November 18, 2019

Portnoy Brothers Have ‘No Complaints’

Israel, left, and Mendy Portnoy. Photo courtesy of Portnoy

“We wanted an album with a generally positive vibe as people in Israel, as well as all over the world, will tell you that they are living in the most intense political mayhem and how that spills over into their everyday lives.”

This is how 29-year-old Israel Portnoy — half of the British-Israeli indie rock duo Portnoy — describes their latest album, “No Complaints.” Together with his brother Mendy, 27, the new album infuses a nostalgic blend of folk rock and soul with a modern twist. 

“It’s got that nostalgic sound to the songwriting,” Israel said. “It doesn’t rely heavily on modern synthesized, computerized sounds. It is much more of vocals … guitars, real drums and real bass. It’s got the old-school vibe with a modern polish.”

Even though the brothers live in Jerusalem, they decided to come to the United States and record the album in Nashville. “We decided we should just be true to the songwriting, and the music should be raw and powerful where you can literally shut your eyes and imagine it being played on a stage in front of you,” Israel said. “So we decided that Nashville is the place for that because it is full of these incredible musicians.” 

He noted that the bassist for their band had just finished playing on the “A Star Is Born” album and the drummer has played with Stevie Wonder and Sting. 

“They were absolutely world-class and totally got the music and understood what it needed and had all kinds of great ideas themselves,” he said. “We cut the album in less than 48 hours in Nashville.”

Born in Manchester, England, Israel and Mendy grew up in a religious household where music was a pivotal part of life. 

“The flavor and the fusion of what we grew up on, which was essentially liturgical and cantorial music, definitely played an integral part in our natural influences, the same way we grew up on the way to school listening to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.” — Israel Portnoy

“We come from a big family, nine kids,” Israel said. “My dad was an orchestra conductor and music hall arranger and chazzan before he was a rabbi. My mom is very musical and plays a couple of instruments. ”

By the age of 9, Israel was leading synagogue services. “We would be on the bimah accompanying my dad and the chazzan, so in a sense performing just came naturally to us,” he said. “When I think about it, I naturally prefer to just sit in my bedroom and write songs rather than getting up onstage, but from a very young age we were exposed to that concept, so it was almost by default that this became part of life for us.”

The brothers also were exposed to mainstream artists who influenced their sound and style. A family friend who drove them 90 minutes to school every day would fill the long ride with tunes on BBC Radio 2. 

Photo courtesy of Portnoy.

“The flavor and the fusion of what we grew up on, which was essentially liturgical and cantorial music, definitely played an integral part in our natural influences because we grew up breathing those,” Israel said. “The same way we grew up on the way to school listening to the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills and Nash.”

When he was 16, Israel moved to Jerusalem to study at the Talmudic College. Mendy joined him a few years later. It was there they began to pursue music as a profession. 

“We realized that collectively we had something that we wanted to pursue. We always loved playing music with each other and we have a natural sense of harmony,” Israel said. They released their debut album “Learn to Love,” in 2015 and have since garnered a core fan base in Jerusalem.

The inspiration for “No Complaints” came in 2018 when the brothers were spending time at their homes in Beit Zayit, a moshav just outside Jerusalem. 

“We were getting out into nature every day and playing and writing together,” Israel said. “We co-wrote all the songs and the lyrics so automatically, there is this interlocking synchronicity that happens between us. It was very much written with harmonies in mind as there is something about siblings singing together which is really powerful.” 

The album’s name was an affectionate nod to their older fans. “When people over the age of 40 asked what the band’s name was, they usually related it to ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ by Philip Roth,” Israel said, referring to the groundbreaking 1969 novel. “We decided we should really ride this, and by calling the album ‘No Complaints,’ it is almost like a cheeky nod to the old generation and relating to a yesteryear and nostalgic way of songwriting.”

For Israel, the opening track of the album is one he holds dear. “ ‘Celebrate’ is a very powerful song for me on a personal level,” he said. “If I’m having a bad day or down about something, the quickest way out is being able to have gratitude for the positive that I do. There is always something to celebrate. It might not be a birthday, it can be just the fact that you woke up this morning and you’re breathing. You should celebrate that, or that you have food on the table. It is almost like celebrating the mundane.”

“No Complaints” is available on Spotify and Apple Music.