai (author of the Zohar) was buried. The view cracked me open, and there I was able to channel another melody.

The imagery for the “Top of the World” video is beautiful. How did you come up with the concept for the video?

“Top Of The World” was a project I worked in collaboration with BANCS Media director Danny Knust and producer Erez Diwon Safar. I wanted to create a video where all faiths could come together, in ritual and be as one people, regardless if people believe in the divine or they are unsure if anything exists. Regardless we come from the same source and will end up at the same place. Both Erez and Danny sent me a script containing the journey starting with a post-apocalyptic scene to arriving at the most high at my wedding. I originally didn't like the idea, but after some production meetings and some more brainstorming we finished the script for the video. I really wanted to wake up in the hospital. Erez who is also known as Diwon (my producer) built the song with these beeping sounds as if I was already plugged into an EKG machine. So the imagery and idea easily went together. The whole twist at the end was a collaborative thing. Danny Knust is a true artist and you can see that when he is directing. I have worked with him on my last video for “Hinei Mah Tov (Eeoohh!),” and just like that one he really calls shots in the moment. Stars align when I work together with Danny and Erez, we really get each other.

‘Time Magazine’ named you one of their “10 Stars of the New Jewish Music.” What do you think about that title?

I’m honored and I’ll take it. You know it’s really funny, a handful of the people in the article inspired me to continue down my path even when I was unsure if this was going to be something I wanted to continue. The article really put me on the map. I’m sitting in London right now having this interview and I was booked at this festival because of that article. I am also grateful to be performing at some of the biggest Jewish music festivals in the world in 2014. It’s really silly how a little article can solidify all the hard work I have been putting in my entire life. It has been a long time coming and I have so much more work to do.

The ‘Time’ article talks about the evolution of modern Jewish music. Where do you think Jewish music is heading?

Jewish Music is crossing culture and genres without having to be contained in any specific boxes. There is Jewish hip hop, folk, reggae, rock, country, soul, kirtan, Sephardic, gospel, blues, klezmer and probably more than that. It becomes a slippery slope when people identify their music as “Jewish Music” just because it’s in Hebrew, a person is Jewish or just because they are Israeli. There have been Jewish record labels that have crumbled because there hasn’t been a clear definition of what Jewish music is. I believe Jewish music is based off spiritual Jewish text, and spiritual experience. Hey, I’m not saying that my definition is absolute but I think having a solid vision makes it easier for people to have access to the source, and for the market, aka future songwriters, listeners and business affiliates have a solid foundation to inspire to continue to participate in the evolution of the genre. I created a Jewish Music Mentorship initiative with my dear friends Sam Rosenbaum and Sam Glaser for the creation and collaboration of modern Jewish music. Much of the Jewish music I know lacks songwriting, and production. Because of this, our music is not accessible to the mainstream music market. Also many of the youth do not spend their free time listening to Jewish music because they can’t connect and or understand the lyrics and the production value isn’t there. This new mentorship will gather some of the best Jewish songwriters in the making and some of the top Jewish recording artists in the world, to really deliver top tier grade A product. We will build a publishing house with a full catalogue of this new music to place into the mainstream music market where anyone from any faith can connect to. Yes I am talking about “Jewish Cross-over Music.” I hope to contribute through my music and Merkava Mentors, inspiration for new songwriters to collaborate with the hopes of making Jewish music accessible for the whole world.

‘Extraordinary Love’ is available now. You can view Pauker’s videos for “Top of the World” and “Hiney Mah Tov (Eeoohh)” on his YouTube channel. For more information about Mikey Pauker, visit his website.


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