Distant Cousins find family in music
The Los Angeles-based trio Distant Cousins blend soaring harmonies and a folk-rock sensibility to make pop music that’s quickly developing a devoted local following. Their songs fit well in the current trend of Americana/roots-rock revival, but they also have a sound of their own.
The first song on their new self-titled EP, “Are You Ready (On Your Own),” offers a bit of the rustic charm of The Lumineers. “Forever” has the anthemic, fist-pumping catchiness of Fun’s chart-topper “We Are Young,” while “On My Way” captures the driving rhythms of The Avett Brothers. The hard-charging “Raise It Up” has the blues-infused seductiveness of a Black Keys song. And the EP’s closing song, “Fly Away,” is a lovely ballad that expresses a longing for escape, with melodies akin to Fleet Foxes or even Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
The band’s origins trace back two years to when musicians Dov Rosenblatt, 33, and Duvid Swirsky, 38, played a gig with Ami Kozak, 28, who had recently moved to Los Angeles from New York. Kozak offered to produce a song the other two had written, “When We Love,” and soon after joined the band as a songwriter and musician.
But their roots go back even further. Swirsky was raised in Israel at Moshav Mevo Modi’im, the music community founded by Shlomo Carlebach, who is known as “the Singing Rabbi.” He went on to found the band Moshav, a popular Israeli folk-rock band. Kozak’s wife was a big fan of Moshav, and as she was flying in from Australia, Kozak booked a gig for Moshav at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York — to perform as he proposed to her.
“He flew me and Moshav in to play a song for her as she landed,” Swirsky recalled.
“Not on the tarmac, but in the terminal,” Kozak added. “And then they came back and we had a really nice l’chaim. Once I got here, it took Duvid about three months before he realized I was the same guy.”
Distant Cousins is getting ready for prime time. “Are You Ready (On Your Own)” is featured on the soundtrack to the new film “This Is Where I Leave You,” a dysfunctional-family comedy-drama starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda and Adam Driver. In the movie, the family patriarch dies, and the entire clan must fulfill his final wish and sit shivah for him — without killing each other. The song plays in the movie’s end credits.
“This movie licensing situation has been such a dayenu,” Kozak joked. “If we would’ve just got a movie, that would’ve been enough. And if the movie were good, that would’ve been enough. But the funny thing is, of all movies, it’s a really heavily Jewish-themed movie.”
The band also has songs featured in commercials for Macy’s denim TV campaign and in Germany for Lift, the Coca-Cola-owned soft drink, and on shows such as USA’s “Graceland,” CBS’ “Criminal Minds” and The CW’s “Reign.”
Rosenblatt, Kozak and Swirsky sat down for this interview at an outdoor table at Paper or Plastik Cafe, the same hip Pico Boulevard spot where they first met over coffee to discuss forming a band.
“All three of us are Jewish, we come from Jewish music backgrounds, but this music is not overtly Jewish,” Kozak said. “I mean, it has overtones, because …”
“Because of who we are, and we try to make everything authentic,” Rosenblatt added.
“Because it’s ingrained in us,” Kozak said.
The interview was interrupted a few times by friends who stopped at the table to greet the musicians. The band members joked that they hired a bunch of strangers to make them seem more popular. One of their friends is David Serber, a tour manager for Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu.
The band finds inspiration from other local Jewish musicians, such as Haim, a group of three sisters who grew up in the San Fernando Valley. “They have that family vibe that we really like,” Kozak said.
All three band members now have young children, which has made them even more like an extended family. They regularly gather for Shabbat dinners, or for coffee in the park on mornings after a gig.
The members also play in other bands. Swirsky still tours with Moshav, and Rosenblatt is in the bands Blue Fringe and The Wellspring. They also have side gigs that pay the bills. Rosenblatt teaches music at Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school, and at New Community Jewish High School. Kozak composes music for commercials and produces for bands. And Swirsky helps lead Nefesh, a monthly Shabbat service at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
They’ve signed up with a booking agency and their goal is to perform more, and to get their songs placed in more movies and commercials.
“Essentially, [the goal is] keep writing the best songs we can write, get them the most exposure they can get and resonate with as many fans as possible,” Kozak said.