Nefesh Mountain talks new album, and being Jewish in bluegrass
If the husband-wife duo, Nefesh Mountain, were any other group pursuing their craft, they’d simply be cited as an exceptional outfit, bearing the sole subtext that they happen to operate under the auspices of bluegrass and grassicana. Yet the fact that they also happen to be of a particular affiliation seems to have put them in another classification entirely. They’re most commonly referred to as a Jewish bluegrass — or “Jewgrass” — band, as if that’s the distinction that matters most.
Granted, the two individuals at the fore, Eric Lindberg and Doni Zasloff, are justifiably proud of their shared heritage, and make no attempt to dilute it in any way. Yet at the same time, they don’t trumpet it to the extent that it overshadows all they do. With three albums under their belt, including their latest, Songs For the Sparrows, they’ve earned the right to base their reputation strictly on the music, which in itself, is ample indication that their talent is substantial indeed.
“Nefesh is the Hebrew word for soul,” Eric explains, opening up the conversation while Doni tends to the couple’s newborn. “It’s this place that we’ve created in our hearts and minds as a place where we can write music, where we find ourselves really influenced by all of the Americana that we’ve lived our whole lives, a corner of the world where we can have this kind of musical platform and spectrum. So to us, it actually is a place, even though it’s totally made up. It’s like some sort of mystical fantasy place where we find this little utopia.”
With ‘Mountain’ being part of the brand, the synergy of old world cultures underscores Nefesh Mountain’s primary mantra — that is, an attempt to fuse different dynamics without them negating one another. Folk, fiddle music, country, Celtic, klezmer, and Appalachian influences all find equal footing within their varied mix, and yet the sound is seamless and spellbinding all at the same time.
“The mountain we refer to is universal,” Lindberg continues. “Even though we’re writing music that’s very much about our own lives and background, we really want the music to have a universal appeal. It’s not only for Jews and it’s not only for bluegrass listeners, but it’s something a little bit deeper, and maybe a bit more broad. And so the mountains are just a symbol that we were drawn to, whether we’re in Switzerland or in Israel or in Colorado. When you think of bluegrass you think of folk music and roots music tradition, that kind of mountain music that’s universal across the world.”
“Every new album is like a new baby,” Doni adds, joining the conversation after having putting their newborn down for a nap. “For us, making music becomes such a personal experience. And because we’re really off the beaten path of where most bluegrass seems to be made, it feels more like we’re kind of hanging out there. We’re not sure how it will get received, or if music about being Jewish is going to be received well at all. We’re in our own little hamlet up here in Montclair, New Jersey, right outside of New York City, so we’re not part of the whole Nashville scene or anything. So we’re just we’re doing our own thing.”
Indeed, the two have been doing their own thing ever since meeting in 2010, and beginning to make music under the name Nefesh Mountain in and around New York City in 2014. “The whole thing’s a love story between my wife and me,” Eric muses. “We had worked together for a few years, playing music, and then over time, we fell in love. And, and now we have this beautiful blended family and a new baby, and I think our shared mutual love of the vast ocean of American culture and music fell in line with each of our beliefs in terms of that musically. We were also able to lean on each other and to talk about what the music meant for us as Jewish Americans, and what we felt proud of, while also seeing what’s going on in the world around us, kind of our history, both as Jews and with what’s going on today.”
Indeed, that common bond became a musical mantra of sorts. “I don’t think we ever made a decision to do it this way,” he continues. “It’s not like we sat down and, and said, ‘Let’s kind of mash these things up.’ As fans of Americana music and people like Alison Krauss and Gillian Welsh and other people who sometimes sing Gospel songs, we kind of took notice. It was like, this is music that we love, but how do we add our own elements? We’re Americans, and we’ve been here for several generations, and this is a part of our personal story and what we love. We’re not from Eastern Europe, we’re not from Israel. We’re American, and so we asked ourselves how does the Jewish identity fit into that fabric? As we started asking these questions, we began slowly figuring out that there’s so many ways to tell a Jewish American story, even when it’s through some of these ancient texts that our ancestors have shared, which kind of blur the line between something very religious, and also just something that’s cultural. But we’re not religious, we’re not like that. And our band is more about the cultural aspect of everything. Yet it also shares our history and our values, and just kind of what we believe as Jewish Americans.”
“Some of our songs don’t touch on Judaism at all,” Doni notes. “They’re just kind of bluegrass songs. So we’re just like dipping our feet in the water and figuring out how to tell that story. And it was a total accident. I’m not sure how we ended up on this path, but we’re so glad we did.”
“I think that if it wasn’t me that was involved, and I saw a Jewish bluegrass band, it might seem contrived,” Eric continues. “It would seem like something that wouldn’t wear that well. I don’t know. That’s just because it’s something that’s so new. We didn’t sit down to plot this out and think about how it would become a career. It was just a very happy accident that we just started making music that was honest for us. It meant something to us. And we’re kind of leaning on that honesty. We’ve been able to have this success so far, and we’re really just grateful for that.”
