The romanticism of Matt Nathanson

Pop-folkie Matt Nathanson had just returned from hanging in Hawaii, but it was a vacation he only enjoyed “50 percent,” he said.

“I don’t really do it well,” the 38-year-old said of vacationing. “My time off is really spent digesting things for the music.”

Still, for the San Francisco musician, it was a short and well-deserved break. He recently released “Modern Love,” his seventh studio album, and he’s been on the late-night talk-show circuit to promote it. At the time of our interview, he was about to start a brief tour with Maroon 5 and Train (the tour began on Aug. 28), and on Sept. 25, he kicks off the All Night Noise Tour 2011, a headlining trek of North America, including a stop at The Wiltern in Los Angeles, on Oct. 29.

“It’s like a hootenanny,” Nathanson, 38, said of his live shows. “It’s like throwing a house party, and everybody shows up.”

“Modern Love” takes Nathanson beyond the singer-songwriter genre that made his name. The album features horns, electric guitar, percussion and more, on tracks like the lead single, “Faster”; as well as “Run,” a collaboration with country duo Sugarland; and “Kept,” on which finger-picking and atmospherics lead to a climactic electric guitar solo.

Born in 1973 in Massachusetts to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Nathanson grew up celebrating “Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Christmas and Easter,” he said. “It was really weird.”

He’s able to trace back to when he first became interested in pursuing music — when he was 6 or 7 years old and saw a poster of Gene Simmons’ band KISS.

“I remember thinking, ‘I need to be in a band that does something like that, sounds like this,’ ” he said.

After high school, Nathanson enrolled at Pitzer College in Claremont, where he played music on the side. He released his first album, “Please,” in 1993. Over the next 10 years, he put out four more studio albums, steadily building a cult fan base while working with longtime collaborator Mark Weinberg, a producer and writer whom he met in college.

His music has tended toward acoustic folk and gentle rock, and has been featured on TV shows such as “Scrubs” and “One Tree Hill.” It doesn’t sound anything like the hard rock work of KISS, although Nathanson’s look — goatee, spiky hair and sideburns — suggests heavy metal.

In 2002, he scored a contract with Universal Records. But his real breakout success came after he opted out from Universal and signed with Vanguard Records, an independent label. It was for Vanguard that he released “Some Mad Hope” (2007), which featured the platinum-selling single “Come Get Me Higher.” The emotional, catchy song caught on on radio and, seemingly, everywhere.

The success of “Come on Get Higher” was his validation, Nathanson said. “It was this moment of, ‘Oh all right, I can just be me.’ And being me, I’ve never felt that powerful.”

In a description of “Modern Love” online, Nathanson said that the desire to expand his sound drove the new album.

“I had done the singer-songwriter thing — eight albums of it! I didn’t want to be defined by only that,” he wrote on Vanguard’s Web site.

In the same discussion, Nathanson explained the meaning, for him, of “modern love”: “Two opposing ideas banging against each other.”

“Everyone I know was going through personal relationship crisis,” he writes. “Divorce. Affairs. Being alone. Being newly in love. I was watching the people around me struggle and transition. The songs are about them. About me. The struggle to actually love and find love” in a modern world.

Nathanson’s romanticism might come from his obsession with music, where everything stems from emotions. He concedes that his love of music has had its costs.

“I’ve pretty much committed to music my entire life, and that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve dedicated my life to, much to the chagrin of relationships I’ve had, much to the chagrin of family,” Nathanson said. “Music has taken over my life.”

It’s for the same reason that he isn’t religious, he said.

“Judaism doesn’t play a huge role in my life these days; neither does Catholicism … I’m pretty spiritual, but I’m not anywhere when it comes to either one of those religions,” he said. “I’ve never been able to dedicate time to do it correctly.”

This indifference to religion might change, however.

“I long for something in my life that is outside of myself, and I just haven’t quite figured out where to look,” he said. “That’s something that’s happening now that I’m getting closer to 40,” Nathanson said.

But he isn’t likely to become too serious — at least not any time soon. In fact, the name of his upcoming tour draws from a perfectly juvenile lyric from “Modern Love’s” single “Faster”: “You’re all night noise, you’re a siren’s howl.”

Nathanson confirmed that there’s this type of loose sexuality throughout the album.

“They’re all bedroom references,” he said. “I’ve decided that most of my songs are carnal in some ways.”

Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel): The biggest Jew in country music [VIDEO]

CRAPONNE SUR ARZON, France (JTA)—Think Jews and country music and you’ll probably come up with Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping frontman of the iconoclastic Texas Jewboys, who is also a humorist, mystery novelist and failed but flamboyant candidate for Texas governor.

The real Jewish king of country music, however, is Ray Benson, the nine-time Grammy-winning leader of the country western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

At 6-foot-7, Ray Benson has been described as a “Jewish giant” and “the biggest Jew in country.”

He literally and figuratively towers over the stage in a Stetson and fancy tooled boots, with a grizzled beard and long, thinning hair pulled back in a pony tail.

“I saw miles and miles of Texas, all the stars up in the sky,” he sings in his deep, mellow baritone. “I saw miles and miles of Texas, gonna live here ‘til I die.”

Now 57, Benson was born in Philadelphia but has lived in Austin for 35 years. He talks with a twang, plays golf with Willie Nelson, has recorded more than 30 albums and was named Texas Musician of the Year in 2004.

By his own estimate, he is the only Jewish singing star in the country western scene.

“Kinky’s not a country western singer—he’s Kinky!” Benson laughed during a conversation with JTA this summer at the annual Country Rendez-vous festival in south-central France, where Asleep at the Wheel wound up a five-nation European tour.

Unlike Friedman, however, who makes playing with stereotypes part of his in-your-face persona, Benson has—until now—kept his religious identity out of the limelight.

“I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish country western singer; I wanted to be known as a country western singer who happens to be Jewish,” he said.
“You don’t usually tell your religion or politics on stage,” he added. “For years, because I’m 6’7” and people don’t think Jews are tall, and because I guess I don’t look like the stereotype Jew, most people don’t known I’m Jewish.”

Benson got his musical start as a child in suburban Philadelphia, where he grew up in a Reform Jewish home. He and his sister put together a folk group, and he was only 11 when he played his first professional gig.

“In those days, if you’re a Jewish kid, you go to school, you go to college or you enter your parents’ business,” Benson said. “So, I obviously chose a different path.”

Benson founded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 along with several friends, including his former Philadelphia schoolmate Lucky Oceans, a pedal steel guitar player born Ruben Gosfield, who now lives in Australia.

The band based itself in West Virginia and California before moving to Austin in 1973. Over the decades, Benson has remained the anchor of the group, while some 90 musicians have moved in and out of its line-up.

On the road much of the year, the band has criss-crossed the nation, playing everywhere from down-home dance halls to the White House—they were, in fact, scheduled to perform there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Asleep at the Wheel has played at inauguration parties for Presidents Bush and Clinton and expect to play for whomever is elected in November. Earlier this year, they played at an Austin fund-raiser for Barack Obama where the Democratic presidential nominee joined them onstage for a chorus.

In the 1970s, when the band first started touring, Benson recalled, country music was a “southern, conservative, Christian, white domain—period,” and he repeatedly came up against offhand prejudice and ignorance about Jews and Judaism.

He cites as an example a member of Tammy Wynette’s entourage, who blamed “the Jews in New York” for failing to promote her career, and had a hard time believing Benson when he told him he was Jewish. Then there’s the wife of a musician who had never heard of Judaism as a religion.

“I asked her what she thought a Jew was, and she said, ‘Someone who’s cheap,’ ” Benson recalled.

“So the stereotypes are there, and they’re still there,” he said.

“I always felt myself to be an ambassador,” he added. “I’m not a great practicing Jew on a daily basis, but I’m Jewish. And so I try to bring to them that we’re just people.”

Recently, for the first time, Benson started doing this publicly, making explicit reference to his Jewish identity on stage.

The revelation comes as part of “A Ride With Bob,”  a musical that Benson co-wrote, based on the life of Benson’s musical hero, the Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, who died in 1975.

Benson stars in the play, along with members of Asleep at the Wheel. Since its premiere in 2005, it has played to audiences all over Texas and elsewhere, including a sell-out performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

The premise is an imagined conversation between Benson and Wills. In it, Wills asks Benson how “a Jewish boy from Philadelphia” can play western swing music. Benson responds: “The same way that a white, hayseed hillbilly from the West Texas panhandle” can play, as Wills did, blues and jazz.

“Basically in this play I confront the issue, and I let the cat out of the bag—hey, I’m Jewish and happen to be the leader of the ‘modern kings of western swing,’” Benson said.

“In the context of the play I was able to reveal this and also give it context,” he added.

