Peter Himmelman writes ‘little fight songs for myself’
When musician Peter Himmelman starts a new project, he doesn’t focus on how he will make it popular with audiences. Instead, he aims to encourage listeners to contemplate the big and the minute aspects of their lives.
“My songs are not really designed to be hits,” Himmelman said in a recent phone interview while on tour in New York City. “They are designed to be introspections and views about life and death, about God and sex and hatred, about war and peace and all the small details that make life so wonderful.”
Himmelman, 57, a Minnesota native who now lives in Santa Monica, started his music career in the 1970s. He played in the band Sussman Lawrence until going solo and releasing his first album, “This Father’s Day,” in 1986. Later, he wrote children’s songs, one of which, “My Green Kite,” was nominated for a Grammy. He also has composed music for movies and the TV shows “Judging Amy” and “Bones.”
Himmelman’s new album, “There Is No Calamity,” will be released Aug. 11. It includes the songs “Rich Men Rule the World” and “Fear Is Our Undoing.” In one track, “245th Peace Song,” he sings:
“Scapegoatin’, killin’, hatin’ on the other.
Isn’t it time that we finally discover,
Everyone you see could be a sister or a brother?
Did you forget that in your pain?
Has weakness made you insane?”
While some might regard these songs as a response to the current state of the world, Himmelman said, “They are more about what’s happening in my own head. They’re about overcoming fear and trying to build some kind of resilience to challenges. They are little fight songs for myself.”
Himmelman worked on the new album for years, composing hundreds of songs and enlisting producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos to help him select the best tracks. They recorded the album in Portland, Ore., with a dozen other musicians.
While Himmelman acknowledges the changes in the music industry since he launched his career, he said he still creates because of an internal drive. “Even though people are not buying albums or listening to them in their entirety, still we artists persist because it’s just what we do. [The album] wasn’t a specific plan or plot to take over the world or change minds.”
Himmelman is a father of four, and his wife, Maria, is Bob Dylan’s daughter. Though Himmelman never has composed music with his father-in-law, the two did play the Chabad Telethon together in 1989 with Harry Dean Stanton. Himmelman cites Dylan as an inspiration, along with Bob Marley, Neil Young, Dr. Dre, Eminem and the Beatles.
Himmelman is an observant Jew. When he travels, he attends prayer services at local Chabads, and he won’t perform on Shabbat. His songs carry Jewish themes, he said, “because I’m a man of Israel, and Israel wrestles. We are basically wrestling with the tension between whether or not the physical world is the real thing or if there is something beyond it. You struggle with your own sense of belief. That works its way into my songs, I think, in a very oblique fashion.”
When Himmelman isn’t composing music or traveling, he works at his business, Big Muse, where he creates music-based conferences for Fortune 500 companies. His Big Muse band and employees work together on a piece of music. Last year, he published a book, “Let Me Out: Unlock Your Creative Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life,” about his techniques for releasing artistic potential.
Himmelman said he enjoys helping others find a creative voice they might not know they have. And that, he said, “is not something I would have said in my 20s.”
He said his Big Muse venture has taken him to places he never could have imagined, like the U.S. Army War College’s annual National Security Seminar. In a week at the conference, he learned about the intricacies of geopolitics and heard a speech by The New York Times’ David Sanger about the role of journalists and the First Amendment.
“Everyone told me it’d be life changing, and it was,” Himmelman said. “You get to experience things that average civilians are never exposed to.”
When his fans and audiences hear his new album, he said he wants them to “think that Peter Himmelman is still kicking ass, writing songs and sounding good. Hopefully, the album makes them richer and better. Not richer financially but deeper and more intense. That’s my aspiration.”