Up until the pandemic hit, Nefesh Mountain were playing between 150 and 200 gigs a year. They’ve toured internationally, having performed in the UK, Eastern Europe, Israel, Canada, and Australia, aside from the US.
“Right as the pandemic hit, we were supposed to play in Hong Kong,” Doni recalls. “And we were going to try to work something out in Thailand as well. But that didn’t happen for obvious reasons. And now, it’s hard to do it with the baby. Both of our brains are mush.”
Happily, the reaction they’ve received thus far has been one of absolute enthusiasm. Eric says the last major festival they played prior to lockdown was Wintergrass in Seattle.
“I just remember the crowd being of all different backgrounds, and all different ages and colors and everything,” he recalls. “We were just given so much love back. Doni and I are always blown away by how much people just seem to want to give us a hug, and the way people are tearing up and saying things like, ‘I have friends that are Jewish, and now I feel like I understand them more,’ or ‘I actually did a DNA test and I realized that I’m part Jewish, and this helps me connect to my ancestry.’ With the technology that we have these days, there are so many ways to figure out who you are, and how we are part of so many different cultures in so many different ways. All that seems to come streaming right back at us during our shows. That, to me, is really so gratifying. And it blows me over every time because I don’t always expect it at all. I just kind of think people are gonna say, ‘Oh, it was a great set,’ but it’s more than that.”
“We’re not coming from a religious perspective,” Doni insists. “We’re really coming from universal themes of just love and friendship, and these things that anyone can relate to. The goal is to connect with people of all backgrounds, and that’s what we’re starting to see. It’s very touching.”
“We just want to try to connect as much as we can, while connecting the music of who we are,” Eric adds. “Hopefully that will make sense of the songs. We spend a lot of time making sure that we’re honoring Americana tradition. We kind of made this decision from the beginning to be a bluegrass band, and in that regard, there’s certain things that you have to do. So we spend a lot of time working on all that stuff, and learning the vocabulary and the types of melodies, but we also have to make sure that it’s honest to its origins. We’re not making stuff up. We’re just talking about our lives and who we are. We’re very open-minded people. We have this dream of an all-inclusive kind of world, where everyone can be who they want to be. We’re not trying to preach anything, and we’re not trying to tell anybody what they should be. We’re just trying to be as open and as loving as we can, just pouring love on on all of the hate that’s in the way.”
“It’s something that we think about all the time,” Doni laments. “It worries me to see the state of the world these days, and we sometimes think about how our music can find a fit, at least culturally, and how people will perceive it. But then I quickly realized that when I get worried about what other people think, it’s kind of a fool’s errand because I can’t control it. So ultimately, what we do is kind of lean on this very innocent thought of let’s just be ourselves and not worry about it too much. That’s what we did with the new record. It’s not that we’re avoiding the hatred. We see it and we’re very aware of what’s going on. We’re looking at these very painful and uncomfortable things that we’re seeing in the world, not just towards Jews, but towards a lot of different people. And when we’re looking at it, we’re saying, ‘Okay, we see it, this sucks, but how do we move on? And how do we live our lives?’ We’re trying to figure out how to navigate this very complicated, messy world that we’re living in right now.”
Eric concurs. “We realized early on that it’s not our job to take certain things on. However we do address certain things, like in A Sparrow’s Song, which we wrote for Anne Frank. There’s a lot of that on this record. But in terms of terms of politics and religion and all that stuff, we realized that just by doing what we do, without saying anything specifically, it has a positive impact. It’s not our job to fix those things. Music has so much magic and power in it to shift people’s perceptions and break down barriers, and so we just try to make some magic and maybe touch someone’s heart that maybe didn’t see the world in this way before. We just try to remind people that we’re all the same, and music is our way of trying to work magic. It’s definitely idealistic, but we’re dreamers, and we believe in the music, and that does seem to resonate.”
The duo’s goal, then, has been to find a fit within an American tradition that may not be in the crosshairs of their own history, but with which they can still claim a connection.
“We know, of course, that the history of bluegrass has not been about Judaism,” Doni says. “So what we try to do is to approach it humbly. We love the Gospel sound of bluegrass, and Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs. That’s in our souls as Americans. So the content for us isn’t just about us as Jews. It’s something that we embrace from the cultural aspects of Americana music. We’re definitely not trying to proselytize anything. We’re simply trying to find common ground ultimately.”
“I think we’ve found our voice on this record,” Eric concludes. “To me, it’s clearer and firmer. And I feel like this record has a point of view that we can be really proud of. Before we started all this, if anyone thought about Jewish music, they might have only assumed it was confined to klezmer music, or that it was something that was deeply religious. With this record, we were able to really talk about being Jewish in a cultural way that I always kind of dreamed of. It just took a couple records to figure out how to talk about it in this way. Certain songs on this record are deeply Jewish in terms of our identity. But they’re also just folk songs. They’re universal. I feel like we were more successful this time around when it came to threading that needle.”