The point he wanted to make, he said, is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your religion or background is in terms of music, art or other creative endeavors. What’s important, he said, “is what’s in your heart or what’s in your mind or what’s in your talent.”

Asleep at the Wheel: ‘Route 66’ (live)


Leonard Cohen Film Toasts Songwriter

“He’s the man who comes down from the mountaintop with tablets of stone,” says U2’s guitarist, The Edge, in “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man,” a documentary on Cohen, one of the greatest living songwriters, that is screening at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Comments on Cohen’s many biblical references in his songs and his almost mystical authority are sprinkled through out the film, which is slated for a May theatrical release from Lionsgate, even as the many interviewees also point out that Cohen can also be droll and erotic in his work.

The film’s director, Australian-born and L.A.-based Lian Lunson, expanded upon The Edge’s comments in a telephone interview:

“I think with great writers like Leonard Cohen, the gift they have has so much weight behind it, that even if the lyric isn’t religious, it takes on a religious aspect because of the great amount of contemplation that has gone into it.”

The film interweaves interviews with various subjects with a wry, introspective 71-year-old Cohen — his face creased and hair gray but both his mind and his wardrobe sharp. Interspersed, too, are performances at the “Came So Far for Beauty” concert tribute to Cohen at the Sydney Opera House.

At that show, produced by American Hal Willner (who also produced UCLA Live’s Randy Newman tribute), such musicians as the McGarrigle Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Nick Cave, Linda Thompson and Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) perform versions of songs from throughout Cohen’s career. Eventually, late in the film, Cohen sings — in his gravely rumble of a voice — “Tower of Song,” in a surprising special performance staged just for the film by Lunson, a longtime music video director.

As Cohen and others recall, his youthful influences included the Jewish liturgy he heard in synagogue. Cohen was born in 1934 in Montreal to an influential English-speaking family. His father was a clothing manufacturer, his paternal grandfather helped lead numerous Jewish civic and religious institutions and his maternal grandfather was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar.

Cohen became first an accomplished poet and then, starting with 1967’s “Songs of Leonard Cohen” (which contained the oft-recorded “Suzanne”) a singer-songwriter. According to Ira Nader’s Cohen biography, “Various Positions,” Cohen’s Judaism has influenced his songs greatly — “Who By Fire” is based on the melody of a Yom Kippur prayer, “Mi Bamayim, Mi Ba Esh,” and “If It Be Your Will” is derived from a “Kol Nidre” phrase.

Cohen talks movingly in the film about how his father’s death — when he was just 9 — galvanized in him a compassionate but unsentimentally mature view about the limitations of life on earth.

“It was in the realm of things that couldn’t be disputed or even judged,” he tells Lunson.

And he explains he’s been searching for other such things to give his life structure and discipline — truth — ever since. He describes himself as drawn to “the military and the monastery.”

While remaining Jewish, he has pursued an interest in Zen Buddhism for some 30 years at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center with a Japanese master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi.

“He was someone who deeply didn’t care about who I was, and the less I cared about who I was the better I felt,” Cohen tells Lunson.

Speaking quietly but unguardedly, Cohen appears amused when discussing his lifelong dislike for blue jeans, his following among young “punksters” and his regrets about once revealing that “Chelsea Hotel” was written about a sexual encounter with Janis Joplin. “She wouldn’t have minded, but my mother would have minded,” he says of his indiscretion.

“Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man” was produced by Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, which arranged distribution with Lionsgate. Lunson and Gibson are longtime friends, and she helped him put together the album, “Songs Inspired by ‘The Passion of the Christ,'” which included Cohen’s “By the Rivers Dark.”

“I took the idea of the film to Mel because he’s a huge Leonard Cohen fan, always has been, and he said, ‘Let me put it out there and see,'” Lunson said. “He loves Leonard Cohen.”


Maseng of Many Hats

Somebody must have perfected human cloning, because no way is Danny Maseng just one person.

When the singer-songwriter-guitarist-actor-poet-dramatist-lay rabbi-teacher-visionary, who will headline the Fund for Reform Judaism’s annual fundraiser at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park on June 13, isn’t performing, he may be teaching the Zohar, leading a service at his New York congregation or dashing off a new setting for a passage in Jewish liturgy.

Or he might be working institutionally on innovations in Jewish arts, Jewish worship, Jewish music or Jewish camping.

