December 10, 2018

Distant Cousins’ Musical Hanukkah Message

From left: Dov Rosenblatt, Duvid Swirsky, Ami Kozak Photo by Jon Danovic

Consider yourself warned: Should you encounter a distant cousin, you, too, could inspire a song. 

Dov Rosenblatt recalls playing a gig at Rockwood Music Hall in New York during the summer of 2017 with Ami Kozak and Duvid Swirsky, his bandmates in the folk-pop trio Distant Cousins. At the show, Rosenblatt reconnected with a longtime friend and fellow musician who later bade him farewell with the words, “Good luck on the road.”

Those words became the inspiration and the final track on “Next of Kin,” Distant Cousins’ about-to-be-released first full-length album. 

“She knew we needed good luck on the road,” Rosenblatt said. “It was less ‘Good luck with it’ and more ‘Be careful out there as you guys grow and grow.’ And we do acknowledge that so much of where we’re at is because of the hours we put in, and there’s just a lot of being in the right place at the right time.” 

The Los Angeles-based band will go back on the road after the New Year and the three musicians, who are not related, figure to create their own luck. As for timing, their moment appears to be now.  

“Next of Kin,” the band’s first album with the indie label Julian Records, will drop on Nov. 30, after a release party concert at The Mint on Nov. 29. In another bit of fortunate timing, the band’s song “On Your Own (Are You Ready)” accompanies the trailer of the latest film in the hit animated franchise “How to Train your Dragon: The Hidden World,” due out in early 2019. 

“The trailer has gotten something like 6 million hits and tons of buzz,” Rosenblatt said. “That song was pitched for that trailer 11 months ago, and it happens to come out the week we’re putting out our album. Those are the things we’re grateful for.”

“I like to use the analogy that the music business today is a lot like farming,” Kozak added. “We’re constantly planting seeds everywhere. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to come to harvest but they pop up in random places that you don’t even remember that you plowed.”

Longtime players on the Jewish and Israeli music circuit, the men who would become “cousins” seemed destined to find one another. Kozak and Rosenblatt attended the same New Jersey high school (four years apart) while Swirsky grew up in Israel and was raised on the music community, Moshav Mevo Modi’im. Rosenblatt was the lead singer of the Jewish group Blue Fringe, and Swirsky was a founder and singer of the Moshav band. During their various gigs, the three musicians would regularly encounter each other, and they shared a bill in 2012 after Kozak relocated to Los Angeles. Kozak offered to produce the song “When We Love” that Rosenblatt and Swirsky had written, and he joined the band soon thereafter.

“I like to use the analogy that the music business today is a lot like farming. We’re constantly planting seeds everywhere.” —  Ami Kozak

 

“The whole process felt so natural, that we just kept rolling from there,” Swirsky said. 

The 11 tracks of “Next of Kin” draw their inspiration from a range of sources, everything from Bob Dylan to late-night affirmations inspired by Election Night 2016. Songs have sprung from riffs that have sat in the group’s idea file until a cousin stepped forward and prodded his band mate to finish it. 

The track “Like Me,” for example, originated as a jam session at Kozak’s home studio with Swirsky beating out a drum rhythm, Rosenblatt playing guitar. The song remained unfinished and stuck in the band’s “in progress” folder on Dropbox. The beat was good, but something was missing. When they later reassembled to finish the song, Swirsky pulled out a recording on his iPhone of the late folk singer and civil rights activist Odetta, singing a live rendition of “Hit and Miss.” Kozak recorded “Hit and Miss” into the song, chopped it up and incorporated it into “Like Me.” The late singer’s estate granted permission, and Distant Cousins had their featured guest artist. 

“It’s the only song that we have a co-writer on,” Swirsky said, “and our only co-writer is Odetta, which is pretty cool.”

The album’s opening track, “Lights On,” has become the band’s opening number at live shows. It’s a high-energy number offering a message consistent with many of Distant Cousins’ songs about venturing out on your own, taking life by the horns and staying true to oneself:

“Secrets will eat you if you let them defeat you

So you might as well be who you are.

Turn your lights on. Turn your lights on. 

No more hiding in the dark”

The album is being released days before Hanukkah at Hollywood’s Amoeba Records. “Next of Kin” will be featured as a special gift idea. And while the light-out-of-darkness messaging of “Lights On” may not have explicitly been inspired by Hanukkah, there is a certain resonance to the spirit of the holiday according to the cousins.

“The theme of the song is being proud of who you are and not feeling the need to cover up who you really are inside,” said Rosenblatt, “and when we thought about that, that’s what Hanukkah is about. It’s not, ‘Put your candle in the window so everybody knows you’re Jewish.’ It’s ‘Put your candle in the window so you’re expressing who you are inside.’”


Distant Cousins performed with M. Tennyson and Zev the Wolf on Nov. 29 at The Mint, 6010 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Click here for info.