February 23, 2020

Southern Avenue’s Ori Naftaly ‘Keep On’ album and His Journey from Israel to Memphis

Southern Avenue; Photo by David McClister

Shortly after forming in Memphis, Tennesee in 2015, the band known as Southern Avenue had a deal with Stax Records. Its self-titled debut album not only entered the US Billboard Top Blues Albums Chart at number six in 2017, but it would reach the #1 spot on the iTunes Blues Chart. This would lead to gigs alongside the likes of Buddy Guy, Umphrey’s McGee, Los Lobos and the North Mississippi Allstars and all sorts of international coverage for vocalist Tierinii Jackson, guitarist Ori Naftaly, keyboardist Jeremy Powell and drummer Tikyra Jackson.

The second full-length from Southern Avenue, “Keep On,” is set for release via Concord Records on May 10th. “Keep On” was produced by producer Johnny Black (Jessie J, Daughtry, Estelle) at Memphis’ legendary Sam Phillips Recording, and it includes guest appearances by seminal Stax Records artist William Bell, noted Memphis musician Gage Markey (who serves as guest bassist on most of the album) and a horn section comprised of Art Edmaiston (JJ Grey & Mofro, Gregg Allman) and Marc Franklin (The Bo-Keys, Gregg Allman). Its first single, “Whiskey Love,” was recently premiered by Relix.

I had the pleasure of doing Q&A with guitarist Ori Naftaly – a Memphis transplant by way of Israel – about his personal and professional journeys. Highlights from that Q&A are below for your reading pleasure.

Jewish Journal: “Keep On” is your new album. How long did you spend writing it?

Ori Naftaly: We spent two years writing it, it was an amazing experience that we learned a lot from.

JJ: Do you have a favorite song on Keep On?

ON: Yes! For me, it’s “We’re Gonna Make It.” We wrote it in Australia at the golden coast. We played the Blues On Broadbeach Festival and between shows I kind of started jamming the chords and humming the melody and then Tierinii joined and we wrote most of it that day. Weeks later we came back to it and brought Tikyra our drummer to help with the outro. It is the perfect combination of Southern Avenue that I want to see more and more of as time goes by.

JJ: How did you wind up in Memphis?

ON: I represented Israel at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee in 2013. I did well enough to book a tour and make important friendships that last until this day. I went back to Israel to record another full original album and then came back to the United States in October 2013 and never came back home. I visited a few times but that was never for more than 10 days.

JJ: And how did you meet your bandmates in Southern Avenue?

ON: I was touring in 2013, 2014 and the start of 2015 with my solo band, the Ori Naftaly Band. In February I realized I needed a musical change. My personal life took a big turn and I found myself homeless, staying with fans. I wrote “Don’t Give Up” at that time. I asked my fill-in drummer at the time, who’s the best singer in Memphis. He showed me a clip of Tierinii and I literally saw my entire future flash in front of me. From there everything went by so quick. We met in-person and clicked right away.

She introduced me to her sister and together we started rehearsing new songs and Tierinii and I began writing. After a few months, I realized that we could do something bigger. I saw the potential and had a vision. I offered the girls to join me and start a band together and be musical partners. It took them a few days to agree. The following January of 2016 we competed at the International Blues Challenge and made it to the finals. A month later we got offered to sign to Stax [Records].

I feel blessed. My weakest moment brought me my biggest joy and love of my life.

JJ: How many of the States had you seen before moving to Memphis?

ON: I’d never been to the United States before landing in Memphis in 2013. It was my first experience in this country and I LOVED every minute of it. I was so nervous that I started developing high fever and stomachaches before the flight to Memphis. I passed out at the airport before check-in. At the airport hospital, they told me I couldn’t go on my flight because I just had an IV for an hour and needed to rest. Somehow with the help of God, I managed to convince them to let me fly. My first week in Memphis was full of joy but pain! Totally worth it.

JJ: Have you met any other people of Israeli descent in Memphis?

ON: Other than the Israeli Jewish agency Shlichim, no. I met two Israelis at the mall one time but they were working there temporarily and couldn’t wait to leave. They were not fans of Memphis. It was hilarious. I represent my country everywhere I go and I’m very proud of that.

JJ: Back to Southern Avenue, what is coming up for the band in the near-future?

ON: Other than the new album, we just announced a tour with Tedeschi Trucks Band and more festival shows around the world including a tour in Europe and in Canada. I’m super-excited about just playing with my bandmates in beautiful settings and for our amazing fans.

JJ: When not busy with Southern Avenue, how do you like to spend your free time?

ON: I listen to a lot of music. I play video games and love reading about politics and news. I enjoy the outdoors and love off-road driving but don’t get to do that as often as I would like. I’m a huge fan of TV shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Office.” I love writing and producing at home. But that’s work I guess, right?

JJ: Right. I feel compelled to ask: What memories do you have of your bar mitzvah?

ON: I wish I could organize another bar mitzvah! It was so much fun. The family and the energy and I even got to do a few songs with my band at the time with my teacher. I am so proud of my heritage and love to celebrate it.

JJ: Finally, Ori, any last words for the kids?

ON: Believe in yourself. I have played guitar since I was five years old. But I only met friends my age who also liked to listen to what I liked when I was 13. I did the unbelievable and somehow moved to another country with no family there and built myself from scratch. I never gave up. I failed way more then I succeeded. Never be afraid to jump in the water and then learn how to swim. When you learn how to swim, always, listen to those who have been there before you and take their advice. Life is about perspectives.

More on Southern Avenue can be found online.

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