Maseng , 51, (whose first name is pronounced "Donny") was born in Israel to American parents and jumped onto the fast track as a youngster outside Tel Aviv. Trained in classical guitar as a child, he was playing professionally by age 14 and became a popular singer and actor in Israel while still a teenager, appearing in productions of the Habimah National Theatre.

His first stateside gig was a role in the Broadway production "Only Fools Are Sad" in 1971. Maseng immigrated to the United States in 1975 and worked in theater as an actor, director and designer. In recent years, he’s had roles in the "Law & Order" spinoffs and the soap opera "One Life to Live" and has done voice-over narration for documentaries.

Maseng told The Journal he started writing tunes as soon as he started performing as a kid, but didn’t get serious about songwriting until the early ’80s. "I was always writing music as a singer, but I didn’t see myself as a songwriter; it was always about the singing, what sounded good for my voice," he said. One of his early full-length works was a musical titled "Let There Be Light" that never made it into production, but will be released later this year as a concept album.

More recently, he’s toured a one-man show called "Wasting Time With Harry Davidowitz." Using the stories of his grandfather, Harry, as a framework, the intimate 90-minute performance traces Maseng’s own spiritual journey using homily and song.

After the introspective "Wasting Time," Maseng said, "I wanted to do something big, with big vocal music." The result was "Soul on Fire," which Maseng’s Web site describes as "a blend of meditative, uplifting, and ecstatic songs" that form "a musical journey of discovery."

The work combines spoken narration with updated versions of Chasidic, folk and cantorial tunes, as well as Maseng’s own compositions (and a song by Irish singer Loreena McKennitt). Maseng may be the first composer to pair the teachings of Reb Nachman of Bratslav with a Zen Buddhist chant.

Maseng started writing liturgical music about three years ago, although his interest in it is not new. "There was something about liturgical music that always spoke to me," he said. Nor was his fascination limited to Jewish music; he said Bach was his favorite composer when he was a youngster.

Although Maseng formed a chamber group to perform liturgical music before he left Israel, he got sidetracked from it for 25 years. Now, he said, "it’s literally taken over everything that I’ve been doing."

Recent commissions from cantors and synagogues include prayer settings, the seven wedding blessings and a Chanukah tune. "For a songwriter to know in advance that your stuff is going to be recorded and paid for is a real luxury," he said.

Maseng is also active in Jewish life on the institutional level. A former arts director at the Reform movement’s summer camp in Wisconsin, he’s currently the director of the Spielberg Fellowships for the Foundation for Jewish Camping, Inc. He’s also a teaching fellow for the worship think-tank Synagogue 2000 and was recently awarded a grant to establish T’hila, the Jewish Arts Institute.

For the past 10 years, he has taught classes in Torah and Jewish mysticism and served as spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Achim, a Reform synagogue in suburban Westchester County, N.Y.

Maseng’s mellifluous, caressing voice, virtuosity on the guitar, eclectic musical styles and multiple talents make him a powerful asset to the forces that are seeking to revitalize Jewish institutional life. But he doesn’t seem to have allowed his ego to keep pace with his gifts.

"I don’t really believe that human beings create," Maseng told a Vancouver reporter in April. "I believe that God creates, and a person’s individual talent is really just special ears or special eyes that have the ability to access something that already exists."

For more information about the Fund for Reform Judaism event, call the Union of American Hebrew Congregations at (323) 653-9962.

Zen Cowboy

There’s a new singing cowboy in town, and his name is Ken Kunin.

“I’ve been in this crazy industry for about 10 years,” says the lead vocalist/songwriter. And he’s about to turn up the heat.

His band, davis waits, has been receiving radio airplay , including on local outlets KLOS and KTTC; and a cross-country tour in support of their new album, “the evolution of…,” will follow after the New Year.

Comprised of 14 tracks of jangly American pop, “the evolution of…” covers some introspective terra firma — love and life, with the occasional social commentary — including “my dear kate,” a valentine to his wife of five years, Kathryn Sharp; “transit,” which, in Kunin’s words, charts “the dilemma of winding up in a different city, where’s my values today…”; and “senorita,” the plight of an immigrant worker trying to make ends meet with dignity. Three producers helped breathe life into “the evolution of…,” including newcomer Jon Griffin and John Philip Shenale, who produced Jane’s Addiction’s last real album, 1989’s “Ritual de la Habitual.”

Kunin — who does all of the band’s songwriting and considers it the best part of the musical process — says that his music draws from his spiritual side.

“My Judaism has been a little more internal, not as community oriented,” says Kunin. “But it still plays a definitely important part of my life, my family life.”

Originally from Tarzana, Kunin is a former teacher of martial arts, yoga, and tai chi. He is also the brother of Rabbi Gordon Bernard-Kunin, a religious studies director at Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus and founder of the Pico-Robertson-based Makor program. The erstwhile University of Arizona Eastern Studies major now lives in Van Nuys, where he runs his own label, Underhill Recordings, with Sharp.

“I’m pretty lucky in a sense that a lot of people my age, they’re still searching for their soulmate,” says the 31-year-old musician of his spouse.

Together, the Kunin and Sharp are also producing other artists, including singer/songwriter Leslie King; and an album by davis waits’ guitarist/keyboardist, Brazilian jazz artist Angelo Metz.

Kunin, who grew up blasting Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan on his stereo, also has an acoustic solo CD coming out in February. “The Return of Number Six” (a reference to the number on the baseball jersey he wore when he was eight) will reflect the spiritual inroads he has made. One song, “Grace to Fall From,” will be his take on spirituality and religion; another tune, “Don’t Make It Anything More,” mocks the shallowness of celebrity worship.

So what sets davis waits from the contemporaries? According to Kunin, it’s passion.

“How many times have you been to a show where you’re watching a band and there’s no passion… where you say, ‘Come on I’m not buying it, it’s not real!'”

Passion is a big part of Kunin’s life and art. It is what drives him to handle his own producing and distribution. And it is what he tries to infuse in every live appearance.

“So much of our generation is stuck in front of the television,” says Kunin. “What affects me most on a high holiday is when the rabbi is telling a story. He’s not preaching, he’s telling a tale. I like storytelling.”

Perhaps we are witnessing “the evolution of…” another rabbi in the Kunin clan.

Join davis waits at the Joint on Jan. 15, 10 p.m. For more information on davis waits and upcoming local appearances, check out the band’s official home page at

Voices of Hope

Chances are, there are not many singer-songwriters whose oeuvre contains subjects as disparate as the “Shecheyanu” and a visit to the dentist. But such is the nature of Craig Taubman’s career.

As founding director of Yad B’Yad, the Jewish Federation Council’s teen performing arts program, and after two decades of performing his brand of Jewish-themed pop across the country, he’s one of the community’s better-known balladeers. With his buoyant, accessible children’s music, Taubman also occupies a niche in the broader market of family entertainment, including Walt Disney Records and national concert tours with his Craig ‘n Co. band.

The two sides of his career coexist easily enough. The themes that dominate his more Jewishly oriented material — community, spirituality, bonds of love and responsibility — work their way naturally into his upbeat kids’ music. And, besides, how many other musicians who have done gigs for Menachem Begin and Bill Clinton can claim a televised jam session with Mickey Mouse?

Taubman’s next performance will be a family affair. He and his sister, Caren Glasser, the cantor at Kol Tikvah, a reform congregation in Woodland Hills, will be at the Skirball Museum on Saturday evening, June 21, to perform “A Night Under the Jewish Stars.” The concert will mark the release of their new CD, “Voices of Hope,” and will feature songs from that joint project. The two, who live at opposite ends of the San Fernando Valley, got together with The Spectator at Taubman’s house recently to talk about music’s role in the life of the Jewish community.

“The songs on ‘Voices of Hope’ are loosely based on psalms,” Taubman said. “I guess you could say they’re songs centered around the theme of hope and prayer.”

“A lot of these songs have been road-tested at Kol Tikvah,” Glasser said. “People have really responded well to them.”

It has been 11 years since the siblings last worked together — a recording of Taubman’s first children’s album. That eventually led to his live concerts for the Disney Channel. In the meantime, Glasser, a student of classical music, recorded children’s songs for Rhino Records.

“Then, three years ago, I decided to study to be a cantor,” she said. “At Kol Tikvah, music happens to really be central to the life of the synagogue, and I love it. I officiate at weddings and sing at bar mitzvahs. Now, I wonder what took me so long.”

“You know, part of the challenge has always been creating an atmosphere that encourages participation,” Taubman said. “A good chunk of the material on this CD is written so that people could sing along with it. It’s congregation-friendly,”

A Night Under the Jewish Stars” is Saturday, June 21, at 8 p.m., at the Skirball Cultural Center. For ticket prices and information, call (310) 440-4647. The CD “Voices of Hope” will be available for purchase at the concert.

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